One Ring to Rue Them All

By James Ryan

John Lennon wanted to play the grasping, thieving creature Gollum in a 1960s Beatles version of the Lord of the Rings, New Zealand movie director Peter Jackson told Wellington's Evening Post newspaper.

Jackson, whose own version of the first book in the fantasy trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring won four Oscars this week, told the newspaper that the Beatles plan fell flat when author JRR Tolkien rejected the plan.

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who was to play the hero Frodo in the movie, told Jackson about the plans at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, the Post reported.

"It was something John was driving and JRR Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn't like the idea of the Beatles doing it, so he killed it," Jackson told the newspaper.

George Harrison was to play the wise wizard Gandalf who advises the hobbit Frodo in his quest to destroy the evil golden ring at the centre of the epic tale of good versus evil, one of the most popular books of the 20th century.

Ringo Starr was to play Frodo's devoted sidekick Sam, while Lennon would take the part of the hobbit-like creature that tracks the heroes throughout the story, trying to get his hands on the powerful ring.


–from “Beatles Planned To Do 'Lord of the Rings' Film”, Australian Broadcasting Company News, 3-29-02

*** 

Many things I command the Mirror to reveal… and to some I can show what they desire to see.  But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things we wish to behold.

-Galadriel, from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J. R. R. Tolkien

***

“I say,” said the young man to the older gent trying to hide at the back of the booth at the White Pony pub, “you’re Paul McCartney, aren’t you?”

The older gent, a hint of a twinkle in his eyes despite the accumulated years hanging on his face, gave a look of panic at his name being spoken aloud.  As he introduced himself to the ex-Beatle, the younger man wasn’t sure if the fact that the pub didn’t react to Mr, McCartney’s name being said brought to the elder man’s face an expression of relief, disappointment or both.

“It’s okay,” the younger man said quickly as he took a seat at the other side of the table.  “I didn’t know if you preferred stout or bitter,” he said, as he had a pint of each.  “With me, either will do, so I can take the other.”

Paul McCartney considered the offering and went with the stout.  Half the pint was gone faster than a heartbeat, before he said to his benefactor, “That was right kind of you, mate.  Don’t get stood for too many rounds these days.”

“All said, I can see why,” said the younger man.  “You’re right hard to find, you know.  Now don’t worry,” he quickly added, “I’m not after you on behalf of any creditors or such.  I admit I’ve been looking for you, but I’ve no malice toward you.”

“Have to admit, if you had been after me, getting me defenses down with a pint was a good way to trap me.”

“And how many servers would actually do something that underhanded?”

“You’ve never been in debt, have you?”

“All the same,” said the younger man, “that’s not why I’m here.”

“Are you an aging music fan, then?  Do you still remember the Beatles all these years later?”

“Actually, I’m here about that last movie you did-“

Paul held up his hand.  “If you say The Lord of the Rings, so help me mate, I’ll thrash you one!”

“But I liked it!” the younger man blurted out.

The surprise in Paul’s face exploded.  “You’re the first bloke who’s told me that without fishing for a compliment or a handout.  You’re not, are you?”

“No, no I’m not.  I mean, to be honest, it wasn’t a perfect film, but it was good.”

Paul looked relaxed, really relaxed, for the first time after that bit of information was aired.  “S’truth, I thought that damned thing would kill me in the end.”

“If it’s all right, I’d like to talk to you about it.”

“What, that horrible thing?  We did two other movies, you know.”

“Yes, I saw both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!,” said the younger man, “and they were both good films.  But the one I want to talk to you about is Lord of the Rings.”

Paul gave a stern, cutting look into the other man’s eyes.  “You’re not from the press, are you?”

“I assure you, Mr. McCartney, that I am not here from any news organization.  Geoff Baker at NEMS would not have suggested I look for you here in Dublin if he thought I was going to do some sleazy piece about the Beatles’ last film.”

Paul kept looking him over sharply, never taking his eyes off of him even as he drained the rest of the stout. 

“Is there anything I can do to prove my credentials?” the younger man asked Paul.

“Well, you could stand me for a bottle of whiskey.”

***

It was only when the bottle came within a hair’s breadth of being dry that Paul McCartney, late of the Beatles, began the Epic of the Ring.

“I remember the last weekend we were all happy with each other, August of ‘67” he said.  “We’d gone to Bangor to stay with a holy man, the Mahareshi.  He was very patient, and the four of us were trying to get into what he was saying.  I think George and John got the most out of it, and Ritchie and I were following along a little behind, you see, like kids who were in danger of being left a form back.  But I remember that weekend very well, because it was the last time the four of us were able to just stay in one room without a lot of tension between us.

“It’d been a long weekend, and when we came back Tuesday we were met at the station by Brian.  Now Brian-“

“Brian Epstein?” asked the younger man.

“Right, yes.  Brian was compulsive about working, and for some time I think he was feeling very out of sorts with the way we’d been doing things.  We didn’t want to tour, we didn’t know what we’d wanted, but before we went off to Wales, I’d said something to him about The Lord Of The Rings.  I don’t really remember why, I think I was just talking about things to think about.  I know Brian was discussing how we were under contract for a third movie, and maybe it came up in that, or maybe it was just something I was reading and I wanted to suggest a book to him.

“So while we’re off getting enlightenment, something happened to Bri, and he really got his focus with it.  I heard him say later he read it all in one sitting that Saturday, and then actually went to Oxford to visit the author.  And after all that work he did, there he was at the platform, holding signed letters of agreement for making the film.”

“Which, supposedly, someone else signed, wasn’t it?” asked the younger man.

Paul sighed as he helped himself to the last of the whiskey.  While his host secretly counted how many punt he had on him as Paul signaled for another bottle, Paul continued, “I don’t know all about that.  When the whole thing came out about Tolkien’s sons going on about their father being daft that weekend Brian came round, after the poor man died, I mean, I think they were trying to build up his legacy despite us.  Nasty thing, re-telling the story after the fact to make your side look better, eh what?”

“Didn’t mean to interrupt; you were saying about doing the film.”

“Well, we didn’t know what to say.  I mean, on the one hand we’d just finished our last album.  ‘Pepper’ was a big accomplishment for us, and we didn’t know what we really wanted to do after that, and here’s Brian with a film.  I just looked at him there at the station, and it was like the old Brian again.  He hadn’t looked so hale or focused in over a year, and the thought of him being disappointed if we’d said no…I couldn’t do that to him.

“Now, it took me a little convincing with other three after that.  John had done another film after Help! and he wasn’t too keen on it, and George didn’t care much for them.  I’d heard George won’t even be on the same side of the street if there’s a cinema there now, he’s so against all films.”

“But Ringo was up for it?”

Paul started another glass of scotch.  “Ritchie, now.  Won’t even use the name ‘Ringo’ anymore, don’t you know, last I heard?  Now, he was game for it, so I didn’t need to twist his arm as much.  But it was just seeing Brian having something to do, I used that in talking about it, and that more than anything else kept us on it.

“So by September of that year, in ’67, we started to really get into it.  We got together to look at ideas, figure out how we’d shoot it.  I think we were going into this thinking it’d be a lot easier than it ended up, because when we’d done other movies it was just, ‘Right, show up here for a few hours, break for tea,’ that sort of thing.  But this was something else.”

“How so?”  asked the younger man, as he signaled the barman for another bitter.

“Well, for one, we’d agreed I’d be doing Frodo, but it was hard to decide just how I’d be doing Frodo.  It’s one thing to say, ‘Okay, I’m a hobbit,’ but how do you film a regular bloke as a hobbit?  It was a technical question we didn’t really have an answer for, and maybe we should have taken that as a sign that things were against us.  But I think Brian was very into it, handling a lot of the business, and John started to really get into the whole thing.  He’d been keen on doing Gollum, I think because it was the farthest he could go from being a Beatle in public without having to knack someone off.  Though you ask around, some say he should have gone to the Old Bailey for pushing us to do the movie.”

“But I thought you had to convince him,” the younger man said.

Paul seemed to freeze in place for a few seconds.  “Right, well.  So we were all into doing this film, and we just got into it more and more.  It seemed the harder it got, the more Brian tried to make it work, and the more Brian put himself into it, the more we wanted it to work.  I wasn’t about to let Brian down.

“It was at this time that Dick Lester and Marc Behm were working with us, and they did a lot of good work getting the thing together.  I mean, a lot of Dick’s directing notes were very helpful for everyone who came later, but after six intense weeks of meetings he said, ‘Right, I’m gone,’ and we were without the man we’d trusted behind the camera.

“That was the first of the big disagreements right there.  George wanted to pack it in, but John and I wanted to keep going.  Trouble was, John and I had different ideas about who to go with.  I wanted someone grand, like Dickie Attenborough, because I saw this film like a big epic.  I think at times, we did get something like that, and I think when I would say, 'You know, Dick Lester had this idea for this scene,' it held up a bit there.”

“Yes, especially in the battle scenes,” said the young man.

“But of course, even though we were the Beatles we couldn’t make the top shelf people be willing to do this.  I think it was trying to get something like this done with all the technical things and a real director at the same time.  I mean, if there’d been a serious director shown this, they’d probably say, ‘Well, isn’t this for some hack from Hammer to do?’ or some such, and that’d be the last of it for them.  I suggested a few blokes for it, and I even tried to get behind the camera meself for a bit, but there would be none of that.  So when my picks didn’t come through, John’s idea for someone a little more edgy and artsy took hold.”

“And that’s how Ken Russell got the job.”

“Right,” continued Paul.  “John remembered his stuff he did for the telly about Elgar and all those artists for Monitor, and he was available then, so he came right on.  And at the time, he was smashing when we met him.  Even George started paying attention more as Ken went off with it.

“And Ken really did add a lot of energy to the whole thing.  I’d ask a lot about what was going to go on, and Ken, he was right there with all the answers.  And when it came time to getting everything else together, well, he was sharp.  You want to know something?”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I think Ken knew us better than we did ourselves.  That’s why when it came time to do the film, he went with Malcolm McDowell for the role of Aragorn.  I think it was his way of keeping us focused, by putting someone that intense into the mix to balance out everything else.”

“Whatever happened to him?” asked the younger man.  “He just disappeared after the movie came out.”

“He was lucky,” Paul said as he drained his glass.  He started another, and said, “He didn’t have to live with it the way we did.  It was a curse on us, like Gandalf had cast a big whammy on us all for being in it.”

“You mean Sauron, then?”

“Sauron, Gandalf, Nixon, Mao, whoever,” Paul drained his glass quickly.

“I suppose you want to stop here-“ the younger man started to say.

“Ah bloody ‘ell, I’ve just started.  There were lots of things that happened then, and it’s best you hear my side of it.  Don’t let them all color it for you.”

“Let who all?”

“The other blokes from the studios.  They must have ‘ad their own take on it, then.”

“I hadn’t spoken with anyone else,” said the younger man, trying to stay calm in the face of the seething bitterness he was seeing in Paul’s face.  “As I said, I came straight here from NEMS.”

He could watch Paul’s sails start flapping a little looser when McCartney realized that there wasn’t another version of the film’s history to contend with.  “Right.  Sorry, it’s been a while for me.  Mustn’t make your trip all the way here to Ireland so miserable.  Can tell by your accent, you’re from Sydney, right?”

“Wellington, actually.”

“Ah, right, yes.  Well, the film.  When we finally did shoot it, it was an incredible strain.  We were trying to do something really complicated, and at the same time doing other things.  We’d jet to Spain and Ireland and Iceland for shooting, because Ken wanted to use natural looking places that could pass for Middle Earth, and there were a lot of things shot at Pinewood, right across from where the Bond films were done.  And there was that effort to try and do music too.  I know John had a lot of ideas for all those songs, and I was trying to do the score, and we were also doing tunes for an actual Beatles album that we just couldn’t get together.  We did a few singles we released, ‘Hello Goodbye’ and ‘I Am the Walrus,’ and we’d work on them on the plane or train back to the city. 

“It was madness, looking back on it.  I mean, just the sheer strain of this big movie we believed in that just seemed like a challenge, a quest really, and it cost us like it did in the film.  I mean, you must remember the stories ‘bout  how John got into a fight with Peter Sellers over Eleanor Bron.  As though his marriage to Cyn wasn’t in enough trouble to begin with, to have the two of them end up together during the film.  I thought she made a great Arwen, by the way.”

“Yes,” the younger man agreed, “but Sellers’ approach to Saruman left me cold.”

“Well, some of it was off, like you said.  Mind you, I thought Roy Kinnear’s Pippin was smashing, and both Patrick McGoohan’s Theoden and Shirley Eaton’s Galadriel were tops, but I myself wasn’t too keen on what Roger Daltrey did as Legolas.”

“So let me ask-“

“No,” Paul said with a sigh, “it’s not true.  Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were not any of the dark riders, so no more of that, now.”

“Oh.”

“Right.  Well, as bad as the stuff that did get into the papers afterwards were, what didn’t get reported was what the strain of making the film did to us.  John and I, I don’t know if it was the roles we were in, and his letting Gollum get the better of him, but it got nastier and grottier with every passing day.  By the time we did that last scene, we were shooting it at the edge of this actual volcano in Iceland, I thought he was going to push me in.  And considering what happened after when we showed the film, maybe he should have.”

“I thought some of what was said about the film in the press was very cruel.”

“I think they were after us, the press.  We’d been so big so long, and here we were with a disaster bigger than anything anyone’d seen before.  And it didn’t help that there were a lot of people out there that were all for letting us twist in the wind like that.  I think we might have disappointed a few people with the second version of the film, and the bitterness in that just got to us.”

“You mean the non-musical version,” said the young man.

“Right.  I mean, the first version we did which had the score I’d done, because I wanted to try my hand at that again after that film I did, The Family Way, the score John said a few nasty things about later.  Of course, at the time he didn’t give me much mind as he was doing lots of songs for the film, and I thought, ‘Well, I do the score, he can take a bit more of the songs on,’ and he didn’t complain then about it.”

The younger man just nodded, not knowing how to respond to the claim as he saw the hardening in Paul’s eyes.

Paul continued,  “Now, there were some good songs there, like ‘Glass Onion,’ and ‘Sauron,’ which was better than the original version.  He actually called it ‘Sexy Sauron.’”

“I never imagined Sauron to be sexy.”

“Well, he first played it to us in a demo, the lyrics were like, ‘Sexy Sauron, look what you’ve done, you’ve made a fool of everyone,’ which was a big departure from the words he did come up with finally.  And that song George did, ‘The Quest,’ was originally a lot more Eastern.  The original idea he had for it, see, he called it ‘The Inner Light,’ and he had these Indian instruments in mind, but because of trying to keep it in Middle Earth he had to use these medieval pipes and strings.  I think the songs we did for the film, if it hadn’t been for the movie, might have been liked better by everyone.”

“So when Russell re-released the film without any of your music, he thought he was doing you a favor.”

Paul was nearly spitting when as he replied, “That flaming bastard went behind everyone’s back to sneak in prints of the film around the world without the music, and the fucking distributor were happy because it was an hour shorter without the songs.  I was angry enough he’d taken the musical numbers out, but when I heard he’d gone to this bloke in California who’d done television themes to re-do the score, I was livid.”

“You didn’t care for the new score John Williams did, then?”

“It was bloody awful!  All these loud noises in all the spots, like he’d written it for strings and cannons!”

“And it wasn’t any better received,” said the young man.

“Well, the critics hated the first film because we’d done something different with our music and image and no one was ready for that one, and then they hated the second one even more because they missed the music thinking we couldn’t do a straight film.  But by then it all got very nasty, because we were suing Russell for redoing the film on us without our say so, while the producers were losing so much money they tried to make it seem like it was our fault the whole movie was a mess, and the whole experience with the film made us hate each other badly.  Brian was spending a lot of time during and after that, taking messages back and forth between us because we weren’t on speaking terms then.  And then when George released that solo album that was such a slap at us, that was the end of the Beatles right there.”

“It must have hurt that there were a lot of music critics that called ‘Not Guilty’ a classic.”

“Well,” said Paul, first with a shake of the head before he said, “truth to tell, it was a good album.  But some of those songs he had, like ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and ‘Piggies’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ I took it personally.  John and I both did, but it since we didn’t speak about this to each other until the Eighties, we didn’t know we both felt hurt by him.”

“So after George’s record, that made you stop recording together?”

“We were so caught up in the mess of it.  We put the producers in the dock for breach of agreement, and they tried to sue us back claiming we’d done a bad job so we owed them.  And then the author sent his solicitors after us for doing the film, and by then we were even filing suit against each other, first over film profits because the studios said John got more than I did or I got more than John, and at the end of eighteen months, it became clear that whoever got the profits it certainly wasn’t us.  A bloody sodding mess, all that.”

“It’s a shame that the Beatles had to break up over the movie,” said the young man.

“I think we might have only gotten another album out of us, maybe, if it weren’t for the lawsuits and bad blood.  We might have packed it all in without it, who knows?  By then John was sick of being a Beatle, so when he didn’t have to go to Abbey Road he went off to find himself without us.  I think he did well with that commune he founded in Mexico with Eleanor; when I saw him there in ’86, he was very happy.  It did him good, it agreed with him, good for his health and all.”

“But you were especially bitter about George, then?”

“Well, it was a bit of a shock having George go off on us like that.  All this time he’d had these songs in him, and if he’d just asked we’d have had them all on the records, but it was so painful, what he sang at that time.  I think it might have been the rumor that set us off, that he’d had such a good time recording with Eric Clapton and Brian Jones and Mitch Mitchell that he was forming an actual group with them and touring, that really set me off.  It was all rubbish, but with all the Rings mess, how was I to see it as that?”

“So do you think it’s George’s solo career that kept the Beatles apart?”  asked the young man.

“That a little, but more so I think it’s the Curse of the Ring.  I said I spoke to John in ’86, when I went to Mexico to see him, where he’d given up on it all, and he thought it might have been getting involved in that whole Middle Earth thing that did us in.  Then again, people were blaming us being in that movie for Richard Nixon getting elected in ’68, and then again that for McGovern getting elected in ’72.  And poor Ritchie, he was never the same, morose and bitter right up to the end.  Blamed the film for the cancer that he got and fought off five years ago in ’93, the same year of the second Korean war, which was also blamed on the movie.  Japan going communist, the American banking meltdown, Russia inviting the czar back, all of these disasters at the end of the century, someone always blames us doing the Tolkien movie, but I think a lot of the folks doing it they do so as a punch line.”  Paul took a long draw from the whiskey glass and added,  “Maybe George going into the record business and buying EMI…now that we could actually blame on the movie.”

“I take it you don’t talk much with George.”

“With all them young girl-women he’s releasing on the world on his label, like Courtney and Shakira and Victoria and the Olsens, when’s he got time for a bitter ex-mate?  Not like he goes to Mexico to look for John.  I’d heard in the papers he didn’t even go to Jamaica for Brian’s funeral last month.  Ah, Brian,” Paul sighed, “at least he did well out of all of us.  All the business end, seeing to all four of our needs, even George’s until George ended business with NEMS, all while Brian was involved in all those other groups of his like the Jokers’ Wild and Black Sabbath.”

There was a long silence as Paul’s focus started to sharpen on the man he’d been conversing with.

“So tell me,” Paul asked, “just what is it you want with the movie, anyhow?  You’re not here to laugh at me for it, are ya?”

“Actually, I was curious.  I’d gone to NEMS as they still had rights to the film.”

“Damned right.  We beat the studios and the Tolkiens in the end,” said Paul as he raised his glass.   “Vindicated that we were in the right all along, and all it cost us was me career.”

“Well, I did want to speak with you about that.  You see… I want to remake the movie.”

Paul’s hollow loud laugh chilled the young man.  “Do you, now?  You want to make a film of it, now?  After all I told you, how J. R. Fucking R. Tolkien killed the Beatles, you want to risk that?”

“I think I can do it,” the younger man said, bolder.  “I think the technology’s a lot better than it was back then, that I could get the film done right.  I’m still talking with both NEMS and the Tolkien estate, but the family and the company both seem willing to entertain it.”

“So what makes you come find me ‘ere, eh?  A washed-up bitter old rock star whose reputation was smashed by a bad movie?”  Paul took another drink and said, “Should have disappeared into Mexico like John, I should.”

The younger man moved in closer and said in a low voice, “I can’t think of anyone better to score the new version.”

Paul stared at him with eyes wider than Gollum’s.

The younger man continued, “Your music, the original score, you understood the story well.  I could tell that, when I saw a copy of the original version of the film back in New Zealand a few years ago.  There couldn’t be anyone else to do it.  Most scores for films these days, it’s just going down to the record shop and putting someone else’s music on the soundtrack.  No one really thinks about what’s going on up on the screen, but you did.”

Paul still seemed shocked, but he did put down the whiskey glass.  “It’s been so long,” he finally said.  “When things were getting rough and me funds were tied in litigation, I came here for holiday, and Ireland was so cheep I stayed.  It’s been a while since I’d tried me hand at it.”

“Please, Paul, I think you’re the only one who’s up to the job.  Don’t let the past get in your way.  Let’s take a bad film and make it better.”

Paul gave his host a smile.  “You make a hell of pitch, Mr. Jackson.”

“Please, call me Peter.”

Copyright 2003, James Ryan

About the Author

James Ryan isn't worried at all, really; he's just stocking up the bomb shelter out back because he "is in desperate need of a hobby"....  His work has appeared online at both Rational Magic and Pyramid, and in print in Dragon, Lacunae, the Urbanite, The Dream Zone, the New York Times, and some of the better men's room walls across the state of New York.  His wife Susan and son Jamie just nod and smile when he starts to rant, which, all said, makes things that much easier.

Tell James Ryan what you thought of his story!

Return to Rooftop Sessions Current Issue

Return to Rooftop Sessions Archive