The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the earliest works to cement geek cinema’s dominance in pop culture. To this day it is still one of the most widely acclaimed series of fantasy films. The realizations of Middle Earth and its characters offered in these films are legendary.
But what are the trilogy’s best moments? Which moments represent the films’ high points of stakes, emotions, and action? Which parts give us the most vivid and engaging portrayals of the characters and the world? Which scenes offer the biggest payoffs, built up over all three movies? Which scenes make us come back to this modern trilogy of classics over and over again? Like the journey of the fellowship, this list will take us all over Middle Earth as we count down the Top 20 Greatest Scenes in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy!
20. GALADRIEL’S EXPOSITION
Tolkien’s books about Middle Earth are some of the most influential and famous examples of high-fantasy literature ever. Peter Jackson needed a masterfully crafted opening sequence to introduce Tolkien’s world on the big screen.
Galadriel’s opening narration focuses on the story of the Rings of Power. Each major race is introduced succinctly and Sauron gets established as the Big Bad. The sequence also introduces us to Isildur and the weakness in beings that the Ring will exploit throughout the movies. Gollum also gets his creepy introduction though the audience will be left in suspense for a good look at him until Two Towers. And of course there’s the scene where Bilbo finds the Ring. Everything about Bilbo’s introduction reinforces the idea that Hobbits are the most unassuming beings in Middle Earth, from his posture to Galadriel’s inflections.
19. LEGOLAS KILLS AN OLIPHANT
Legolas got to showoff pretty consistently throughout the movies, being the gifted elven archer while Aragorn and Gimli were slightly more mundane badasses, just in comparison. Then in the battle of Pelennor Fields, he gets his crowning moment of awesome.
The Army of the Dead are swarming the field when an Easterling Oliphant comes charging towards Aragorn Legolas and Gimli. Without hesitation, Legolas leaps forward, catching the creatures swinging tusks to propel himself up along the legs and onto his hind quarters. From there he shoots and throws off all of the Easterlings that try to stop him, keeping up the count of his kills.
Then he cuts the ropes that keep the mounted carriage on the Oliphant’s back, puts three arrows into the base of its neck and rides its flailing trunk back to the ground, right in front of Gimli. And what did the dwarf have to say of that stunning kill?
18. GANDOLF FREES THEODEN FROM SARUMAN
Gandalf warns Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli that Rohan will not be welcoming to them while Saruman controls King Theoden. When they arrive at the steps of the great hall, they’re forced to lay down their arms on the orders of Grimma Wormtongue. But what about Gandalf’s staff? Well, you wouldn’t part an old man from his walking stick would you?
Even while unarmed, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli can still knock out all of Wormtongue’s thugs and clear the path for Gandalf to step up to the throne. Saruman finally reveals himself from the decrepit, possessed king, but then Gandalf reveals his new power. “I will draw you, Saruman, as poison is drawn from a wound.”
Everyone in the hall is relieved to see Theoden returned to his old self, especially Eowyn. And we finally get to see the strong, proud Theoden take up his sword and go back to defending his besieged people.
17.”ALL YOU HAVE TO DECIDE IS WHAT TO DO WITH THE TIME THAT IS GIVEN TO YOU.”
Moria wasn’t the fellowship’s first choice for passage through the Misty Mountains. Saruman had dispatched spies and conjured fierce storms to block the fellowship’s path. Frodo eventually decided that Moria was their best chance. He probably didn’t expect the watcher to rise up from the lake by the doors, nor just how vast the dwarven mines would be.
They make their way through the mines by Gandalf’s, memory and they’re forced to stop when he encounters a crossroads that he doesn’t recall. While they’re stopped, Frodo spots Gollum tailing them, and Gandalf explains the humbling tale of Bilbo’s encounter with the pitiful creature. All this worry and weight finally catches up to Frodo.
“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
And this is where Gandalf shares his greatest bit of wisdom. “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” This lesson captures a theme present in the entire trilogy and echoes at the end of the film before Frodo resolves to continue his journey alone.
16. “WHAT DO YOU FEAR MY LADY?”
As one of three major female characters in the whole trilogy, and the only of the three not an elf, Eowyn had a unique part to play in the war. We first saw her mourning the death of her cousin, Theoden’s son, and Theoden’s own slide into an invalid.
But her character establishing moment didn’t come until much later in the movie, when Theoden decides to relocate the people of Edoras to Helm’s Deep. We see her packing swords for the journey when she takes one out and practices with it. Aragorn even appears behind her and blocks a swing with his knife, then Eowyn swings his blade aside.
After that tense moment, she talks about how the women of Rohan need to be just as prepared to fight, need to be just as fearless. “What do you fear my Lady?” Aragorn asks. Eowyn looks at him and says, “A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance for valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”
15. PIPPIN LIGHTS THE BEACONS
Pippin and Gandalf both witness the column of light from Minas Morgul that signals the approach of Mordor’s army. Immediately, Gandalf sets Pippin to his task. Denethor has disparaged the idea of lighting the beacons and calling on Rohan for aid. So Pippin has to climb up to the beacon tower and light the first beacon alone. It’s a treacherous task, and at first it doesn’t seem like more than dropping a lantern on a pile of wood.
But then the next beacon lights up on the mountain range, and the next and the next, until Aragorn catches sight of the last one from Edoras. The following scene is one of the best showcases of New Zealand’s landscape in the whole trilogy, and it has some of the most effective music out of the entire trilogy’s soundtrack. It’s full of sweeping tableau vistas enriched by soaring horns and strings that milk Gondor’s theme for all it’s worth.
14. “TOSS ME!”
Gimli is one of the few reliable characters for comic relief in the trilogy. He and Legolas especially have a lot of great back and forth in Two Towers. Right in the middle of the battle of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn and Gimli take a secret passage to outside the front gate, where the Uruk-Hai are lining up to storm the keep.
There’s a wide gap in the rock face separating Aragorn and Gimli from the Uruk-Hai. They’ll have the drop on them, if only they can reach them. It’s too far for Gimli to cross.
“I cannot jump that distance you have to toss me!”
Aragorn moves his arms around his friend, preparing to toss him into the fray.
“Uh, don’t tell the elf?”
“Not a word.”
Not only is it a fitting call back to Gimli’s indignant declaration in Fellowship, but it gets followed up by a stunning shot of Aragorn and Gimli hacking and slashing the Uruks at the gates to pieces.
13. GANDALF RETURNS IN FANGORN FOREST
All through the first act of Two Towers, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their own journey to rescue Merry and Pippin from the band of Uruks who captured Merry and Pippin. They race day and night without rest, their hope renewed after Aragorn’s ranger skills show that the hobbits escaped into Fangorn Forrest.
We had already seen in a cutaway shot that Merry and Pippin had encountered a “White Wizard” in Fangorn, presumably Saruman. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli assume they are about to encounter Saruman themselves and attack the white figure as soon as he appears.
After easily deflecting their attacks, the figure makes enigmatic allusions to their quest, instead of threats. Low and behold, the light dims and Gandalf stands before them, reborn and more powerful than ever. The sequence captures both the grandeur of Gandalf’s status as a wizard and his humble witticisms about being among the more ordinary beings of Middle Earth. And it’s an eagerly welcome return.
12. “YOU BOW TO NO ONE.”
The kingdoms of Men are saved from annihilation and the true heir of Isildur has reclaimed the throne of Gondor. Aragorn is now on the cusp of a destiny he had hardly dreamed he would ever fulfil. He has Arwen by his side again. The lords and ladies of all the free peoples of Middle Earth have assembled to pay their respects, including the Hobbits.
Following Frodo’s lead, Sam, Pippin and Merry all incline their heads before the King of Gondor. But Aragorn steps forward. “My friends,” he assures, “you bow to no one.” And following his lead, the noblest of Middle Earth all take a knee before the halflings, so that they stand the tallest atop the city.
After all the unprecedented courage and pivotal roles the Hobbits played in the war, they finally get the official recognition they deserve. The fully orchestrated version of the hobbits’ theme that plays over the sequence underscores the culmination of their unassuming heroism in a deeply satisfying way.
11. THE END OF ALL THINGS
There’s a jubilatory moment when all the heroes are standing at the collapsing Black Gate, watching Barad-dûr fall and cheering for Frodo’s triumph. And then Mount Doom erupts. Each of the Heroes realize in that moment that Frodo and Sam are certainly dead in the volcanic explosion. The change in the music and the crestfallen faces make it one of the biggest moments of tonal whiplash in the whole trilogy.
We switch back to Frodo and Sam to see them collapse on an outcrop of rock as the lava floods the mountainside. Both of them exhausted and broken, both of them remembering the sweet things from their home in the Shire. Bilbo’s last birthday party and Gandalf’s fireworks, Rosie Cotton dancing with ribbons in her hair.
Frodo pulls his dearest friend close, “I’m glad to be with you Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.” The mixed relief and sorrow of this moment is so powerful that many fans feel that it could have been a workable ending to the trilogy all on its own.
10. THE ENTS FLOOD ISENGARD
For most of Two Towers, the Ents had seemed more or less docile creatures. Once Gandalf apparently vouches for Merry and Pippin Treebeard takes his time showing them around Fangorn and not wanting to involve the Ents in the conflict. However Pippin convinces him to take them near Isengard. There he sees that Saruman has taken to felling the trees at the edge of the forest to fuel his war machines.
Outraged, Treebeard calls forth the Ents to march on Isengard and their true destructive potential is unleashed. They crush orcs underfoot with their thick trunks of legs. They rip the wall that borders Isengard apart and hurl the stones to roll the orcs like bowling pins. All Saruman can do is watch and panic from his tower as the Ents break the damn, flooding Isengard. It’s a truly awesome and unique scene in the movies that shows one of the few great forces in Middle Earth on the good side.
9. “BUT IT IS NOT THIS DAY!”
All of our heroes knew that confronting Sauron on his own doorstep with just their remaining men would be a suicide mission. But they all knew that the only hope for Frodo to reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring was to keep Sauron distracted. Still, when the Black Gates part, and the savage hordes pour forth, the men of the West cannot help but shrink in fear with the Eye of Sauron fixed on them.
Aragorn is ready to lead them into battle. He admits that he feels the very same fear that he sees in their eyes.
“A day may come when the courage of men fails. When we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down. But it is not this day! This day, we fight!”
8. “THERE IS SOME GOOD IN THIS WORLD, MR. FRODO.”
In Two Towers, the climax of the movie plays out simultaneously on several different narrative threads. Gandalf and the Rohirrim save the defenders of Helm’s Deep. Treebeard, Merry and Pippin end the treachery of Isengard. And last of all to be tied up is Frodo and Sam in Osgiliath. Sam snatches an entranced Frodo out of the reach of a Ringwraith, but Frodo draws his sword on Sam’s throat.
Frodo comes to his senses but the realization of what he almost did paralyzes him with despair and doubt. But Sam won’t let Frodo give up. Sam talks about how it’s like they are living through one of the great stories they all heard growing up, except they get to see the horror and misery every day with not end in sight. He realizes that the heroes in those stories kept going and persisted through the darkness, because they were holding on to something.
“What are we holding onto Sam?”
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
7. SAM SAVES FRODO FROM SHELOB
Frodo seems to escape Shelob’s lair and get separated from Gollum, but he’s not out of danger from the great spider yet. The scene were Shelob stalks Frodo from above the small canyon, silently shifting its massive legs and waiting for an opening to pincer him is a brilliantly tense scene. The audience can only watch in horror as Shelob begins to wrap Frodo in her webs.
And then Sam appears on from off screen, clutching Sting and the phial of Galadriel. “Let him go you filth!” After seeing him abandoned by Frodo, watching Sam swoop in to save the day with the lost heirlooms is a rush of fist pumping triumph.
Then the fight with Shelob is just as tense and rewarding. Sam clamors around, frantically swatting away her teeth and legs until he plunges Sting up into Shelob’s stinger, sending the beast slinking back into its lair to lick its wounds.
6. FRODO DEPARTS MIDDLE EARTH.
In the aftermath of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom, the burden of the Ring and his wound from the Witch King continued to pain him. Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam all accompany Bilbo to the Gray Havens where the Elven Ringbearers and Bilbo were set to depart Middle Earth forever and sail for the Undying Lands.
To see the elderly Bilbo depart for his final rest is well and good, but then Gandalf turns back to the dock and gestures to Frodo to join them.
What makes the scene so heart breaking is that the audience shares in Sam’s surprise and sorrow. It takes its sweet time too, but how could it not? These characters have been friends their whole lives and have been on some of the greatest adventures and greatest perils ever experienced. Howard Shore’s score also vividly captures each of the emotional swells as Frodo embraces each of his friends one last time.
5. BOROMIR’S SACRIFICE
From the moment Boromir is introduced, the audience is meant to be suspicious of him. He repeatedly insists on giving the Ring to Gondor and finally assaults Frodo to try and take the Ring at Amon Hen. When the Uruks ambush the fellowship Boromir seems to have gone missing. The hobbits are scattered, and the main fighters are trying to regroup to find Frodo.
The Uruks are about to overtake Merry and Pippin when Boromir hurls himself into the fray. He sounds his horn over the entire wooded hilltop, bringing the entire raiding party down on top of him. None of the Uruks can touch him until their leader Lurtz appears with his bow. Boromir is winded when one arrow sprouts from his chest, but he keeps fighting. Even with two in him, he can still fend off his attackers. After the third, he slumps to his knees, unable to prevent the Uruks from abducting Merry and Pippin.
4. “YOU SHALL BE THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.”
The Council of Elrond was a moment where we really got to see the tension and mistrust that had built up among the free peoples of Middle Earth. Dwarfs and Elves and Men each had their own short sighted concerns and schemes in mind with the revelation that the One Ring had been found. Before long all the council guests are on their feet and shouting over each other. Even Gandalf doesn’t remain calm and seated.
Frodo can see the reflection of the bickering men in the Ring. He steps forward. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor.”
One by one each of the members of the fellowship step forward and pledge their service to Frodo. Aragorn with his sword, Legolas with his bow and Gimli with his axe. And of course Frodo’s kin couldn’t bear to sit out such a great adventure. It’s the first time we hear the fellowship’s theme in the trilogy when Elrond looks over the assembled heroes and declares, “You shall be the fellowship of the Ring.”
3. THE CHARGE OF THE ROHIRRIM AT MINAS TIRITH
The forces of Mordor had breached Minas Tirith and were flooding the streets as the defenders of Gondor fought against savage hordes and the terror of the Ringwraiths. The city had seemed all but lost when the horns of Rohan sounded over the hills. Thousands of riders appeared over the horizon, but even their formidable host was cowed by the vast stretch of orcs, trolls and siege machines, covering the plains of Gondor like a blight.
King Theoden had no qualms about their chances any more. He rode past his men clattering his sword against their spears with cries of “Death! Death! Death!” With Eowyn and Pippin hidden among the ranks, the Rohirrim charged forth to Gondors aid. The orcs’ arrows harried them, but nothing could stop the orcs from crumbling like sand under a tide when the wave of riders reached them.
2. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
The fellowship managed to survive the encounter with the troll in Balin’s tomb but they soon discovered that the mines were home to far older, far more powerful monsters. Even the hordes of goblins that surround them scurry in terror as the Balrog approaches. Until the fellowship actually reaches the bridge of Khazad-dûm, all we hear of the Balrog is a bellowing roar, as if the gates of hell themselves were creaking open.
Shadow and flame appears to chase the fellowship as they cross the narrow bridge. Gandalf brings up the rear, calling upon his deepest magic to ensure that the demon cannot pass. It’s a spectacular battle of mythical powers on a level we rarely get to see in the films, culminating in one of the most famous lines in recent cinema.
1. GOLLUM AND FRODO STRUGGLE OVER THE CRACK OF DOOM
The climax of the Lord of the Rings trilogy does not disappoint. With the battle at the black gate and Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the Crack of Doom, the fate of every character we’ve come to care for and root for in this great journey rests on the outcome of this moment.
Right from the moment Frodo succumbs and puts on the Ring, the audience is sent on a roller coaster of nerve-wracking pushes and pulls. Once Gollum bites Frodo’s ring finger off, it seems all is lost. But Frodo musters the strength for one final scuffle, one final round against the corruption and death wrought by the Ring.
One of the most genius parts about this sequence is that even after Gollum falls into the lava with the Ring, the tension stays jacked up as we wait to see whether or not Frodo will hang on to Sam. And the music finally lets us cheer from the most personal triumphs to the big picture triumphs. First Frodo let’s Sam rescue him one last time, then the Ring melts, then the heroes at the Black Gate are spared, then Barad-dûr collapses. Every arc in the trilogy climaxes with this multilayered, against-all-odds payoff.
Were there other moments in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy that you thought were just as great? Let us know in the comments!