Amazing what you can stumble across rummaging around on the Web, isn’t it? Take, for example, what happens when you shove the word ‘squash’ into Google. As well as links to information about the racket sport we all know and love, it tends to throw up all sorts of pointers to cookery, the policing of public demonstrations and the repression of popular uprisings. Although not necessarily in that order, or indeed disorder.
But when you inadvertently find yourself straying into the imaginary realm of elves, orcs and hobbits, well that’s another thing entirely. Which just goes to show that internet search engines and squash know no boundaries.
The Lord Of The Rings
In 2003, Director Peter Jackson’s film, ‘The Return of the King’ won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film was the third of a trilogy based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an epic fantasy novel written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J.R.R.Tolkien.
The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who in an earlier age created the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. The One Ring is Sauron’s ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth, complete with elves, orcs, hobbits etc.
The story follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, and his comrades in his quest to destroy the One Ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom in the Land of Mordor where Sauron’s power holds sway. A rather nasty place by the sound of it and certainly not a tourist destination.
Along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘The Return of the King’ was filmed in New Zealand, home to a thriving squash community with a distinguished history (think Susan Devoy and Ross Norman), as well as to plenty of conveniently-located squash courts.
A Squash Court in Queenstown
At the time of filming scenes on location for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, one such squash court proved particularly useful to Peter Jackson and his crew. Located in the resort town of Queenstown on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it was used to film a scene in which Frodo, accompanied by his trusty gardener Sam Gamgee and their less than trustworthy guide Gollum climb the secret stairway of Cirith Ungol into Mordor as Sauron’s forces march out to battle far below.
Jackson’s decision to film the scene was triggered by the suspension of outside filming in the Queenstown area due to bad weather, the town itself being hit by extensive flooding. The Cirith Ungol stair ledge was quickly built on a squash court located in a Queenstown hotel.
Actors Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) both baulked at having to perform such a pivotal scene without any preparation. At the time, Andy Serkis had not yet been cast in the role of Gollum, so the part was played by a stand-in member the crew. Filming went ahead, with Astin’s scenes being successfully completed.
The following day, however, the sun re-appeared, the floods abated and exterior filming was resumed. The intent was always to return to the squash court (where the set remained standing) to film Elijah Wood’s scenes but, for the next five weeks, there was no rain to interrupt exterior filming. The crew moved on to a new outdoor location with Wood finally returning to do his part of the Cirith Ungol scene almost year later.
During the whole of the intervening period, the squash court still contained the film set, the hotel presumably having agreed an amount of compensation greater than the income it could have earned from a year’s worth of court fees. Action shots involving all three characters in the scene were the last to be shot before the set was finally dismantled in late 2000.
So the next time you watch ‘The Return of the King’, spare a thought for the squash lovers of Queenstown whose playing options were reduced for over a year.
And try to imagine what it might have been like to play squash in Mordor.
Postscript: Walking Into Mordor
If you head over to Google Maps and ask for walking directions from “The Shire”(the home of Frodo of Sam) to “Mordor”, this is what you’ll get…
But, Queenstown? Well that’s another thing entirely. I’ve been there myself and had absolutely no problem with the Dark Lord Sauron. But I wouldn’t go via the Cirith Ungol route if I were you.