At 82, Sir Ian McKellen’s timeless screen heritage was forged in four words: you will not pass.
In the realm of fantasy and science fiction, the association of an actor with a popular character has an intimidating permanence. Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter, Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is often celebrated, and despite her cultural downfall, Emilia Clarke will be seen as Daenerys for years, if not decades, to come.
the Lord of the Rings is perhaps the best example: with a wealth of unreal performances, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is indelible; Elijah Wood and Sean Astin hold our hearts forever like Frodo and Sam; I always open double doors like Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn; and McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray still carries the weight of one of cinema’s most mind-boggling moments.
After the holder Fellowship of the Ring are forced inside the Mines of Moria, they are soon pursued by the fiery Balrog. As they cross the Khazad-Dum Bridge, with Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and others safe on the other side, a wizard stands in the darkness between Durin’s Bane and Middle-earth.
“You can’t pass,” Gandalf warns. “I am a servant of the secret fire, bearer of the flame of Anor. Black fire will not serve you, flame of Udûn.
As the Balrog swings his flaming sword into Gandalf’s, his power falls short of the wizard’s light. Frodo watches, frightened, as Aragorn’s eyes foretell inevitable fate.
“Return to the shadows,” said Gandalf, facing a crackle from the Balrog’s wrathful whip, before proclaiming, “You shall not pass!” With a snap of the staff, a bridge collapsed, a sniffling beast thrown into the depths of darkness, only to pull the wizard with it. ‘Fly poor fools.’
I just spent the last 20 minutes reviewing this scene. Jackson is no shortage of wonder in his trilogy, from the tranquil shrine of Hobbiton, to the tactical weight of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, to Sam’s Ultimate Brotherhood on Mount Doom. Gandalf’s opposition to the Balrog is the only scene to rule them all.
In bringing a book to life, a filmmaker must fight against the limits of the medium against the limitless imagination of readers – but here, JRR Tolkien’s page jump to Jackson’s screen is not conditional. It’s epic, majestic and absolutely unforgettable; a brief but timeless confrontation set in history with the euphoric power of just four words.