Bernard Hill’s Best Moment as Théoden Showed the Human Heart of a King

Bernard Hill’s Best Moment as Théoden Showed the Human Heart of a King

Bernard Hill, who sadly passed away this past weekend, is a part of some of the greatest moments in the Lord of the Rings movies. As Théoden, his lines are endlessly quotable, often memeable, and he is given some of the best work in the trilogy tied to its legendary battles like Helm’s Deep and the charge of the Rohirrim at Minas Tirith. But there’s one scene that perfectly encapsulates what made Hill’s performance so incredible: one with neither sound nor fury, but full of Hill’s humanity.

Shortly after Théoden is roused from being dominated by the will of Saruman and his lackey Grima Wormtounge in The Two Towers, we see him react to the tragic news that his son, Théodred, was killed by orc raiders while Théoden was ensorcelled by Isengard. While the extended edition of the film gave us Théodred’s actual funeral, the original film kept the most important moment of it all in what came after: Gandalf coming across the still-recovering King as he watched over his son’s burial mound.


LOTR The Two Towers – Simbelmynë on the Burial Mounds

Every character in Lord of the Rings, to some extent, speaks with a fantastical, romantic structure to their sentences, just as they did in Tolkien’s original books, but Théoden is especially remembered for his flowery words—in his greatest moments like the legendary speech he gives at Pelennor fields, or as the last of Helm’s Deeps defenders ride out to face the Uruk-Hai. It’s here, in this scene too—“alas that these evil days should be mine… that I should live, to see the last days of my house.” But what always made Hill’s performance shine in these films isn’t just the weight he put into those lyrical words, but the warmth of them. There’s always a risk with such fantastical dialogue that it can come across as stilted, or even cold—dialogue that reads well on the page, but said out loud doesn’t sound like something a person would say. But Hill portrays Théoden in this moment and in countless others with a humanity that gives such emotion to every word: here his tiredness, his grief, his despair for the weight of the world he lives in and his love for his son, lingering in every moment.

But it’s in the plainest line of all—as Théoden reflects on the cruelty of a parent having to bury their child—that he chooses to crumble. There is no great roar, no wail, nothing grand to reflect the great grief he feels. Hill plays the moment, buckling into sobs as he falls to his knees, with a stillness. He’s almost silent—you can barely hear as he gasps for breath between sobs. It falls to Ian McKellan’s Gandalf to pick up the poetry, comforting Théoden with the wise words of the Istari, but Théoden himself? There is no poetic king in this moment, just a man, a father consumed by grief for his fallen son.

For all the layers and airs we often associate with Hill’s performance, it’s this one small moment—one where he barely has to speak—that still reminds us what made Théoden such a compelling character in the first place.

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