A year ago today, over on Facebook, I was in the middle of a series of posts celebrating Orctober — pictures coupled with fun facts on the role of Orcs in pop culture. Orctober 15th was given over to the finest example of Orcs on film that were never actually meant to be Orcs: the characters Akhun and Remo from the otherwise ill-conceived monstrosity known as “Conan the Barbarian (2011)”. That film is ultimately forgettable save for two points: Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Conan of Cimmeria, and the villainous non-orc Orcs.
The good Professor did not like Orcs; they were a necessary evil to his vast creation. He did not delve into their language or give them more than a poorly-defined, ever-changing creation myth. He thought about them, wrote about them in his letters and notes, but never had the same connection with them as he had with Elves and Hobbits. And, in the nearly half-a-million words that comprise The Lord of the Rings, only two Orcs are described in anything more than cursory detail.
The first is in The Fellowship of the Ring, in the chapter titled “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”, where we very briefly glimpse a “huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high . . . His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red”. The other is Shagrat, captain of the tower of Cirith Ungol, from “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” in The Return of the King. Tolkien describes him as “a large Orc with long arms that, as he ran, reached the ground” and that his “evil face” was “scored as if by rending claws and smeared with blood; slaver dripped from its protruding fangs; the mouth snarled like an animal”.
Even in the most Orc-centered chapter of the trilogy, “The Uruk-Hai” from The Two Towers, the descriptions are sparse: Uglúk, the chief of the Uruk-hai of Isengard, is “a large black Orc”, while Grishnákh of Mordor is “a short crooked-legged creature, very broad with long arms”; we are told of yellowed fangs and hairy ears, slanted eyes and clawlike hands, crooked legs and bowed backs.
Outside the trilogy, in Tolkien’s letter to Forrest J. Ackerman (letter 210) we’re given a succinct picture of the Orc: “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”
Which is why, in my opinion, the two characters from Conan 2011 stand as the best version of the Orc we’ve yet to see on the big screen: for the most part, they nail this description (followed very closely by LotR-movie-Gorbag, below,aptly played by Stephen Ure).