Debating the definitive 'Fellowship'

A new question about The Fellowship of the Ring periodically took over discussion of The Two Towers last week during three days of press conferences in New York: Which is the "definitive" version of the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? The 178-minute theatrical cut? Or the roughly half-hour-longer presentation on the "special extended edition" of the DVD?

Even director Peter Jackson couldn't decide. He initially suggested that the theatrical version did play better in theaters. But then he said the home version pleased neophytes who wanted a more detailed introduction to the characters and acolytes who simply wanted to see more of them. Asked what caused him at first to delete beautiful bits like a procession of Elves passing from Middle-earth, he said, simply, "Nervousness."

The hobbits couldn't agree on the matter, either. Frodo (Elijah Wood) declared that the theatrical movie should rule, and Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) chose the longer DVD version. (The cast may split along lines of who benefits most from increased running time.)

For my money, the "special extended edition" takes the prize for clarity, lyricism and tempo. Eventually, so may the DVD of The Two Towers over its theatrical print. But Peter Jackson has made a movie so rich that it is moving and potent in either medium. And since film history is peppered with grand productions that have contracted and expanded over the years without the director's control, Jackson's intent to hold the movies' running time to about three hours and lengthen the DVDs 30 minutes or so is a step forward.

Take the masterpiece that most clearly prefigures Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen, just reissued on an awe-inspiring two-DVD set from Kino. Lang made his five-hour epic in two huge parts, between 1922 and 1924; over the years, enough bits and pieces dropped away to shrink the running time by almost two hours. The DVD showcases Lang's full version, with 100 minutes never before generally available in the United States.

Like Jackson's work, Lang's is no simple tale of heroism and cowardice, good and evil. Both epics mingle these qualities in combustible mixtures apt to explode at any second.

Lang's first movie, Siegfried, like Jackson's Fellowship, is the more stately and dreamy of the two, as Lang's young warrior hero slays a dragon, showers in its blood and becomes invincible - except for the spot hidden by a falling linden leaf. Siegfried swiftly becomes legendary for killing the fire-breathing serpent and for gaining the treasure of the Nibelung clan and turning its rulers into vassals. He woos Kriemhild, the sister of a king ensconced in the wondrous city of Worms -- but that king, Gunther, allows him to marry her only if Siegfried helps him take the hand of Brunhild, the Amazon-like ruler of Iceland.

The mood turns increasingly tense, dark, tormenting. Siegfried is assassinated, and in Kriemhild's Revenge his wife becomes an obsessed banshee. She remarries, to King Etzel of the Huns (based on Attila), and prepares reprisals. The climax of Kriemhild's Revenge, like that of The Two Towers, is a mammoth siege. What's extraordinary about The Lord of the Rings and Die Nibelungen is the way their passionate imagery creates an age of fable caught between chivalry and barbarism, and encompasses a transcendent view of heaven and hell on earth. They're rare fantasy epics in which the content is as gripping as the outrageous spectacle.