One Ring to Rule Them All: Ralph Bakshi’s Animated ‘The Lord of the Rings’

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth tales first came to my attention when my older sister raved about reading THE HOBBIT, and then the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of the 1937 novel aired on NBC in November of 1977. While that colorful and enjoyable take on Bilbo Baggins’ adventures with Gollum and Smaug the dragon was intentionally designed to appeal to younger audiences, a year later Ralph Bakshi‘s THE LORD OF THE RINGS arrived in theaters with a darker tone that was decidedly more hardcore, aimed at adults and fans of Tolkien’s RINGS trilogy. You know, people who read.  aef1b334fd2c0d2dd25c6ffe43b08f5c--lord-of-the-rings-the-lord

Bakshi’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS blew my mind. I had never seen an animated film quite like it, nor was I aware of the details of Tolkien’s story. Bilbo was a side character, and there were no dragons this time. This time Frodo was the hero, there were strange-looking, angry orcs and terrifying Ring Wraiths around every corner, the bat-winged, demonic Balrog haunted the shadowy mines of Moria, and a more unnerving version of Smeagol/Gollum was following the fellowship as they moved towards Mordor.

Not wanting to talk down to children, Bakshi’s RINGS was rated PG and was intended to be the first in a trio of films. He shot the entire project as a live-action film in Spain and on U.K. soundstages, then animated over the action using the frame-by-frame tracing technique of rotoscoping, which was pioneered by Walt Disney. Other sequences employ high-contrast live-action shots, while others, like the scene with Treebeard, were animated from scratch.

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Ralph Bakshi filmed the Orc battle sequences of Helm’s Deep in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain — the same spot where they filmed Charlton Heston in EL CID — then animated them.

The film’s vocal cast was comprised of mostly unknowns in terms of household names, but many fans may be surpised to learn that Legolas was voiced by Anthony Daniels (C-3PO of STAR WARS, of course) and Aragorn was voiced by the late, great John Hurt. ’60s and ’70s TV and movie staples Billy Barty (countless appearances and multiple Sid & Marty Krofft projects) and Felix Silla (TWIKI from BUCK ROGERS and Cousin Itt from THE ADDAMS FAMILY) also appeared in the film as character actor references.

The end of Bakshi’s solo film treads into THE TWO TOWERS territory with the Orc assault on the stronghold of Helm’s Deep, but with so much story left to tell, we never get to see Frodo throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. It’s a head-scratcher to say the least, since the film was positioned by the title and marketing to look like a standalone film.  a72d2099f981a03ee9dafe537540c9a4--lord-of-the-rings-the-lord.jpg

So why didn’t we get two more installments of THE LORD OF THE RINGS from Ralph Bakshi, or even one more? It’s a long story, which Bakshi told me personally. I’m saving the details for an interview piece to run in The Hollywood Reporter later this year to coincide with the 40th anniversary of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But suffice it to say that Bakshi fully intended to do all three movies and Hollywood politics got in the way; the 1978 release was originally supposed to be titled THE LORD OF THE RINGS – PART ONE.

The memories of Bakshi’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS remain strong for me. I saw the film at least twice in the theater when I was just 10 years old, and have seen it multiple times on video since then. I still get that same unsettling vibe I got as a kid every time the film begins, and it remains the single greatest influence for my interest in reading more Tolkien and for appreciating Peter Jackson’s RINGS and HOBBIT trilogies, which featured multiple sequences and settings that first materialized in Bakshi’s version. 027062_c7aab826300d98ef7e91892081aef261.jpg

Despite my enthusiasm for the film, I had absolutely no merchandise from it. I guess I spent all my hard-earned allowance on more STAR WARS toys. If I had a time machine handy, I’d head to 1978 and a toy store to pick up a set of the Knickerbocker THE LORD OF THE RINGS action figures: Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Samwise, Gollum, and a Ring Wraith — plus individual black and white horses for the good guys and bad guy. They were hard to find back in the day, and now the figures fetch a significant bounty for collectors, with loose figure sets going for $2,000-$10,000, and pristine carded sets going for no less than $18,999.

 

Oh, and I’d beg Ralph Bakshi to persevere and make two more LORD OF THE RINGS animated sequels.

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Enjoy these vintage 1978 THE LORD OF THE RINGS lobby cards:

 

A little background info on lobby cards I like to regularly share for context: Back in the days before the Internet, movie lobby cards were a powerful tool used by Hollywood studios to lure audiences into the darkened theater. They were the last line of enticement — and sometimes the first — alongside carpet-bombing consumers with coming attractions, movie posters, marquees, publicity stunts, movie program books, and newspaper advertisements for their newest big-screen sensation. With no entertainment websites or blogs available to tease audiences with stills from their films, lobby cards served that purpose for the studio publicity machine. These days, movie theater lobbies have eschewed the traditional lobby card for posters, standees, trailers on repeat, experiential activations and more.

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More Lobby Cards to ogle:

 

 

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