|The Black Rider - as depicted by artist, John Howe.|
So, let's begin. After Sam and Frodo literally bump into Merry and Pippin and fall down a hillside onto a main road, Frodo remembers Gandalf's warning to stay off them. This is then followed by Frodo getting a spooky and ominous feeling from the road ahead, and he commands his friends to get off the road - quick!
As all four hobbits jump down under some very large tree roots, Frodo sits and waits anxiously whilst the other three compare vegetables and giggle (they haven't noticed their friend's anxiousness).
As if out of thin air (this could be a production error but I'm going to assume it was intended), a black horse mounted by a black rider appears from the left side of the tree and stands directly above our hobbits. The gentle tweeting of birds fades into silence as the hooves of the ominous-looking horse and it's master come into view.
Sam, Merry, & Pippin stop joking around once the hooves alert them to the presence of the other, and they sit silently and as nervously as Frodo.
The camera pans upwards - showing how the rider is shrouded in black materials, hooded, and without a face. By panning upwards and having the camera at that angle, you see that the hobbits are dwarfed in size but also it would seem, in strength and power. They look helpless and at the mercy of this person. Will it see them?
The camera cuts to a shot of Frodo as he looks back between the gaps in the roots, trying to catch a glimpse of this strange and scary presence that has appeared from nowhere.
We cut to the hooves of the horse. Black fur with nails in its hooves, this horse is no country breed, but from another, more sinister place.
We are shown the horses face - the mouth looks wet and ravaged (weather?) hinting that again it has travelled from far away lands. It's black reins with leather straps and metal buckles are a stark contrast from the wood and warm browns we saw in the Shire. A red eye gleams from under its harness. This is no ordinary horse. But what about its rider?
At this moment we are shown the faces of Sam and Merry - both don't look as nervous or as aware as Frodo, but they are curious, and whatever it is up there, they know that it is best they keep quiet.
Finally, with a loud clunk, the rider dismounts its beast. Like the harness of the horse, the rider has shoes made from metal and designed with sharp, angled lines - giving off a harsh and lethal appearance. The black robes come down as far as the floor.
Frodo's head turns sharply away and faces the front again. He has seen that this thing is not local, but from a dark place. It is also clear that this thing has been drawn to the same spot as the hobbits for a reason. What is he looking for?
The rider is looking for them. In a terrifying moment the rider bends down, hands firmly clutching the roots above the heads of the hobbits - inches away from their discovery. For definite we see that this creature has no face - beneath its hood is dense shadow. Every movement the rider makes sounds a large clunk and clink of metal - a hard, industrial sound.
To emphasise just how close to danger the hobbits are from the rider, the camera shows us a close-up of the rider's hand which is large and covered in a metal glove with sharp edges and spikes. Just below that deadly looking hand is Frodo, looking up in fear.
The rider obviously can't see them, so he tries something else... he tries to sniff them out. Taking in a few big whiffs he tries to catch their scent - or at least the scent of something.
By now the hobbits know that they are whom the rider is after. Even though they can't see him (save Frodo) the rider has an aura of doom and fear which they can feel. The longer the rider is there, the more that nature recoils from it. Even the creepiest of crawlies flee from its presence. A large spider is shown crawling across Merry's shoulder and away from the position of the unwelcome stranger. More insects follow, including centipedes and worms. Sam, Merry, & Pippin all notice nature's reaction to the presence of this unknown but terrifying presence.
The longer the rider lingers, the more its presence is felt. Nature is fleeing but now it seems that something is responding to the rider. Frodo goes into a sort of hypnosis/trance and before he knows it, he has taken the ring out of his pocket and is about to put it on his finger. The one thing Gandalf told him never to do! Has Frodo lost his mind? Is he doing this consciously? Or is he being taken over by some other force?
As soon as the Ring is out of Frodo's pocket - in the open air - we cut to the rider. His head jerks to the left (the direction of the Ring); he senses it. Even the horse has grown agitated. Are they connected to the Ring? Do they feel its presence?
Unusual, trance-like sounds like throbs and wobs and shrills can be heard over the scene - this is the sound of the Ring (I will speak of this in more detail in another post). The Ring is awake and aware that it is close to being found if only it can make the Ringbearer put it on and alert the rider to its location. Frodo puts the Ring closer to his finger, but luckily Sam intervenes. Nudging Frodo (maybe he thinks he feels faint?) he actually awakens our Ringbearer out of the trance.
As soon as Frodo is aware of what he is doing, he snatches the Ring away which throws off the scent of the rider (his head jerks away frustratedly).
The hobbits can't wait under that tree forever and the wait has already gone on for long enough. Using his instinct (and the idea that for some reason this rider is after one of them), Merry throws a bag of vegetables away from the tree. This distracts the rider and drives it away (along with the shrieking sounds of the creature on top of it) from the tree as it looks for where the sound could have come from. He gives up and is gone.
Within seconds of the rider fleeing the scene, our hobbits do their own fleeing as they run down to the bottom of the hill to get away from that dreadful spot. Looking terrified and understanding that they just had a narrow escape, Merry asks a very good question: what was that?
Frodo does not respond. He is too in shock as to what just happened to him under the tree. Gandalf's words concerning the power of the Ring and how it wants to be found start to ring true. Frodo would never have even thought of putting the Ring on when that rider arrived, so why did he do it?
Looking confused but also terrified as the reality of the Ring dawns on him, Frodo looks down at his hand (the camera pans down with it) and opens it to reveal the harmless looking golden band which almost cost him life seconds ago.
Why is this scene so pivotal in the film? Firstly, it shows us the servants of Mordor for the first time. They look completely different to the soft, happy, and friendliness of the Shire, and instead have a dark, sinister, harsh, and merciless appearance. Instead of wood and cotton, you have black shrouds and metal. Furthermore it shows us that indeed Frodo and the Ring are being hunted. We also witness for the first time the incredible danger the Ring poses - Sauron's spirit, cruelty, and power live within it. It wants to reunite with its master and when the Wraiths are near/calling out to it, it responds back.
Gandalf explained this in Bag End but Frodo took it as a simple warning to live by rather than understanding the serious danger he is in. He couldn't fully believe it until he experienced it, but now he has. The Ring is his enemy and what is most terrifying and dangerous is that even if Frodo does all he can to conceal himself and avoid danger, the Ring can control our Ringbearer and push him straight into the path of evil.
This scene is so superbly set-up and directed. You really feel the terror of the hobbits as this unknown with a dooming presence appears, and their fear as they realise it is hunting for someone/something. As I said earlier, this scene gives most horrors a run for their money. It is overlooked as pivotal because it isn't action-packed and has almost no dialogue - but that is where it's brilliance lies! The tension and suspense are built purely from shots of what is actually going on, the little that Frodo can see, and the facial expressions of the hobbits as their anxiety increases and the Black Rider's senses are alerted.
Best of all it introduces us to the evil nature of the Ring - Gandalf's warnings do not do the danger of the quest justice. The Ring is being hunted by servants of Sauron and it will do all it can, including controlling Frodo in the moments where he needs to be completely on his guard, in order to get back to its master, Sauron.