Review: The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Exhibition

Science Museum, London, England

September 16th, 2003 – January 11th, 2004


TOLKIEN has long been a hero in our household and we were really looking forward to enjoying some of the genuine artefacts used in the three films, particularly as they had made the long trip from New Zealand and would not be appearing anywhere else in Europe. Despite the free admission to the Science Museum itself, the exhibition was incredibly expensive and after browsing the website we expected it to be fairly limited. How wrong we were.

Arriving outside the Science Museum at precisely 8.30am, we were intending to pick up some spare tickets on the day and thus avoid having to use a credit card and order via the Internet. We were first in the queue, but by the time the building opened at 10am sharp we had been joined by around thirty others. The exhibition is housed on the first floor, right beside the lift shaft, and as we purchased our tickets and approached the main entrance we saw that it was flanked with The Argonath, or ‘royal stones’. These appear in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, as Aragorn and his comrades are leaving Lothlorien by boat. They really were very striking indeed, two towering pinnacles of stone giving the Roman salute and almost defying us to enter. But enter we did, as a recorded message suddenly detected our presence in the doorway and announced: ‘Speak, friend, and enter’, reminding us of the scene at Balin’s Tomb.

The first thing we noticed was that the high ceiling was literally awash with banners, illustrated profusely and conveying the illustrious heraldry of Middle Earth. A television screen to our left had Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) recounting how the trilogy’s director, co-writer and producer, Peter Jackson, had been so very meticulous in his portrayal of the hobbits. We also had an insight into the way in which an ordinary New Zealand landscape was initially examined by several artists and then completely re-shaped to incorporate the famous hobbit-holes, bridges and roads of Hobbiton and the Shire. Next to this was Frodo’s diminutive travel costume, designed by the Three Foot Six Company and based on a series of designs from the 1800s. Alongside this was Thorin’s map, a Mithril vest, Galadriel’s phial and Frodo’s own weaponry, including the notorious ‘Sting’ with scabbard and belt. Arwen’s riding costume was one of the more beautiful exhibits, a mixture of grey suede and white lace. Elrond’s finest daughter had also lent us her sword, a brown handle containing golden swirls with a mysterious Elven inscription running along the length of the blade. Nearby lay her brown scabbard. Meanwhile, Arwen’s requiem dress, made of silk satin and chiffon in a blue-grey hue, was based next to several swathes of fabric.

Aragorn’s costume, on the other hand, seemed a little worn, hardly surprising given that actor Viggo Mortensen had actually ridden horses in it and fought in countless battle scenes. Also present was Aragorn’s shattered sword, Narsil, which had been used to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s finger. Another display featuring four of the warriors from the trilogy’s opening scene at Mount Doom, during which the ancestor of Aragorn – Isildur – fought against the Lord Sauron, included a prologue Elf, a prologue Gondorian, a Rohan spearman and a Rohan swordsman; each dressed in armour amid a daunting array of weaponry. And then came Sauron himself, the Lord of the Rings. Standing on top of a mounted rock landscape, his tattered cloak billowing in an articially-induced breeze, his immense size lent him an almost indestructible persona. His costume is made of steel, leather, urethane, cast compound plastic, silk, polyester and cotton. He comes complete with a pointed mace containing six spikes, huge hands encased in amazing gauntlets, sharp-edged shoulder amour, a fantastic spiked helmet and an imposing visor.

This violent imagery is contrasted very nicely with Boromir’s more relaxed appearance, lying peacefully on a folded blanket in a small funeral-boat in the wake of his fatal encounter with the psychotic Uruk-Hai leader, Lurtz. Beside this Nordic-looking warrior are the most essential things that he will need for the afterlife: his sword and shield, and an ivory drinking horn. But the figure of Boromir himself, however, was one of the most realistic mannequins that we had ever seen. In fact it was as though Boromir was about to spring to life at any moment.

Next came the armour of Theoden, King of Rohan and Lord of the Mark, which was a heady mixture of red-brown leather and plated steel. His helmet contained red and green sunwheels with two precious frontal rubies. An adjacent television showed how Rohirrim numbers were conveniently increased for the ‘Two Towers’ film by using female riders and covering their lily-white features with fake beards. Rohan’s many decorative horns were also on display, hanging from their leather straps next to Theoden’s brass shield and its flaming sun symbol. There were also Rohan buckles and royal seals.

Elsewhere, a small circular darkroom housed the One Ring in a transparent tube with the floors and walls host to a swirling display of Elvish symbols in orange light. And then came one of the best exhibits of all. A huge cave troll around three metres in height, his thick hide a bluish-grey and wielding a massive stone club. He was flanked by a nearby Goblin who defied gravity by scaling the heavily-sculptured walls and waving his sword menacingly. A large pot-belly hung down over the troll’s shabby loin-cloth, as his moist jaws and penetrating button-eyes stared out at us aggressively.

A television interview with Andy Serkis (Gollum) revealed how the actor had been filmed in what resembled a skin-tight leotard, with the face being added later using computer graphics. But even more impressive was the large metal animatronic frame that had to be constructed for the scene in which Treebeard carries Merry and Pippin to the western borders of Isengard. The display incorporated a full-size model of Treebeard’s head and a smaller maquette-scale model of an Ent. ‘Galadriel’s gifts’, on the other hand, included the weapons of Mirkwood such as a bow, arrows and a quiver. Beside them were the two white knives of Legolas, including his own costume in an immaculate two-tone grey and orange suede. But this was certainly far cleaner than Aragorn’s costume had been, that’s for sure.

Gimli’s apparel, meanwhile, was the most extravagant of all and was made from red leather and silk framed with a distinctive runic belt. A small case of dwarven weapons included a square shield, three long-handled axes and three smaller throwing-axes made from aluminium, steel and wood. Directly opposite was a model of Frodo’s apocalyptic nightmare vision of the ruined mill at Hobbiton, its slowly-spinning water-wheel gracefully juxtaposed with alien metal scaffolding and belching industrial chimneys. Galadriel’s enchanting gown had a real aura about it. A glowing white adorned with pattened flora and jewelled studs, it was fit for none but the Queen of Lothlorien herself. And there was also Galadriel’s ring of power, Nenya, one of three Elf rings that were crafted before the One Ring had even come into existence and rightfully accompanying Celeborn the Elven King’s belt, neck-piece and heraldic horn.

Gandalf The Grey’s sword, Glamdring, complete with the pitted marks of prolonged battle, stood beside a scatched blue leather scabbard and the wizard’s own travel costume. This included the famous road-rimmed hat, a carved wooden staff and a woven toffee bag. The similarities between Gandalf and Woden, of course, are immense. Both ‘died’ and returned with greater knowledge and renewed strength, and the very appearence of Gandalf is strikingly similar to Woden in the recurring story of the wise and grey-haired old man of Norse legend. The display includes the wizard’s scholastic scrolls and withered parchments, his smoking pipe and ring (Narya), and various documents from the library at Minas Tirith.

Beside these are the artefacts of his arch-enemy, Saruman (Christopher Lee), including assorted clutter from his personal chamber, a decomposing skull and ‘The Book of Saruman’ itself with a colour drawing of the hideous fire-breathing Balrog that fought with Gandalf on the collapsing bridge and a small pencilled sketch of a lop-sided pentangle. His costume was a dirty white – indicative, perhaps, of his status as a ‘fallen’ wizard – and his staff was comprised of four spikes clutching a crystal orb. A few steps away we came across a series of paraphernalia from Rivendell: an Elven sceptre containing a white crystal, an intricatelydesigned Elven telescope with two circular lenses in the centre of a thin brass-coloured frame, and Elrond’s crown (Vilya). The ‘scaling’ process was also explained, referring to the fact that the creators had to make three different sizes of jugs, pans and other household accessories for the scenes of camera-trickery featuring Gandalf and Bilbo at Bag End and during various other scenes involving the diverse races of Middle-Earth. Another display concerned the Battle of Rohan and had a plethora of helmets from Elendil, Isildur, Eomer and the citidel guards. Following that came eight warriors in one intimidating line. These included the armour of the impressive Harad, who resemble Islamic warriors to such an extent that they even feature a distinct crescent symbol on each shoulder-pad. They also wear turbans, a rugged cloak of blood-red and carry bows. Their neo-Hindu breast-plates, meanwhile, display four shrunken skulls arranged in a rectangle.

The other exhibits included Third Age Gondorian armour with an engraved tree-design breast-plate, a member of the Rohan Royal Guard in a green cloak and Celtic motif, a hooded Gondor Ranger in a cloak partially constructed from turkey feathers, a Warg Rider made from bone with goathair leggings, an Orc costume in chain-mail alongside a long machete-like blade, a Moria Orc with pointed footwear, a toothed visor and armour resembling a cross between rhino hide and that of an armadillo, and finally an Uruk-Hai with an axe-bladed bow and a sword which was almost modelled on the shape of the Wolf’s Hook rune. Things became even more detailed as we had the chance to examine a Royal Gondor saddle and saddle-blanket, both of which were of the highest quality and had obviously been made by a a firm of professional saddler’s.

There were sword moulds, too, with a hands-on set of chainmail swathes which included a mere handful of the 12,500,000 links used for the trilogy’s 1,000 suits of body armour. Also Haldir’s bow, sword and scabbard, Gil-Galad’s spear (Aiglos) and shield, and a stunning ring display featuring the Eight Rings of Men, the single Witch-Ring for the King of the Nazgul and the nine Nazgul Rings with their red snake-eyed jewels and silver skeletal bands. Just around the corner were the Four Crowns of Men, each with a unique brass design, and the Four Ringwraith Crowns with their iron spikes. A short Ringwraith sword with a damaged edge expressed the imperfection of these creatures, and a hooded Ringwraith cloak towered over the intricate blend of leather and steel that made up the characteristic riding harness used for the snorting Nazgul horses. We particularly enjoyed the Goblin mask and armour, which had been made with yak and horse hair, and the flat nose, corpse-like skin and protruding ears looked rather comical alongside a leather jockstrap. These creatures, of course, are the real untermenschen of Middle-Earth.

A short film demonstrated how Lawrence Makaore – the Black actor who played Lurtz, the leader of the Uruk-Hai – had to spend many hours in the make-up department prior to his appearances in the trilogy. The rest of the prosthetics display contained a pile of feet, ears and faces and looked like the contents of a mass grave. Meanwhile, a naked cave troll with shrivelled genitals glared like an enraged man who had dropped his towel on a crowded beach. Finally, to finish the exhibition there was a full-length model of Lurtz, measuring around seven feet in height with metallic shin-pads, a leather belt and a flowing mane of matted hair. As we walked through the exit and began examining the merchandise in the Museum Shop, we couldn’t help noticing that prices ranged from £44.99 for a tiny bust of Bilbo Baggins to a full £300 for a trio of cave trolls and another £335 for a larger solo model. We settled for the postcards.

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