Politics & Policy

Movies & Metaphors

Man and the universe.

I wanted to write about the latest Lord of the Rings movie today. But as I scoured the web reading what other people had to say, I realized I had nothing new to offer. I love Tolkien. It’s a good movie. A bit too long, I thought, but I will see it again, regardless.

Anyway, while trying to figure out what to write, I kept stumbling on articles about how Tolkien was a racist and/or about how The Lord of the Rings is pro-war propaganda. Both of these ideas have dedicated adherents. For example, John Yatt says in the British newspaper, the Guardian:

The Lord of the Rings is racist. It is soaked in the logic that race determines behaviour. Orcs are bred to be bad, they have no choice. The evil wizard Saruman even tells us that they are screwed-up elves. Elves made bad by a kind of devilish genetic modification programme. They deserve no mercy.

To cap it all, the races that Tolkien has put on the side of evil are then given a rag-bag of non-white characteristics that could have been copied straight from a BNP leaflet. Dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced — it’s amazing he doesn’t go the whole hog and give them a natural sense of rhythm.

And as for the war-propaganda thing, well, that’s really all over the place. For example, Karen Durbin recently wrote in the New York Times:

[I]t’s impossible not to experience Peter Jackson’s “Two Towers” as war propaganda of unnerving power. The scene in which ranks upon ranks of enemy Uruk-hai warriors march in perfect order seems like a spine-chilling tip of the computer-graphics hat to Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’…. On the intentional level, “The Two Towers” is a grand adventure tale, in which good and evil are comfortingly clear. But even without the accidental echoes — evil or “Evildoers?” Sauron or Saddam? And how many towers? — the movie would have its own double edge. Dehumanizing the other guy is the first step in training soldiers and fighting wars. The danger is that this is what makes not just warfare palatable but extermination itself.

Sigh. Okay, yes, it’s true. Many of the Orcs (and the super-Orcs) are dark-skinned and have slant-eyes. They are also — how shall I put this? — Orcs! Ya frickin’ idjit!

One is tempted to ask who is the real racist here? On the one hand we have people — like me — who see horrific, flesh-eating, dull-witted creatures with jagged feral teeth, venomous mouths, pointed devilish ears, and reptilian skin, and say, “Cool, Orcs!” On the other hand we have people, like Mr. Yatt, who see the same repugnant creatures and righteously exclaim “black people!” Maybe he should spend less time vetting movies for signs of racism and more time vetting himself if, that is, he free-associates black people with these subhuman monsters.

Now, as for the war-mongering stuff, a similar point can be made. In fact, I have this theory that many movie critics need to imagine themselves as Right-wing morons in order to criticize films. Ms. Durbin is probably quite smart herself. But her criticism of The Two Towers is premised on the idea that other people can’t figure out what is apparent to her. So while she probably understands that The Lord of the Rings “on the intentional level” is a “grand adventure tale” wholly separate from our own reality, she — like many other sophisticates — frets that other people might be swept up by the excitement of it all and confuse Sauron with Saddam Hussein. Never mind that the dictator of Iraq is not currently a giant flaming eye. If he is, the New York Times will have major egg on its face.

A similar argument erupted a few years ago over the film Starship Troopers, an adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel. Set in the distant future, Earth is semi-fascist and unimaginably prosperous — so prosperous, in fact, that many people gladly forgo their right to vote in exchange for not having to join the military, the only route to full citizenship. The armed forces are made up of beautiful young people. They aren’t all Aryan types; there are a few blacks and Asians in the mix, too. Sort of an S.S. that looks like an America or a J. Crew catalog for young fascists. Anyway, the military is very important because humanity is at war with an alien horde of giant insect species which allegedly works collectively (socialistically?) toward the destruction of the human race. Hence, the soldiers shout lots of things like, “the only good bug is a dead bug.”

The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter (one of the best reviewers in the country), wrote a pretty angry essay about the film saying, “It’s spiritually Nazi, psychologically Nazi. It comes directly out of the Nazi imagination, and is set in the Nazi universe.”

In a sense that’s absolutely true. The movie does play heavily and deliberately with Nazi films. The opening scene, according to Verhoven, is a direct homage to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. (Another scene, at the fort, has several references to the 1964 movie Zulu.) So, yes, Hunter and lesser critics were on to something when they critiqued the Nazi aesthetic of the movie. But John Podhoretz was on to something also when he noted that Verhoven was parodying both the novel and the Nazis simultaneously. “Hollywood has twisted Heinlein’s novel into a mock Nazi pretzel,” Podhoretz wrote in a review at the time.

But here’s the most-important point for this conversation: The giant bugs weren’t Jewish. Oh, I don’t simply mean the slithering giant maggots weren’t Kosher, or that they might have been Episcopalian. I mean, literally, they were huge bugs. Not Jews. Not blacks. Not Gypsies. Not human beings!

And this raises an interesting question: Would Nazism be so bad if, instead of non-Aryans, they only cared about exterminating ferocious extraterrestrial lice, cockroaches, and beetles? I’m not saying that the only thing wrong with Nazism was the mass murder of humans. But can we accept that this was a big part of the story? After all, if you take the genocide out of the equation, Nazism drops several notches on the evil-regime list. Still evil, sure, but of a significantly lesser category.

The critics who got worked up about the bugs in Starship Troopers and the Orcs and Uruk-hai in The Lord of the Rings fret over the explicit “dehumanizing of the enemy” involved in these respective stories quite a bit. What they leave out is that the enemies aren’t humans being unfairly mischaracterized the way the Japanese were in World War II posters. The enemies in these movies are, in fact, non-human. As a moral proposition I’m as against genocide as the next guy, but I do hold out the caveat that if mankind is attacked by 99.5-percent pure-evil Orcs, or, say, skyscraper-sized dung beetles, I might change my views.


Now, the sophisticated response to all of this is that The Lord of the Rings will be taken metaphorically. Their war is like our war. In their war they can kill their evil enemies without remorse, so we must be able to kill our enemies without remorse, for they, too, must surely be evil.

Now, rather than beat a dead horse about that criticism, I’d like to say a few words about metaphors instead. Metaphors are wondrous candles which illuminate the hidden connections between things.

But wait a second. Metaphors aren’t candles. They aren’t made out of wax. You don’t light them on fire. You don’t buy them in a store. You can’t burn yourself on a metaphor, except, perhaps, metaphorically speaking. And didn’t I just say I don’t want to beat a dead horse? Where is this dead horse? I am sure if I had a dead horse in my house my dog would be barking at it, since he barks at dead things and at horses.

The truth is that a metaphor is an acid. (Again: In reality metaphors aren’t acidic at all). Metaphors burn away all sorts of relevant facts leaving behind only tiny nuggets of understanding.

Think of an expensive model airplane. Now, a teacher of aeronautical engineering could tell you a lot about planes by using a model of an F-18 as a teaching tool. He could show you how an F-18 moves, where its weapons are located, why it was designed a certain way, and so on. But, in reality, the model itself has very few meaningful similarities to an F-18. It doesn’t actually fly. It has no engines. It’s merely twelve-inches long and weighs only a few pounds. It was designed be a metaphor or, more accurately, to be a physical analogy to something completely different — a giant, screeching talon in the claw of the war bird of democracy. (Again: F-18′s aren’t actually talons).

I could go on about metaphors until the cows come home — which would ostensibly be for all eternity since the likelihood of cows coming to my home is very remote — because I think the effectiveness of metaphors and analogies provide a fascinating insight into the nature of man and the universe. Seriously, I really do.

But I bring up metaphors here and now because I think The Lord of the Rings is an excellent metaphor. In the film, as in the book, the author makes things extremely simple. Tolkien shows us, explicitly, who is evil and who is good. The Orcs are not portrayed with complicated interior lives. The Uruk-hai (the Super-Orcs) were never adorable children with mothers who loved them. They are abominations born of muck and filthiness. Their leaders openly express their evil intent and ambitions. Jonathan Last will not be coming along making the case for Sauron the way he made the case for Darth Vader, because Sauron’s express purpose is cruelty, darkness, evil.

The battle lines could not be clearer: Good vs. Evil. But even faced with this obvious fact, Tolkien demonstrates that man is weak. Men make excuses and refuse to look at the reality of a situation. They rationalize, they say “not me,” or “this will pass.” Hobbits, Elves, Ents, and Dwarves do the same thing too, but these noble creatures, alas, are as unreal as the Orcs; in a sense they too are simply extended metaphors illuminating different aspects of man’s nature. Evil knows its intentions and has the will to see them achieved. Good is plagued by doubt. The whole book is intended to illuminate the nature and dangers of that doubt, whether it’s the question of whether or not the men of Gondor and Rohan have the will and moral clarity to fight or whether Frodo has the will and strength to resist the ring of power. (See Steve Hayward’s excellent review). Good must be chosen of free will. And free will means choices, and choices introduce doubt. Evil has no such problems.

In the real world it’s much more difficult to identify evil. It would be much easier to argue for toppling Saddam if he were a giant fiery eye ruling subhuman creatures bent on destroying all that is beautiful and enslaving all that is good. But, damn it, that’s not the case. The reality is much more complicated than the metaphor. But that is always the case. And, the principle remains: Evil still exists, even if it is adorned with better disguises than an Orc mask and equipped with better excuses for leaving it be. Such excuses might be the potential deaths of innocent humans — as opposed to vile Orcs — or the simple rationalization that our own comfortable Shire is not particularly threatened yet. And come to think of it, another rationalization for not heeding the message that evil must be confronted might be to dismiss the messenger as a racist. After all, those Orcs do have dark skin.


The Latest