Tolkien meets Zulu: why the Battle of Helm’s deep almost ruined Peter Jackson

Over the top: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Alamy
Over the top: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Alamy

From his vantage point high above Dry Creek Quarry, Peter Jackson was king of all he surveyed. Or so the Lord of the Rings director may have fancied in the summer of 2000 as he bestrode the polystyrene battlements his crew had painstakingly constructed at the quarry on the outskirts of Wellington. After years of false starts and disappointments, he was getting into the business end of his adaption of the Tolkien novels. All around him – hour by torturous hour – the epic battle of Helm’s Deep was unfolding.

What he didn’t know while marshalling hundreds of extras through weeks of torturous night shoots at Dry Creek was that the shadow realm – ie, Hollywood – had put a dark messenger on his tail. A Tinsel Town executive was riding on the wings of a storm – a rental car from Wellington airport – and headed straight for the quarry. The enemy was at the gates.

The executive was Barrie Osbourne and he had been dispatched by New Line Cinema, the upstart studio bankrolling Jackson’s shot-in-the-dark attempt to bring the “unfilmable” Lord of the Rings to the screen.

New Line was keeping a close watch on Jackson’s Wellington-based production. The studio had come to conclude that the director had been spinning riddles in the dark when he promised to deliver three Lord of the Rings movies for a combined budget of $180 million. The first film alone, New Line estimated, would cost $120 million. The Battle for Helms Deep, which was to serve as the climax of the second instalment, The Two Towers, was about to give way to the battle for the future of Jackson’s trilogy.

Only it didn’t. The reason was simple: Jackson refused to meet with the studio and instead just kept the cameras rolling. Either they trusted him or shut down the production there and then. He refused to blink, so they did instead.

Peter Jackson and Orlando Bloom on the set of The Two Towers - Alamy
Peter Jackson and Orlando Bloom on the set of The Two Towers - Alamy

Nostalgia for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings has reached a fever pitch this year. With the Rings of Power, Amazon’s $1 billion prequel to the Lord of the Rings stumbling towards the conclusion of its first season, Tolkien fans have been thinking back fondly to Jackson and the miracles he worked 20 years ago in New Zealand.

They will certainly have experienced flashbacks to Helm’s Deep when episode six of the Rings of Power concluded with barnstorming pitched warfare featuring elves, orcs and humans. Showcasing Amazon’s financial muscle, these scenes were full of fire and brimstone. And yet, for all the resources on display, the face-off lacked the magic oomph Jackson brought to Helm’s Deep. That battle was 40 minutes of mania in the mud that has gone down as among the greatest depictions of clashing armies in cinema history.

And to think, it might have all unravelled had Jackson not stood up to the studio when they came knocking at his quarry. “It was a period of time when New Line were at their most angry with us in terms of the budget,” Jackson recalled last year. “I am on the parapet, probably with Viggo [Mortensen, aka Aragorn], and I see Barrie. It took him about 30 minutes to huff and puff his way to get on the top, and so I kept on shooting. Barrie arrives and says, 'I have the studio, I’ve got to connect you with Michael Lynne of New Line.' I ask why. He says, 'Oh, he’s going to threaten to sue you and sell the house from under you to cover the cost overruns'.”

Jackson’s response was essentially “you shall not pass”.

“Barrie was just the messenger, but it was one of the only points where I really snapped. I said, 'Just tell Michael Lynne that I’m shooting this f______ film and I’m doing the best job I can, and I’m not going to interrupt my day with a phone call like that'.”

If Jackson was behaving like a frontline general deep in the fog of war that is because, for Helm’s Deep, that was more or less the role in which he found himself. Across the more than 120 days it took to shoot this heroic stand-off between the Riders of Rohan and the orcish hordes of the wizard Saruman, a sort of movie-making madness gripped the director.

Behind the scenes of The Two Towers - Alamy
Behind the scenes of The Two Towers - Alamy

The lunacy likewise overcame his cast and crew. Viggo Mortensen, who had already smashed his toe kicking an orc helmet, now found himself staying up all night in the endless rain. Bernard Hill, who played revitalised Rohan leader Théoden, suffered an injury to an ear when one of his Riders of Rohan swung a sword and clattered Hill across the head.

Spare a thought, too, for the army of extras and stunt people. Struggling to stay awake in the wee hours, the actors playing the evil Uruk-hai orcs would sing stirring New Zealand rugby songs. Through it all, it rained incessantly. When it didn’t Jackson – to preserve continuity – had buckets of water chucked over everyone’s heads. If war is hell, then filming war scenes at night is purgatory with all the trappings.

Helm’s Deep is a turning point in Tolkien’s original text, where it is known as the Battle of the Hornburg (the Hornburg a cavernous fortress inspired by Cheddar Gorge a 400ft deep limestone gorge in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, which Tolkien visited on his honeymoon in 1916). But for the screen, Jackson amped it up even further.

With a run-time of 40 minutes, it is its own mini-movie. Heroism and tension abound as the Rohirrim, aided by Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and a company of elves (not present in the novel), try to hold off Saruman’s Uruk-hai shock-troops until Gandalf arrives with reinforcements.

Jackson was devoted to Tolkien. But for Helm’s Deep, he looked elsewhere for inspiration. He turned, in particular, to Cy Enfield’s 1964 classic Zulu, which memorably restaged the Battle of Rorke’s Drift of 1879 in which 150 British soldiers held out against 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Viggo Mortensen in The Two Towers - Allstar
Viggo Mortensen in The Two Towers - Allstar

That film had been a feat of epic movie-making Jackson, though, was determined to better it. To that end, he and his crew pushed themselves to the limits. Some 75 per cent of Helm’s Deep was shot at night, utilising that full-scale replica of the Hornburg fortress’s gate and battlements and two scale models constructed at the quarry.

Yet as the team charged into the fray, problems emerged. The ramparts leading down to the quarry, and the Uruk-hai hordes, were too slippery for horses. So the beasts were outfitted with bespoke rubber horseshoes, while a special paint containing grit was layered over the surface. And those issues paled against what was being asked of actors and crew.

“Three and a half months of night shoots – it was the making and breaking of certain people,” said Sala Baker, the actor and stuntman who portrayed several orcs warriors and the Dark Lord Sauron himself.

“Those months of night-shoots…constant hardship,” agreed Mortensen. “I hated it, I enjoyed it, I will always remember it.”

The enjoyment eclipsed the hatred for Jackson. Having started out making gonzo horror movies with his friends in New Zealand, he’d long dreamed of shooting a large-scale battle scene. Until Helm’s Deep, the director of Braindead and Meet the Feebles had not received that chance. Now that he had, he was determined to make the most of it.

“I’ve always had an interest in battle scenes. Up to that point, I’d never had an opportunity in a movie to do a battle scene,” he said. “I revelled in the opportunity to see these numbers on screen.”

Thousands of orcs are pitched into the battle as Saruman tries to eradicate the Riders of Rohan from Middle Earth and conquer their lands on behalf of his dark master, Sauron. Even for a production on the scale of Lord of the Rings, it wasn’t possible to work with those numbers of extras. Fortunately, Weta, the special effect house established by Jackson and his co-producers Richard Taylor, and Jamie Selkirk in 1993, had come up with a new software programme – called Massive – that realistically brought to life the CGI hordes.

Helm's Deep before the battle, in a scene from The Two Towers - Alamy
Helm's Deep before the battle, in a scene from The Two Towers - Alamy

“If you’re dealing with five or 10 thousand extras you have to figure out a way they can animate themselves,” said Jackson. “We developed this revolutionary system that allowed us to do a battle scene with thousands of extras.”

Tolkien had sold the rights to the Lord of the Rings in 1969 and so his literary estate had no say in how Jackson made his films. That is in contrast to the Rings of Power, which is contractually obliged to work closely with the estate, to ensure the work is “faithful” to the source material.

That has arguably been to the detriment of what has ended up on the screen and made for stilted and dull fantasy. No such worries detained Jackson, who was free to flesh out Helm’s Deep by bringing in elves – thus framing the conflict as a re-match of the “Last Alliance” stand-off between men, elves and orcs that resulted in the original topping of Sauron.

One of the pointy-eared immortals at the battle is Arwen, Aragorn’s ethereal love interest played by Liv Tyler. In the books, she is an ephemeral figure – more romantic MacGuffin than living, breathing character. Jackson wanted to have her in the Two Towers so that audiences did not forget her by the time she fights by Aragon’s side in the Return of the King. But when news leaked that she would be at the Hornburg, the Tolkien fanbase voiced its displeasure.

Jackson, as it happened, had his doubts, too. He fretted that an Arwen who galloped around beheading orcs bore too much of a resemblance to Éowyn, Aragon’s other love interest. So he cut her and instead had her appear to Aragorn in dreams (if you freeze-frame at the right moment, you can still see Liv Tyler in one sequence from the battle).

Arwen-aside, Helm’s Deep has aged incredibly well. One of the most impressive achievements was filming a battle at night while maintaining complete visual clarity – unlike the notoriously pitch-black Game of Thrones siege at Winterfell. This was achieved by having blue light frame the action – ostensibly “moonlight’ but, actually, a device to ensure the audience could see what was going on.

What ended up on screen was an epic conflict between good and evil. There was action and spectacular set-pieces, including Legolas sliding down battlement steps and shooting orcs with his bow at superhuman speed. Jackson even squeezed in some comedy: the dialogue between Gimli and Legolas verged on buddy movie banter. And then it ended with the spectacular shot of the sun coming up and Gandalf leading the reinforcements who would help carry the day against Saruman.

Jackson, even at the time, knew he had achieved something special. And for that reason, he has always named the Two Towers as the entry in the trilogy of which he is fondest.

“The Two Towers was always regarded as the difficult one. It doesn’t have a beginning it doesn't have an end,” he said. “I really liked jumping into the story. After the fairly leisurely set up of the Fellowship, we didn’t have to do any of that in the Two Towers. I even refused to do a prologue. We just jumped straight into it.”