Love, war and the Hollywood epic

ERIC HOYT

The critics have spoken: “Cold Mountain” is an Oscar-grubbing, “three star” literary adaptation, “emotionally detached” in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” on the other hand, is a magnificent, rousing movie milestone, “the cinematic epic of our time,” according to Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.

Well, I for one disagree with this critical consensus. Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” is the epic that merits hailing and Peter Jackson’s “The Return of the King,” which should cross the $300 million mark at the domestic box office this weekend, can do with far fewer of the excessive superlatives and awards currently being showered on it by critics.

To begin, both films feature tremendous acting performances and are visually stunning — although I’ll take “Cold Mountain’s” rich, textured cinematography over “Return’s” busy, pumped-up-on-CGI look any day. However, both of these elements, acting and visual style, have received more than enough attention and comment, so in the little space I have, I want to focus on two themes that encapsulate why I value “Cold Mountain” so highly and, ultimately, why I have trouble swallowing all the hype about “The Return of the King”: love and war.

“Cold Mountain” offers a powerful and original love story, but it would be a mistake to call it “timeless.” On the contrary, the relationship between Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law) is completely shaped by the Civil War, which splits them apart and actually makes their love grow.

By 1864, they can no longer believe in the war’s cause — Inman deserts the Army, and Ada sees the town of Cold Mountain overrun with unruly Home Guard militiamen — so they believe in each other instead projecting all their hopes, dreams and desires onto the other person. Therefore, the good but at times imperfect chemistry between Law and Kidman, which many critics have railed on, actually services the larger meaning of the film by emphasizing the symbolic weight that Inman and Ada each carry for each other. Appropriately, their sex scene late in the film is presented as a memory. The montage –beautifully edited by Walter Murch — is a series of fragments and moments of their bodies together that seem to exist outside of time.

To be fair, “The Return of the King” isn’t all that concerned with the theme of love, nor need it be. But there are two love stories. One is the love triangle between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto). It’s Eowyn’s love for either Aragorn, her father or all mankind that provokes her to disguise herself in armor and fight in battle. Here, “The Return of the King” implies that women are participants in war only when they literally fight. “Cold Mountain,” on the other hand, always recognizes that women, or anyone on the home front, are inherently involved in the war.

The second, better love story in “The Return of the King” is that of the four hobbits. Their love is fully expressed in one of the film’s nine endings: In a slow-motion scene that eerily resembles softcore porn, the hobbits bounce on Frodo’s bed while, one by one, more smiling men walk into the room.

Few films have conveyed the destructiveness, brutality and chaos of war better than “Cold Mountain.” The violent battle sequence early in the film sucks all the glamour out of war: Deaths come randomly and without reason, neither side seems to have any idea what they are fighting for and a company of men helplessly trapped in a trench trample each other and become the targets of a “turkey shoot” — a contrast to “Return’s” neatly ordered columns of Middle Earth armies.

By comparison, “The Return of the King” appears like a celebration of war and battle. Humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and even the dead gloriously fight side-by-side for freedom.

I’m not suggesting that nothing is worth fighting for — if we position ourselves within the story space of the film, war seems necessary, even righteous. But at this particular political moment in America, with the Bush administration’s hawks in office, I do think we should be wary of the impact of a film in which the world is viewed in terms of good and evil, the good guys refer to themselves as the “West” (I’m speaking of Aragorn’s final battle speech) and a giant eagle flies in at the end to save the day.

“The Return of the King” may be a fantasy, and it may have been first imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien many years ago, but it is greater fantasy to think that the films don’t disseminate ideologies that are consequential to politics and foreign policy today.

“Cold Mountain” asks viewers to think hard about what things like love and war mean, rather than basking in the spectacle of them, as happens in “The Return of the King.” And if there is one thing America needs today, it is to do more thinking before enthusiastically rushing into battle.

Communication junior Eric Hoyt is a writer for PLAY. He can be reached at [email protected]