Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Gimli

Gimli: I remember back when the LOTR films were first released, and one of the criticisms that seemed loudest (but hardly singular) was, “Gimli has been reduced to a comic side-kick with no dignity!” I always found this an odd comment since Gimli got more than his fair share of funny moments throughout the book, but perhaps that is at least somewhat in the interpretation.

The Dwarf strikes me in a manner similar to most of the uniformed individuals I met during my military career: hardy, good-natured, liable to be grumpy (especially when the food is low or of poor quality), but also possessed of a tremendous fighting spirit, dedicated to friendship, and an absolute terror on the battlefield. He also has the typical soldier’s flair for exaggeration and showmanship, especially when it comes to bravery or toughness. This is my reading of Gimli based on my own life experiences, but it is likely other readers have other perceptions.

In his incredible work Master of Middle-earth, Paul Kocher remarks Gimli provides levity here and there in a long tale which has serious droughts in levity throughout its numerous pages. The dour-handed Dwarf trumpets his own hardiness from before the Fellowship even leaves Rivendell, risks certain death at the hands of the Galadhrim, stares down Eomer and his entire eored of armored knights, repeatedly begs to get into a scuffle with some Orcs, threatens (who he thinks to be) Saruman with an “incurable dent” in his head, and constantly tussles with Legolas over hundreds of miles as they travel together. All of these moments and many others elicit chuckles from the reader and enamor us of Gimli at the same time. Kocher, however, when reviewing these moments declares, “Gimli never finds them funny.” This is true, but not relevant to the topic at hand, at least not in the way Kocher intends: the moments are funny precisely because Gimli never finds them funny. In virtually every theatrically comic situation, at least one of the participants does not find the proceedings in which they find themselves embroiled to be in the least bit amusing. But this is a critical part of what makes the moment funny to the audience: were the character involved to laugh at the circumstances themselves, they would diffuse the importance and thereby diffuse the comedy.

To illustrate, I’ll take a very simple and extremely well-known example. In Star Wars Episode IV, Han Solo just saved himself, Chewbacca, Obi-wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and the two droids from capture, torment, and death (possibly) at the hands of the Galactic Empire by unleashing the hidden hyper-drive on the Millennium Falcon and escaping into the depths of interstellar space. The getaway accomplished, Solo swaggers his way back into the cargo area, flashes his cocky smile in expectation of laud and praise, and says, “I told you we’d outrun those Imperial slugs!” His passengers, however, engaged in lightsaber training or partaking in a game of space chess, pay him no mind. Solo, his feelings clearly injured by everyone’s lack of interest in his heroics, mutters, “Don’t everyone thank me at once.” This little non-exchange is unquestionably funny, but in large part only because Solo doesn’t find it funny at all. Were Harrison Ford to chuckle at the situation himself, the moment would be decidedly less funny or perhaps even unfunny. Solo’s dented ego, however, which drives his genuinely despondent remark, gets universal laughs from the audience.

Theatrical comedy is replete with parallel examples: watch any Charlie Chaplin film and you’ll see the same principle at work. In clip after clip, the Tramp is often seen in single-minded pursuit of some object or goal. It being comedy, Chaplin naturally encounters numerous problems and obstacles in the pursuit of those goals, each of which lands him in circumstances which are funny. An often overlooked element of the comedy, however, is the character’s “tunnel vision.” This means the character must be so thoroughly committed to their objective that they are plausibly willing to brave those obstacles in order to get what they want, including subjecting themselves to any number of hilarious situations. The first example that pops into my mind (although I have no idea why) is Steve Martin’s dressing like a gangster in Bringing Down the House in order to gain access to the person who can clear his name of wrongdoing via a taped conversation. The stakes are high (imprisonment, life ruination, etc.) and Martin’s character is committed to overcoming the obstacles in order to acquire the objective. The result is a middle-aged stiff dressing up and sounding like Snoop Dogg in order to access the nightclub where the objective resides. Hilarity ensues.

This same phenomenon is at work in the character of Gimli throughout the book and the LOTR films (not counting the gangsta-rapper impersonations). John Rhys-Davies, Peter Jackson’s flawless pick to play the battle-hardened Dwarf, understands he must invest totally in the character’s sense of honor, valor, and duty if he is to create a Gimli with which moviegoers will fall in love. Rhys-Davies gloms onto the Dwarf’s staunch personality as the defining traits and, by logical extension, reacts appropriately to the world around him, using the script to maximum effect in the process.
Rhys-Davies’s Gimli is so lovable because he reminds us of ourselves: while most everyone else is running around with somber faces pondering the end of the world, Gimli just pats his axe, sticks his beard out and says, “Bring it on! This should be fun.” There’s something in many of us with the same attitude – no matter what the world throws our way, our knees remain unbent, our wills unshakeable. Even if we can’t say we’ve always held up so admirably under the stresses of the real world, we admire those who do (real or imagined). The character of Gimli supplies this attitude in ample doses throughout the trilogy, and audiences everywhere get thorough enjoyment from it.

The inclusion of this personality does, admittedly, bring a healthy amount of comedy to the role (and the film at large), but there’s every indication in the book this is exactly who Gimli is. Yes, the Dwarf bellows his defiance at every opportunity, but we also see the limits of his braggadocio: Gimli is the first and most vocal of the Fellowship to express true fear of whatever spirit governs the mountain of Caradhras, and he is deadly serious about his superstition. He also refuses to talk about his trek through the Paths of the Dead with Aragorn and Legloas – a refusal brought about by shame for the intense fear he felt on that journey. I maintain Rhys-Davies through his acting and Jackson through his screenwriting bring this crucial aspect of Gimli’s personality to life on the screen. We see it in several scenes, such as on the road to Helm’s Deep where he shows his willingness to charge into battle against numerous foes, but without the skill needed to make his horse actually charge. In the same battle, we see him face down mounted enemies on foot, but his inability to participate in the combat from horseback ends with him comically being buried under a pile of corpses. Over and over we see him being hauled away from the fighting, even when hopelessly outnumbered. We never see Gimli ponder shades of moralistic grey or refuse to accept a given duty (even if he comes close on the road to the Sea). His brand of bravery is very different from Frodo or Aragorn’s reluctant heroism or Merry and Pippin’s sparks of greatness under duress. Gimli reminds us, in a way, more of Sam: almost simple-minded in his dedication, but someone who throws themselves heart and soul into any fray, practically unconcerned whether (or perhaps zealously convinced) they will either win out in the end or have their actions justified after their fleeting defeat or death. This kind of absolute commitment could also be appropriately described as “faith,” another key theme throughout Tolkien’s works.

In conclusion, both Rhys-Davies and Jackson collude to create a compelling and beloved portrayal of Gimli. The director/screenwriter creates numerous opportunities for the audience to enjoy this colorful and important member of the Fellowship of the Ring while the actor wields his sense of commitment and comic timing as deftly as his axe. The result is a delightful and memorable character which lends critical levity to the story while simultaneously conjuring a multi-dimensional, sure-hearted warrior-zealot that we, on some level, wish we could emulate in our own lives.

Master of Toons

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