I finally broke down this week and bought the extended version of Return of the King - all four hours of it. I'm slowly watching it, using it as lunchtime entertainment. Yesterday I reached the part where, with a little Hobbit help, Gandalf gets the beacons of Gondor lit, which act in turn calls for help from Rohan.
This is a long scene - or series of scenes. The first great beacon, in Minas Tirith itself, goes up in flames, thanks to Pippin. And then the camera moves out across mountain peaks, towards a distant horizon, where you see the next beacon suddenly alight. And on to the next, and the next - some on peaks that are just barely visible above the clouds, crossing hundreds of mile, passing through the darkness of night, into the dawn until the firey call for help reaches Rohan.
[ Here is an excerpt from the script, and some still images from the film.]
There are niggling little thoughts that mutter to themselves in the corner of my mind during all this - "Why it's nearly as fast as electronic communication!" And such. But this background noise does not change the emotional impact these scenes have - I cry all the way through them, and wonder why. It seems a primal image of a call for help, and, here, a call that will be answered; it is literally the light of hope at a very dark moment. Is that why it is, for me at least, such a powerful image? I do not know. But I have found that almost every internet reference to this film segment speaks of its impact.
There are moments when I suspect that the weight of the difficulties the world is passing through is heavier than I (or we) think. That is, the dangers of terrorism, the oppression caused by the amoral pursuit of profit by huge companies, the apparent immanence of terrible diseases, and so much more - so many individual disasters, are all constantly present to us and kept in our awareness through the media. It is impossible for most people, I think, to really ponder all this at length, but, nevertheless, it forms a very dark background to our lives. So when there is a momentary shift for the better, it is profoundly moving.
I also remember weeping through the televised reports showing the Berlin Wall being torn down. That certainly was an image of hope. And New Year's Day, 2000 - as we watched the first light of a new millennium move across the earth - well, for that short period, almost everyone's attention was on celebration, not strife, a happy day.
But my guess is that the very measure of the darkness and threat that form the background to our lives is seen in the impact that even such fictional images of light and hope as the fire beacons of Gondor have on us.