Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King


Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring


Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies


And so it goes.

There’s a greater sense of closure about the end of the third Hobbit film than there is about its equivalent in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though technically it’s only the halfway mark. There’s a much stronger feeling of we-shall-not-come-here-again that leaks in from outside where, save the unlikely event of Jackson and Co. signing on to do any kind of adaptation of ‘The Silmarrillion’, we will not be in Middle Earth after this.

Funnily enough, I have little to say about the third film. When I saw it in the cinema, I found it overwhelming, and that was just the theatrical release. I said at the time that whilst it wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, it was the first one that I would have paid to see a second time on condition they started it immediately.

Though I’m not blind to the film’s major flaw, it is a stunningly visceral experience, throwing itself at you and refusing to let your attention slip for the least moment. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is in reality because, despite the breadth of its scenes, it’s a single-minded film. The sub-title says it all: build-up, battle, aftermath, that is the whole of the film and it benefits from an absence of diversion.

Well, not entirely. The film opens in media res, a direct continuation from the second part’s cliffhanger, and that’s the film’s single biggest awkwardness. In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson greatly offended Christopher Lee by cutting the scene of Saruman’s death from The Return of the King, yet when you see it restored in the Extended Edition, you see that it’s right: the scene belongs in The Two Towers and is an awkward, out-of-place tailpiece shoved in upfront.

The same goes for Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and his death. The whole sequence takes twelve minutes of this film, and it’s spectacularly done in all respects, but it’s still a holdover. It’s part of The Desolation of Smaug and it should have played out in that film, not this. It’s significant that the title card The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t come up until that part’s finished.

From then on though, I’m on the ride and there’s no getting off and I’m incapable of analysing things any further. Except to say that, even in comparison to Billy Connolly’s wonderful cameo as Dain Ironfoot, my favourite scene is still the battle of the White Council in Dol Guldur, saving Gandalf, confronting the Nazgul, and banishing Sauron to the East, and to Mordor. And the one reference in all the films to the renegade Valar, Morgoth.

Of course, the old argument still prevails, in respect of which I continue to disrespectfully disagree with those who sneer, and would pose them a question. Three of the Dwarves who set off on this foolish expedition die during the Battle, Fili and Kili, the two youngest Dwarves and Thorin Oakenshield’s nephews, and Thorin himself, King under the Mountain. His line is ended. In the book, all we are told is that Fili and Kili died: how, where, doing what, not a thing. Thorin’s death is given hardly more detail. Given the significance of those deaths, their importance to the story, how would you have wanted a single film faithful to the nature of the book  to have represented them? By thrusting them out of sight as Tolkien did for his audience of children?

To date, I have not seen one person who has slagged The Hobbit off for its ‘elephantiasis’ make any practical suggestion as to how the story might be adapted in the way they think appropriate. And this is without answering the question of how such an adaptation might be made to be consistent with its filmic ‘sequel’?

No, I’ll take my Hobbit the way Peter Jackson served it up and be content, though I remain intrigued by the thought of how Guillermo del Toro would have proceeded had he remained in charge of the film and its original two-part concept. Especially the second film, which would have occupied the sixty year gap between the two books. On day, if I ever get the chance to visit Earth-2, I shall report back to you.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Film 2019: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey


Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.

I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.

But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.

But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.

An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.

Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.

Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.

Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.

This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.

It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.

The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.

The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.

But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).

Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.

The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s  grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.

I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.

Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.

Film 2018: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn


It was a toss-up this morning between this and Chicken Run for this week’s Film 2018 slot. Either way, I was in the mood for something lightweight and enjoyable with which to kick back and relax.

Not that The Secret of the Unicorn comes without controversy. It’s the product of two of the biggest film-makers in the world, Stephen Spielberg, who directed it and Peter Jackson, who produced it, it was produced using a combination of motion capture and CGI, and it freely adapts three of Herge’s Tintin books, being primarily the two-part ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’/’Red Rackham’s Treasure’, with a substantial dose of ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’.

Now this is heavy nostalgia country for me. My first exposure to Tintin came in the early Sixties thanks to the Tele-Hachette and Belvision animated series, Herge’s Adventures of Tintin (I can hear the exact intonation of that announcement to this day!). This adapted (somewhat freely) several of the Tintin books into five minute episodes that would feature on BBC (pre-1 and 2) at 5.45pm, Monday to Friday, the last gasp of Children’s TV.

And the first of these I saw was ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’, to be followed by, of course, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’. What better choice of albums to adapt to entertain me personally?

There’s a universe of difference between the flat, limited animation of the TV series, which simplifies yet further Herge’s ligne clair style, and the heightened realism of the 2011 film, which rounds the characters up into three-dimensional form whilst retaining their cartoonish appearance. Where the serial, with its limited animation, avoids the detailed and realistic backgrounds that distinguished the albums, the film positively relishes it, particularly in the spectacular Bagghar chase scene.

But that’s where the controversy arises. Though the film was commercially successful, and was generally applauded, there were dissenting voices, none more loudly that in the Guardian who, in over a dozen different articles over less than ten days, slated the film unmercifully, accused it of raping Tintin (so, no over-reaction there) and basically forbade its audience to not only enjoy the film but to have a mind of their own about it, a tactic that failed with at least one person, who was pretty near determined to enjoy it out of sheer annoyance.

And enjoy it I did, for its own sake. I’m not blind to its flaws, nor to one unexpected one that’s a product of later events, but it’s a sunny, exciting, silly romp, and a fun spectacle that’s as near to Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the Thompsons walking off the page and circling you.

I was late to the cinema when I saw it there, and missed the credits and a minute or so of the film, so I was not aware until buying the DVD that the story starts with a touching tribute: we meet Tintin in a marketplace, having his picture drawn by an artist, who gently asks if he has drawn him before: it is Herge himself producing a likeness that is the simplest of Herge drawings.

From there, though, the film spends most of its time developing its plot, often to the accompaniment of high-speed action. In that sense, the film is entirely ‘realistic’, relying for its implausibility on the story itself, and the characters, though like any other CGI film it enhances that ‘realism’. It takes a few moments to adjust to the sight of cartoon figures with solid bodies walking around, and the ‘realism’ of the world has been correspondingly adjusted towards a roundedness that incorporates detail and atmosphere into a plastic solidity, but once the trick is worked, we are in the film’s vision and ready to accelerate.

Basically, the plot is that boy journalist Tintin becomes suspicious when attempts are made to first buy, then steal, a miniature ship he buys at the market. This is the ‘Unicorn’, the treasure ship of Sir Francis Haddock, sink by Pirate Red Rackham. The secret it conceals, or they conceal for there are three identical copies, is the whereabouts of Sir Francis’s Treasure, and the clue is three identical scrolls, each concealed in the main mast that, when matched and held up to the light, give the lat. and long. of the Treasure.

Tintin has one, though it’s stolen from him by a compulsive pickpocket, the villain Sakharine (Rackham’s descendent), who has bought the former ancestral Haddock home, Marlinspike Hall, has a second, and the third is in the collection of Sheikh Omar ben Salaad of Bagghar, which is where ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ element comes in.

And so does Captain Haddock. Captain Archibald Haddock, that is, not that anyone ever uses the first name. Splendid old drunken Captain Haddock, joyously incarnated by Andy Serkis, with a Scottish accent that fits the character well. Awash with whiskey, rum, brandy and more, Haddock is the rightful heir to Markinspike and the Treasure, and the film’s comedic spine, and Serkis is brilliant in the part, coming close to overcoming the one fatal flaw in this version of Captain Haddock – the voice.

I’m sorry, I grew up on ‘Herge’s Adventures of Tintin’ and whilst I can accept almost anyone in the Tintin world sounding different, I cannot escape Captain Haddock’s voice from so long ago. If it isn’t Peter Hawkins’ drink-soaked crustiness, it isn’t real.

That’s the one thing the film cannot provide. There are other areas in which it can be criticised, the first being how frenetic it is. There’s always something going on and, in true serial fashion, the film constantly shoots from fast-paced confrontation to fast-paced confrontation. The Bagghar chase sequence is spectacular, being a frantic and panoramic race from the Sheikh’s palace on the heights through the crowded town to the docks, with the broken dam sending water surging through the background as a counterpoint. It’s great, but it’s too fast and has too much going on, and the same goes for all the action scenes: there’s little or no variation of pace once the film has got the bit between its teeth.

In between, there are slower moments but where these might be the opportunity for more reflective moments, in keeping with the originals, and with the heightened reality of things, they’re usually geared to the progression of the story, and the one occasion when they’re not, when everything seems lost and Tintin accepts defeat only for Haddock to come up with a pep-talk, you rather wish they hadn’t, because it’s nothing but shallow rah-rah-rah.

Of course, a lot of this is the fault of the script, which comes from Edgar Wright, Adam Cornish and… Stephen Moffat. Three hip, intelligent English writers, with a modern sensibility, two of whom with a string comedy back-up, and Moffat back when his ‘Doctor Who’ was still good.

This leads me to that unexpected flaw that wasn’t present as such at the time the film first appeared, namely that Andy Serkis is delivering Moffat asides in a Scottish accent, which suddenly sounds entirely too Peter Capaldi for my particular liking. The resemblance keeps jerking me slightly out of the film, and not in a good direction either.

But the biggest charge against the film, and not just made by the Guardian is that ultimately the decision to make three-dimensional cartoons leaves the look of the film suspended between cartoon and reality in a place that the eye cannot fully accept or allow because it is too much of both to ever form its own plausible existence. Naturally, I don’t wholly agree, or at least not enough to dislike the film, whose energy carries it over nearly all its hurdles, but I can understand the point and it’s not without merit.

Nevertheless, and despite the unconscionably long delays, I’m still looking forward to the sequel, though it’s going through an incredibly long gestation period. It’s supposed to be Prisoners of the Sun, an adaptation of ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’/’Prisoners of the Sun’, with ‘The Blue Lotus’ (and presumably ‘Tintin in Tibet’) as the third. Peter Jackson needs to get a move on though: people who grew up on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin aren’t going to be around for ever.

Eagle Volume 10 (1959)


The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.

Frank Bellamy style

By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.

Super Sleuth

For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre.
Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.

Eagle Volume 8 (1957)


Issue 3 original art

If Volume 7 was a year in which Eagle needed no more than the lightest-touch editing, Volume 8 was, by definition, the beginning of the end. The line-up that had taken almost six years to develop would, in the end, last just over two years, from Volume 6 no 4 to Volume 8 no 10. Change was on its way.
And change came, rapidly, within the first eleven issues of Volume 8, with new stories starting for Dan Dare, Luck of the Legion and Storm Nelson, together with the end of ‘The Great Sailor’, telling the life-story of Sir Horatio Nelson.
For Dan Dare, the rest of the year was taken up by ‘Reign of the Robots’, with the Cryptos Expedition returning to Earth after ten years’ absence, and finding the planet under the thumb of the Mekon. When the artwork was in the hands of Frank Hampson, it continued to be superb, and those weeks when it was more clearly the work of the studio – frequently credited to ‘Frank Hampson Production’ – was still good, although somewhat variable, but there were weeks when the art looked rough, unfinished, lacking any kind of detailed background, that suggested it had neither seen the inside of Bayford Lodge nor yet been turned over to Desmond Walduck.
There were no such signs of concern for Sergeant Luck or the Silver Fleet, with the former winding up their battle again at the Legion traitor before traveling south to defeat a mysterious slave-trader mastermind dressed as a Templar Knight. At the end of the year, the Legion’s most successful trouble-shooting team found itself in fin-de-siecle Paris, being sent on a mission on a balloon!
The Silver Fleet’s adventures took them from Canada into America, to the West African coast and into the Mediterranean, their colourful adventures involving Blue Beavers, Red Diamonds and Black Boxes.
But this was just the natural shift of story to story within series still maintaining their way, albeit with several such concluding in a short space of time. The changes to which I refer were of a different order.
Excluding a single story drawn by Giorgio Bellavitis, Norman Williams had been the artist in residence on The Great Adventurers for the past five years, but with a single week of Lord Nelson’s story remaining, Williams passed away. Jack O’Lantern‘s artist, Robert Ayton, pitched in to draw the final page, and when the series resumed the following week, with the life of David Livingstone, it was now Peter Jackson who took over Eagle‘s back page.
At the same time, David Langford’s ‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ came to an end after 188 episodes, with neither fanfare nor any sense of loss. To replace it, Langford turned to ‘Simon Simple’, drawn with a much darker, heavier line. This was simple, gag-a-week stuff, about a small schoolboy wearing a cap, round glasses and an imbecilic smile. The new series was silent for the first seven weeks, until the inherent weakness of this approach became obvious: Eagle still had ‘Chicko’ covering the same territory, and doing it better and more imaginatively with three panels to Langford’s six. Even with dialogue, the series was rarely funny.
But the biggest change of all, the true break-up, was on page 3. ‘The Case of the TV Terror’ too a further ten weeks to wrap-up, with the Boy’s Club and PC49 as usual foiling the bad guys. But that was the end for the only other remaining feature from Eagle‘s first week. PC49 had long since disappeared from its original home of the Light Programme, and now, with a farewell in verse, in a story in which he’d at long last given his full name, Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby retired.
It was the end of John Worsley’s association with Eagle but not that of Alan Stranks. Apart from his continued association with Dan Dare, which would keep him at Eagle until his death in 1959, Stranks had not done with page 3, and was back the following week with Mark Question – The Boy with a Future but no Past.
There was no comedy in this series, just a straight drama. A neatly-dressed boy aged about fourteen arrives at a London railway station. He has his wallet stolen. The crooks recognise him as someone who can be exploited. But, as he realises he’s lost his wallet, he’s hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he’s lost all memory of who he is and where he’s from. So he gives himself the name ‘Mark Question’ (think about it) and sets off to find out who he is.


Frankly, it’s not very interesting. The art, by Harry Lindfield, is bland, and so too is Mark, who has no personality except for his obsession with discovering his identity. And the plotting is dreadful. The two thieves, Conger and Snuffle, work for Professor Carracul at the British Museum. The Professor, an expert in Natural History, is a criminal mastermind who uses Conger and Snuffle (the names don’t get any better the more you use them) to rob jewellery etc., which he then smuggles out of the country stuffed into stuffed animals bound for foreign museums. The taxidermy is done by Mr Feathers, who owns a pet shop. Where Mark takes a job as a shop assistant.
Oh please, as plots go that has to be the worst contrivance in Eagle to date. Conger and Snuffle keep Mark’s secret to themselves, not telling Carracul, which means that, when the Professor orders them to dispose of Mark, they don’t tell him that the boy might be worth more alive than dead. So, when their speeding car crashes into the river, and only Mark gets out, his identity dies with them.
The series had no formal stories to it, but once Professor Carracul is defeated, when Mark turns out to be an Olympic level fencer, we switch to another, longer story. A Spaniard calling himself Don Scorpio tries to kill Mark by sending him, what else, a Scorpion. This sends Mark and his unofficial guardian Doctor ‘Doc’ Steele (who only has one arm yet can drive a car for twenty hours straight) off to Europe, where they eventually come to the tiny Pyreneean kingdom of Comorra which, despite its Irish-sounding name, is as Ruritanian as you can get, and where Mark appears to be ‘the Boy King’.
No, the story doesn’t quite sink to that level of cliché, but it does directly rip-off Anthony Hope by having Mark be the spitting image of Maximillian, the real Boy King, about to inherit from his grandfather, Gustavo, except that Max is a screaming coward who wants to run away… And Mark is impersonating Max for the King, who knows who he really is but who’s so far gone…
No, Mark Question is no fit substitute from PC49. But he is a foretaste of what is to come as Eagle moves forward.
I’d like to make mention of Jack O’Lantern at this point. His fourth story, ‘Man-Hunt’, took our young shaver, and his faithful dog, Turnspit, across the Channel to France, where Bonaparte was Master. Jack was determined to track down his kidnapped and disgraced cousin Rufus, free him from the captivity of the turncoat Captain Zero, and frustrate Zero’s plan to impersonate Lieutenant Yorke and enable a mass escape of French prisoners from the new Prison on Dartmoor.
Of course, Jack and Rufus succeeded, and the latter cleared his name and resumed his commission, but before that there were several superb weeks of art by Robert Ayton, depicting the English prisoners escaping downriver and out into the Channel, where Ayton’s staging and depiction of the geography was a highlight of each issue, even when set against Frank Hampson!


Riders of the Range spent most of the year on the story of Billy the Kid, with Frank Humphris’s passion for accuracy showing through at every turn. From there, he and Charles Chilton went on to an even bigger story, ‘The War against the Sioux’, that would lead, in the next Volume, to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
MacDonald Hastings was represented in about two-thirds of the issues in this Volume but, apart from a final round-up of photos from Norway in issue 1, there were no further adventures. Instead, E.S.I.’s accounts remained very ‘studio-bound’. At first, there was a series on unexplained events and ghosts, which included a superb two-part take-down of the Mystery of the Mary Celeste that I’ve never read elsewhere and which explodes the myth quite thoroughly. It also included a piece on the then-relatively fresh mystery of the Loch Ness Monster.
Later in the year, Mac devoted his time to a series of reports on acts of wartime bravery that resulted in the award of medals for high courage in both World Wars. All very entertaining stuff, and no doubt exciting, but a far cry from actually going out and participating in adventures on behalf of the readers.
And cheaper too, I imagine. Though we are as yet some distance from the fateful decision by Hulton Press to sell up, that was to have such devastating effects on Eagle, the timescale that led up to that moment had more than likely already started to roll out. Hulton’s empire was past its peak. Picture Post‘s heyday was gone, its circulation declining, the profits from the redtop comics becoming increasingly central to the group’s income.
As the year declined, there was another round of new stories starting together, this time in issue 40, with Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson and Jack O’Lantern all starting fresh tales. There was another new Great Adventurers story on the back page, but this was very different, and astonishingly prestigious.
The Happy Warrior was not only the first, and one of only two serials to feature a living subject, but this was none other than the hero of Wartime, Sir Winston Churchill, and for this feature, Marcus Morris brought over the legendary Frank Bellamy from Swift to make his debut in Eagle.
The story is almost stultifyingly respectful, as it would have had to be, and as it would have been even if there had been no pressure. This was Churchill, and this was long before the merest hint of revisionism was tolerable. Certainly, in the dozen episodes published in this volume, Bellamy is so respectful as to be stiff, his art notable for its realism, and his use of a limited but effective colour palette, but this is not the Bellamy we are used to. There are no dynamic layouts, no expressive colours, no freedom.
But it was nevertheless a landmark. And once Bellamy hit Eagle he stayed, and we were all better for it.
Of The Three J’s, and Harris Tweed, there is not much to say. Apart from the cleverness of running a term-story into a holiday story to create an eighteen part marathon, there was little new in The Three J’s. Two more new Fourth Formers became the focus of two more stories, whilst John Ryan introduced no new themes, motifs or story structures into the Extra Special Agent.
Overall, a number strong year. But the loss of PC49 upset a subtle balance, and that all important page 3 slot was diminished. Eagle would never get so distinctive a strip for that position ever again. Mark Question was its first fumble for a long time, but it was the sign of the future arriving.

Binge-athon – and a word of thanks


I’ve known all along that I was going to feel a little put out this Xmas without a new Hobbit film to watch, although the feeling was alleviated to some extent by having the ‘Extended Trilogy’ box-set to unwrap on Xmas Day (unwrap being in the sense of tearing off the brown paper used to package it by the guy on eBay from whom I bought it).

It’s a quiet Xmas, this year, and today I set the day outside to binge on the entire Trilogy. I’m not really a binge person, in that sense: I have been known, when off ill in the past, to watch as many as four episodes of The West Wing from the comfort of my bed, but this is my first attempt at a binge and I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take an hour’s break between films 1 and 2.

But I needed to get the paper. And I surprised myself with 1,003 words of fiction, out of the blue.

Anyway, I might have a go at a repeat on Thursday, or Friday, with The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve also a word of thanks to make to you out there. This blog started rather quietly in April 2011, though it didn’t really get properly underway for almost a year, and didn’t become a regular thing until later that year. It’s sort of had three starts to get itself going, and it’s become something that’s given me a lot of fun along the way.

I’m under no illusions as to the possibility of this one day being discovered by the world at large and becoming a mecca for readers hanging on my every opinion, and it’s certainly never going to build any kind of audience large enough for me to tart making an income from my efforts.

As evidenced by the fact that, sometime during the course of today, whilst I was in Middle Earth, one of you became my 50,000th visitor.

It’s been a long time coming, though I hope it won’t take nearly five years for me to get into six figures. But to everyone who has at any time read a piece on this blog, and especially to those who have come back for a second visit, notwithstanding, you have my thanks.

In return, I promise to keep trying to entertain, enliven and sometimes, I hope, inform.

It’s been a great privilege to have all of you reading me.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Uncollected Thoughts


Now (read) on…

By an interesting but not unlikely coincidence, I saw last year’s second instalment in The Hobbit trilogy the day before my team’s Office Xmas Party, at which, in order not to spoil anything for those who planned to see it, I made only one comment. Which was: “Oh, wow!”

Twelve months on and I’ve returned from the final instalment, and yes, I’m off to the Party tomorrow night where, in order not to spoil anything for those who plan to see it, I will make only one comment. This time it’s going to be: “Oh, fucking wow!”

After watching the middle instalment, I mused about what Peter Jackson might find to fill out The Battle of the Five Armies, given that The Desolation of Smaug had finished – on a cliffhanger – a bit close to the end of the original novel. There were only three things left: the destruction of Lake-town and the death of Smaug at the arrow of Bard the Bowman: the build up to and the fighting of the Battle of Five Armies (no definitive article): and Bilbo’s return to Bag End in the middle of the Sackville-Baggins’ auctioning off its contents.

Jackson had created a hostage to fortune from himself in leaving Gandalf captured in Dol Guldur, which meant having to resolve his escape, and the attack by the White Council that drove the nascent Sauron from his older, less terrible fortress, which was not merely confined to offstage in the novel, but also very much to offhand. Still, that only made four elements.

And Jackson made his film out of those four elements only, and nothing else but sub-plots interweaved into one section or another.

The film starts where last year’s left off, right into the action, as if twelve months hadn’t gone by. Smaug circles the town then comes in for fire-breathing attacks, burning the wooden city in great sweeping lines, treading it under claw. Tauriel tries to get the dwarves and Bard’s kids away, the Master tries to get the gold away, and Bard saves the day by shooting the last Black Arrow unerringly into that single patch where the dragon is unscaled, killing him (Smaug promptly drops out of the sky and does even more damage to Lake-town, though he does rather propitiously land directly on the Master: I have made no secret of my lack of regard for Stephen Fry, and this is possibly a churlish thing to say, but if anyone should set-up a Kickstarter to fund a real-life enactment, they will not find me wanting.)

The problem with this section is exemplified by the fact that it is only now, getting on for however long into the film it is, that the title card for The Battle of the Five Armies comes up on-screen. A decade ago, Peter Jackson caused a rift with Christopher Lee by dropping the death of Saruman from the theatrical release of The Return of the King, on the basis that it was a leftover from The Two Towers (and when you see the extended DVD version, it is obvious that Jackson is right).

The same applies here: Smaug’s death is a holdover from the previous film. No matter how much of a catalyst it is for what follows, it belongs at the end of The Desolation of Smaug: it’s sweeping up a loose end that would have been better concluded where it naturally belonged.

There’s no such reservation about the next section, which is made out of best Jacksonian whole cloth. I’m pretty sure that Jackson’s portrayal of the Council’s attack on Dol Guldur bears no resemblance to whatever Tolkien saw happening so far away from his jolly little adventure, but it’s the most eyepoppingest and jaw-droppingest part of the whole film, as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee get to do some strutting of their stuff against the newly-resurrected Nazgul, before Galadriel blows Sauron far far away.

And I know how antithetical this is to Tolkien’s concepts, to the Three Rings that were never touched by Sauron but which were not instruments of war, but rather of defence and preservation, but damn! this is the three ringbearers in one place and it’s unbelievably powerful, and I’m prepared to overlook what is one of the largest overturnings of Tolkienian lore for how this is handled. Not to mention that, in having it be Galadriel – who alone of all those Elves is of the Noldor and has lived in the light of the Blessed Land – who finally drives Sauron out, tumbling through the sky, Jackson lays the most subtle link to his earlier trilogy, to her Tempting at her Well, so long ago in The Fellowship of the Ring.

As for Bilbo’s return to Hobbiton, it’s handled with simplicity and, above all, brevity, which other commenters have already welcomed as a contrast to The Return of the King‘s multiple farewells.

The rest of it, about two-thirds of the film as far as I could judge, was the Battle of the Five Armies, the actually fighting of which, in all its stages, took between and hour and ninety minutes of the movie. Proof, therefore, for those who have never accepted the application of the tone of Lord of the Rings to a cheap and cheerful children’s book, of the elephantiasis of Jackson’s handling of his subject.

Well, we disagree on that, and we’re going to have to continue to disagree, because I found it spectacular in every sense of that word, utterly riveting in every moment, and stunning in its execution. If you think that the Battle for Minas Tirith was colossal, when set against this it was no more than a local skirmish. If you’d asked me what subjective time the battle lasted, I’d have struggled to put it at above a half hour.

There was the most brilliant of cameos by Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot, Thorin’s cousin, and leader of the Dwarf army from the Iron Hills, approaching the forthcoming battle as if it were no more than a Saturday night punch-up outside a Glasgow pub. And there was death.

In The Hobbit, three of the dwarf-band die: Fili and Kili, the two youngest, Thorin’s nephews, and Thorin himself. It’s yet another thing that Tolkien placed offstage. Not so Jackson, as we knew would come. Fili, killed as provocation for Thorin to place himself in a trap, Kili in trying to save his elf-maiden love, Tauriel, and Thorin, redeemed of his dragon-sickness, in final single-combat with the Orc, Azog the Defiler, who killed his grandfather Thrain. There was only one way to do it: to get close enough to Azog to run his sword through the Orc’s black heart, Thorin had to allow Azog to deliver a fatal blow.

I very rarely cry at films, and if I do it’s nearly almost always in the privacy of my own home, but between this, and Tauriel’s grieving over Kili, and her desperate pleading not to love because she didn’t understand it could be like that, I was wiping away tears and glad I was sat alone in the dark and invisible.

So, from me, a yes. To be perfectly honest, whilst I’m not going to get carried away and say that this is the Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen, because it’s not, I think it’s the first time that I would have been ready to go out, buy another ticket and walk back to watch the film all over again, as long as it began immediately.

There’s nothing to look forward to now for December 2015, except perhaps that by then the 12-disc DVD box-set of all the Extended Versions may be available and I can set aside a day to watch the whole thing, every extra minute, one after another.

Maybe in the future, Jackson and those of his closest collaborators who I’ve lumped into his name, will do it again. There is The Silmarillion, after all, and if there’s a problem about turning that into a Trilogy, it’s going to be in the sheer volume you’d have to leave out just to do as few as three films. Go on, Peter, just don’t leave it too long. I might not have another decade left in me, and I would dearly love to have another December Friday afternoon at the Cinema, cursing that there were another two Xmas’s before me to see the end of the film.

And I’m just trying to imagine the Dungeons of Angband, and the ever-smoking, triple tops of Thangorodrim, and the face of he who will become Sauron but who is merely a Lieutenant of Melkor, whose name is not spoken and who is named Morgoth…