the west zone
You just know when death is coming, because you start remembering your life more than you actually live it.
— Cameron Duncan, Strike Zone
Cameron Duncan was a talented young New Zealand film-maker who was a bit like Peter Jackson in his early days – they shared a penchant for bizarre gory humour and blowing things up. He even played around with special effects, such as a PC-edited “light sabre” sequence and a trick shot of him shaking up some unmentionable chemicals in a bottle, holding it up to his head, at which point it goes off with an almighty bang. He came to Peter Jackson’s attention as an aside to the production of The Lord Of The Rings, and Peter recommended him for a small job, a commercial campaign to encourage people to become organ donors.
It soon emerged that Cameron had been ill with cancer, but was in remission, and was happy to take the job, understanding the personal connection. The cancer returned, and spread, but he was able to complete the job and make another final short film, Strike Zone, in which he played a terminally ill softball coach. The film is remarkable for its visual honesty, with Cameron imagining his character’s death and subsequent funeral. His friends and family were able to use his ideas when his own funeral was held, just two months later.
Cameron became the inspiration for Into The West, the Annie Lennox song that closes The Return Of The King, which is why he and his work has a spot on the extended DVD edition. The title refers to the end of the story, when the last of the Elves sail away to their homeland, taking Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo with them. It is open to interpretation, of course, but it’s not hard to equate “sailing into the West” with a final passing from this life into another, a poetic way of talking about death, like riding into the sunset. Bilbo was old, his life unnaturally prolonged by the Ring that had now been destroyed; Gandalf was also immensely old and worn out from the struggle; the Elves, not being fully of this Earth, showed little regret in leaving, with the exception of Arwen. Frodo had never fully recovered from the wound inflicted early in the Ring saga, when he was stabbed by the Witch King while wearing the Ring; his time had also come, though the movie appears to have glossed over twenty years of his life, somehow.
I’ve only been talking about the ending, but the rest of the film is hardly less shattering. With the release of the Extended DVD version of The Return Of The King, I have finally seen the whole saga; I deliberately didn’t go to see the theatrical release or buy it on DVD, happy to wait for the “proper” version. The story builds tension gradually, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum struggling into Mordor, while its forces closed in on the great city of Minas Tirith. Then the rocks start flying, with some gleefully grotesque shots that follow chunks of masonry all the way from the defensive trebuchets, through the air, onto the heads of a score of Orcs at a time. Anyone scared of spiders can skip over Shelob’s Lair, or course.