15 Strategic Reserves of Unusual Products

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iStock

We’ve all collected something at one time or another, although it’s usually more for novelty’s sake than to ameliorate large-scale humanitarian disasters or to control the market price of, say, souvenir spoons. Other than doomsday preppers, that’s usually the purview of national governments. But while many countries keep stockpiles of the obvious things, like petroleum or gold, you might be surprised to hear what others have been collecting in their federal reserves—and why.

1. THE GLOBAL STRATEGIC MAPLE SYRUP RESERVE

Non-Canadians might think of maple syrup production as a cottage industry, but it’s responsible for thousands of jobs in the Great White North—and whole lot of the nation’s revenue. The Canadian province of Quebec is responsible for 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and the stuff’s not cheap—a 600-pound barrel of grade-A syrup trades at $1650 USD, more than 10 times the price of crude oil. Add to this the fact that maple trees are notoriously fickle about the weather—they require both cold nights and mildly warm days to cause sap to flow, which means that a sudden change in the weather can cause disaster—and it’s a situation that could potentially cost Canada beaucoup bucks. So, since 2000, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers has been building entire warehouses of extra maple syrup near Quebec City, to brace the country for a sudden syrup dearth. The Federation also seeks to push the alleged health benefits of maple syrup to its foreign consumers, arguing on the platform that it’s better for you than white sugar.

The stockpile that was created to protect the province’s revenue was robbed in 2012, following a great syrup surplus the previous year. Thieves who weren't part of the Federation but had access to the warehouse siphoned syrup from barrels, making off with 60 percent of the stockpile—6 million pounds—which worked out to over $18 million CDN in syrup. The thieves were later arrested, but only a quarter of the syrup was recovered.

2. THE SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED TRUST

A frozen, far-flung possession of Norway with a mere 2600 residents, the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard doesn’t have a whole lot going on—but its low population density (just 0.10 of a person per square mile) and its location, inside the Arctic Circle just north of the Scandinavian peninsula, make it the perfect place to hide your stash.

Starting in 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank has been squirreling away frozen seeds inside an old coal mine, and in 2006, Norway began construction of a new facility 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain to protect against the loss of certain plant life in the event of a global catastrophe. The island's permafrost will keep the seeds frozen in the event of an electrical failure, its high elevation is expected to keep the seeds safe and dry if the polar ice caps should melt, and there's a lack of tectonic activity. After many years of duplicating seeds from the Southern African Development Community, which also keeps a vast seed collection, the NGB merged its seeds with the SADCs, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008. The vault contains approximately 865,000 different agricultural seed samples, with the capacity to hold 4.5 million.

3. THE PROTECTING ICE MEMORY PROJECT

Did you know that glaciers contain data? Scientists do, which is why, deep within a snow cave in Antarctica, a group of them are slowly building a library of ice in an effort to head off global warming before the glaciers melt completely. The Protecting Ice Memory project was launched in August 2016 by a team of glaciologists and engineers from France, Italy, Russia, and the U.S. The idea is to get as many samples from as many mountain glaciers as possible worldwide, catalogue the info found within, and ship the samples to their icy database at the bottom of the world.

The information contained within the 426-foot-long ice cores includes historical data points on gaseous concentration, pollution, and long-term temperature changes, among other things. This project has only just begun, and it sounds like it could be slow-going—the three ice cores extracted from Col du Dôme in France aren’t even in Antarctica yet, and the first one won’t be analyzed until 2019, with the other two slated for sometime in 2020.

4. THE NATIONAL RAISIN RESERVE

Most stockpiles are created to protect against a shortage of the thing that’s being stockpiled, but the National Raisin Reserve came about as a solution to the opposite problem: America just had too many raisins. During World War II, both the government and civilians bought raisins in large quantities to send to soldiers overseas; by a few years after the war's end, in 1949, the raisin market was flooded. In response, the raisin growers joined together and under the auspices of a New Deal-era Act created Marketing Order 989, supervised by the USDA, which allowed them to take a varying percentage of American raisin farmers’ produce—sometimes almost half and often without paying for them—in an effort to create a raisin shortage and artificially drive up the market price. The confiscated crops were then put into storage in California, whereupon some of them would eventually be used in school lunches, fed to livestock, or sold to other countries.

This went on until 2002, when farmer Marvin Horne decided that he actually was not going to hand over his raisins and, instead, preferred to sell all of them. The government responded by sending the raisin police (actually a local private detective firm) to surveil his farm and then sending him a bill for about $680,000. Horne sued, and the case bounced around several courts for many years, ultimately landing at the U.S. Supreme Court—twice: the first time due to a question on jurisdiction (where one justice referred to the law that created the Marketing Order as “the world’s most outdated law”) and the second time to determine if the raisin seizures violated the Fifth Amendment prohibition against taking personal property without just compensation. Ultimately, in 2015, the court ruled in favor of Horne: For seizures to continue, compensation would have to be paid. Many pundits saw this as the end of the raisin stockpile, but it may soon return—the USDA just says that “Due to a recent United States Supreme Court decision, [the Volume Control] provisions are currently suspended, being reviewed, and will be amended.”

5. THE CHINESE PORK STOCKPILE

Meanwhile, in China, they’re finding out what happens when you confiscate too much of a staple: in this case, a 200,000-metric ton stash of pork. The Chinese pork reserve is nothing new; the stockpile of frozen meat has existed for almost a decade in an effort to control the wildly fluctuating price of pork. The meat has been at the center of the country’s cuisine and culture for thousands of years. (Rou, the Mandarin word for “meat,” is the same as the word for “pork.”) The idea was cooked up in 2007, when porcine blue ear disease wiped out a large number of Chinese pigs and the price of pork soared by 87 percent, leading to civil unrest. In May 2016, the stockpile came in handy when 6.1 million pounds of frozen pork were released in response to a price surge of more than 50 percent—which was a result of the government keeping the price so low that Chinese farmers were giving up on raising pigs for such low profits, creating a dire pork shortage. Although economists doubt how effective the pork reserve is, the price of pork did fall in the ensuing months. Sounds like it’s an effective tactic, as long as you don’t go hog wild with it.

6. THE COTTON RESERVE IN INDIA

Dating back several millennia, textiles manufacturing is one of the oldest industries in India’s economy, and the country is hugely dependent on it too—garments and fabrics make up 11 percent of India’s total exports, and 60 percent of those exports are cotton-based. Which is why the state-run Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) has amassed about 2.5 million bales of cotton, which it sits on in case it needs to back up the mills in the event of a shortage.

India isn’t the only country in the world to hoard cotton—China used to do this as well, and at one point, it owned up to 40 percent of the entire world’s supply. But now that the Chinese government stopped buying cotton in 2013, due to the fiber’s high storage costs, India may one day take the all-time cotton high score.

7. FEDERAL HELIUM RESERVE

In 1925, the U.S. government began reserving helium for use in dirigibles, in hopes of catching up to the massive fleet of airships that Germany had used during World War I. But by the end of World War II, airplanes had replaced airships as the military’s de rigueur aircraft, so you’d think the helium stockpile would have been sold off.

Not so. Turns out, this helium is valuable for a bunch of perhaps-unexpected reasons. Not only is it useful since it’s a “superfluid” at temperatures very near to absolute zero, it’s ideal as a protective atmosphere for shielded arc welding. The scientific research industry also has a demand for the gas—the helium atom is one of the simplest that can be used to study atomic physics in quantum mechanics. Today, it’s utilized in the production of fiber optic cables and computer chips. NASA uses helium in its Delta IV rockets and to maintain pressure in liquid oxygen fuel tanks, and the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, needs about 130 tons of helium to operate.

By the mid-1990s, the U.S. government decided to get rid of the reserve, passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 and gradually selling the helium stockpile off to private buyers. But as helium was being used more and more, the prices were being kept artificially low, which led to massive waste—so the House of Representatives stepped in with the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 and voted to extend the life of the Federal Helium Reserve. These days, the U.S. is reducing its helium stores to 3 billion, hidden about 3000 feet underground in Amarillo, Texas—conveniently located near two natural gas fields in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas that contain unusually high percentages of helium and are the country’s greatest helium resources. New mining endeavors are expected to create a helium surplus by 2018, so it sounds like we’re in good shape (for now).

8. THE FROZEN ARK

It’s not news that animal species are disappearing at an increasing rate, with a quarter of all known mammals and 10 percent of all birds facing possible extinction within the next couple of decades. In 2004, three British organizations decided to join forces and combat the issue. The Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and Nottingham University established a “frozen zoo” they called The Frozen Ark Project.

To do this, DNA and living tissue samples are taken from all endangered species that can be accessed and then preserved, so that future generations can study the genetic material far into the future (they generally discount a Jurassic Park scenario, but say it might be possible in a few instances). So far, the Frozen Ark has over 700 samples stored at the University of Nottingham in England—and participating consortium members in the UK, the U.S., Germany, Australia, NZ, India, South Africa, Norway, and Ireland. DNA donations come from museums, university laboratories, and sometimes the animals themselves, via zoos.

9. CHINA’S GIGANTIC URANIUM STOCK

U.S. Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

China's population continues to grow, and the country's power needs continue to rise—so the government is always on the hunt for sources of power. One of the major sources, these days, is nuclear, and in order to ensure nuclear power for a long time, the Chinese government has been stockpiling lots of uranium. The Chinese are already estimated to have nine years worth of uranium, although they don’t disclose any details.

After the Fukushima disaster in Japan and other longstanding concerns about nuclear power, the price of uranium plummeted to less than a quarter of what it was in 2007. The cheap pricetag has been great for China, which has been able to buy large portions of the world market for virtually nothing; when the price of uranium increases again in the future (either due to increased demand or decreased supply), China’s nuclear power plants will continue to operate.

10. THE EU's BUTTER SURPLUS

Like the raisin and helium stockpiles, World War II was the impetus for Europe’s infamous “butter mountain.” Food shortages and economic collapse were fresh in the minds of Europeans, and so the European Economic Community—a precursor to the European Union—began subsidizing farmers. In 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy was created to pay guaranteed, artificially high prices to dairy farmers for surplus products, which were sold to the European public for higher prices, causing a drop in sales. Attempts to compete by non-EU dairies were squelched at the borders by heavy taxes. Then they stockpiled the rest for a rainy day (or world war). In 1986 alone, the EU bought 1.23 million tons of leftover butter.

In the 1970s, word made it to the street of the “butter mountain” that the EU had been tucking away, which was costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money—almost 90 percent of the EEC’s budget in 1970—and outrage ensued. It still took until the ‘90s for something to be done about it, however. Instead of paying farmers for their unwanted butter, the EEC switched to paying them to not produce it. The so-called butter mountain was finally dissolved (or melted?) in 2007.

(It wasn’t an actual mountain of butter, of course, nor was it even kept in the same place—the surplus butter was distributed and placed in cold storage in various silos across the continent. Despite this, though, once the name “butter mountain” been coined by the press, the name stuck.)

In 2009, just two years after the butter was liquidated, the global recession and relative strength of the euro had made it more difficult for dairy farmers to sell their goods. The EU came to the rescue, and the butter mountain was back. The European Commission pledged to buy up to 300,000 tons of butter, at a guaranteed price of €2299 a ton, so its dairy farmers wouldn’t go out of business. Although it was considered more of a “butter molehill” this time around, the butter and other agricultural goods the EU bought cost taxpayers a whopping €280,000,000, and the pressure was on to get rid of it ASAP. As of 2011, a portion of the butter had been donated to the worldwide Food Aid for the Needy program.

11. THE STRATEGIC NATIONAL STOCKPILE

This one’s kind of a no-brainer. Managed by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Government stocks millions of doses of vaccines, antidotes, antitoxins, antibiotics, and sundry other medications in warehouses scattered across the nation to prep for natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and biological terrorist attacks. The warehouses are distributed such that supplies should be made available to the site of the emergency within 12 hours, whether it strikes in Alaska or Arkansas (and, if needed, the full force of resources can arrive in 24 to 36 hours). The details on locations of the warehouses and their exact contents aren’t publicly available.

Some examples of the known goodies the SNS stocks are smallpox vaccines, Cipro to combat anthrax, and diabetes and blood pressure meds for folks who might be stranded from their homes long-term. These all came in handy during the September 11th attacks in 2001 and in the catastrophic effects wreaked upon southern Louisiana after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2009, the SNS responded to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic by releasing a quarter of its influenza-specific supplies—including antiviral drugs, gloves, and face masks—to the American public.

Not sure what kind of disaster you’re dealing with quite yet? The SNS has you covered there, too. If you’ve got a lot of people suffering from an unspecified malady, they’ll send out “push packages”—a grab bag of different medications and supplies—for health care workers to disperse, free of charge.

12. RUSSIA’S TOP-SECRET UNDERGROUND FOOD RESERVE

In a series of former mine tunnels deep below the surface of Central Russia sits a top-secret cache of cereals, sugar, canned meat, and other food staples, all managed by an agency called Rosreserve. The agency—which manages all of Russia's federally-mandated reserves—classifies the food depot a state secret, and so there’s not a lot of information on it, including its location. Nor does anyone outside of Rosreserve seem to know how much food they’ve got packed away down there. But we know that the complex is vast, it’s 400 feet underground, it’s airtight and nuke-proof, and it’s kept at 65 percent humidity and 7 to 8 degrees Celsius—without refrigeration, relying only on the frozen ground to keep things cool. The facility also includes a laboratory, so that the food can be tested against the government’s nutritional standards, and the inventory is rotated on the regular, to ensure that none of it goes bad. About-to-expire food is delivered to consumers, primarily food security agencies.

13. SCOTLAND YARD’S RUBBER BULLET COLLECTION

Just months after riots erupted throughout England in August 2011—which saw looting, arson, and the deaths of five people in response to the killing of Mark Duggan by a police officer—London’s Metropolitan Police thought it might want to be a little more prepared in case it happened again. The Met responded by purchasing 10,000 baton rounds, also known as plastic bullets, to add to its comparably small existing collection of only 700. The new shipment put the Met’s rubber bullet inventory at an all-time high, with a previous record of 6424. It was reported that the rounds are not the police’s preferred method of dealing with conflict, but only that they want to have them available.

The idea behind baton rounds, of course, is to cause pain but not grievous injury or death. But that depends on how far away from a target you fire them from. In 1982, a soldier at a protest rally shot an 11-year-old Northern Irish boy in the head with a baton round from several feet away, killing him. Rubber bullets were used widely by the police in Northern Ireland, in fact, during the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles, wherein misuse regularly led to serious human injury.

With its new plethora of rubber bullets, the Met also elected to train more of its officers to deploy them correctly, but it wasn’t because of the history of misuse in Northern Ireland. The reason cited was because the police had received criticism during the UK riots for not having enough specialists to make the tactic easily available.

14. THE NORTHEAST HOME HEATING OIL RESERVE

If there’s an area of the U.S. that most needs a stockpile of heating oil, it’s the Northeast. Between its brutal winters and the general dependence of its households on oil as a heating method, a disruption in access to supplies could be a serious problem. That’s why, in 2000, President Bill Clinton directed the creation of the reserve as a component of the existing Strategic Petroleum Reserve, via the Department of Energy.

NEHHOR, as it’s called, isn’t a giant reservoir of oil, though, like one might imagine—instead, a million barrels of ultra-low-sulfur distillate (a.k.a. diesel) are housed in three separate terminals in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Oil is sometimes auctioned off from this stockpile—the U.S. Department of Energy has developed an online bidding system for the purpose of running occasional one-day emergency sales, open to any interested party.

Although NEHHOR was originally intended to be temporary, it’s still around today, and it’s a good thing. It took 12 years, but the reserve was finally opened up in November 2012, when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc throughout much of the Northeast and 2 million gallons of heating oil were delivered to local and federal relief efforts.

15. FOOD SECURITY COMMODITY RESERVE

Among this list of strategic reserves, this is perhaps the most generous one. Called the Food Security Commodity Reserve since 1996, it was originally Title III of the Agriculture Act of 1980 that established a reserve of up to 4 million metric tons of wheat, which would be earmarked for combating famine in developing nations. Although the first incarnation of this reserve was strictly wheat-based, the 1996 farm bill opened the doors to other foodstuffs to be included in the reserve, such as rice, corn, and sorghum.

Subsequently, the Africa: Seeds of Hope Act of 1998 established the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which added a stockpile of hard cash in order to expand the reach of the Food Security Commodity Reserve, and in 2008, it became an exclusively cash reserve. The cash in the BEHT helps the Office of Food for Peace to supply areas of hunger with provisions without depleting the stores of grain. Recent withdrawals from this cash stash include a donation of $50 million toward provisions for South Sudan during its dire food crisis of 2014.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

10 Intriguing Friends Fan Theories

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Getty Images

Friends is a show about twentysomethings navigating life, love, and work in New York City. Ot at least that’s one theory about the beloved sitcom, which debuted on this day in 1994. Here’s another: Friends is a glimpse inside a mental ward, where six disturbed patients are working through their personality disorders. In the 14 years since it went off the air, Friends has inspired a ton of wild fan theories on Reddit and Twitter. Here are a few of the strangest (and be careful: Mr. Heckles’s murderer is still at large).

1. RACHEL DREAMED THE WHOLE THING.

In the summer of 2017, this photo of the Friends season four DVD box ignited a fan frenzy. The image on the box shows the titular pals snoozing side by side. Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, and Joey all have their eyes shut, but Rachel—resting right in the middle—is wide awake and looking directly at the camera. Why is she the only one with her eyes open? Some fans suggested Rachel was plotting something sinister, or secretly very “woke.” But plenty more insisted it was proof the whole show was Rachel’s dream. According to one Twitter fan, Rachel fell into an anxiety-fueled dream the night before her wedding to Barry and imagined her own group of hip New York friends to cope with her frustration and dread. Except she woke up to reality the next morning, as shown on the DVD cover, where she’s surrounded by her dream friends.

2. PHOEBE HALLUCINATED THE SHOW.

Another popular theory suggests the show was all in Phoebe’s head—only this take is much darker. The basic premise is that Phoebe never got off the streets. She was a lonely, homeless woman with a meth addiction who peered into the window of Central Perk one day. She noticed five friends laughing over coffee, and imagined herself as part of the gang. In this fantasy, her pals didn’t always get her weird sense of humor, but they loved her anyway. In reality, the twentysomethings in the window were wondering why that “crazy lady” was staring at them. This theory gained so much traction that a journalist asked Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman about it at a television festival. She quickly threw water on the whole thing. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Kauffman replied. “That’s a terrible theory. That’s insane. Someone needs a life, that’s all I’m saying."

3. IT WAS ONE LONG PROMO FOR STARBUCKS.

The cast of 'Friends'
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

According to one manic Facebook rant, Friends was not a sitcom at all. It was actually a 10-year marketing ploy, designed to make Starbucks the new go-to destination for young people. Why else do the characters spend so much time in a coffee shop? True, the shop is not called Starbucks, but the subliminal evidence lies in Rachel’s last name (Green, like the Starbucks company color) and hair (styled like the mermaid in the Starbucks logo). Then there’s Ross and Monica’s last name, Geller, which is close to the German word gellen. It means “to yell,” just like the Starbucks baristas calling out customer names. The case only gets flimsier from there, but if you really want to read about how Chandler and Moby Dick are connected, you can dive down the rabbit hole here.

4. ROSS LOST CUSTODY OF BEN BECAUSE HE WAS A BAD DAD.

Ross’s son Ben arrives in the very first season of Friends, in the aptly titled episode “The One with the Birth.” He’s a constant character for several seasons, but as the show goes on, Ross seems to spend less and less time with his kid. Ben disappears after the eighth season, and never meets his half-sister Emma onscreen. There’s one explanation for this dropoff: Ross lost custody of his son due to increasingly disturbing behavior.

The blog What Would Bale Do lays out a bunch of examples: Ross sleeps with his students, tries to hook up with his cousin, and asks a self-defense instructor for help scaring his female friends. He’s also generally pretty jealous and possessive. According to this theory, Ross’s ex-wife Carol hit a breaking point and took full custody of their son, which is why Ben stops coming around his dad’s apartment in the later seasons.

5. MR. HECKLES WAS MURDERED.

Rachel and Monica’s mean old neighbor dies of natural causes in season two—or at least that’s what they want you to think. By one Redditor’s account, Mr. Heckles was killed in cold blood. Moments before he dies, Mr. Heckles shows up at Monica and Rachel’s door, complaining that their noise is disturbing his birds. (He does not have birds.) Monica says they’ll try to keep it down and as Mr. Heckles leaves, he says he’s going to rejoin his “dinner party.” Minutes later, he’s dead. Ergo, his dinner party guest killed him. Of course, the likelier explanation is that Mr. Heckles was a crazy old man who wasn’t even having a dinner party. But where’s the fun in that?

6. THERE’S A REASON THEY ALWAYS GOT THAT TABLE AT CENTRAL PERK.

The cast of 'Friends' chats with talk show host Conan O'Brien
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

How did the gang manage to snag the coveted center couch at Central Perk every single time? Simple: Gunther reserved it for them. It was all part of his ongoing campaign to win Rachel’s affections, and it explains why the group never had to fight for seating space. Well, except that one time.

7. THERE’S A PARKS & RECREATION CROSSOVER.

In “The One With All the Candy,” Rachel insists she doesn’t sleep with guys on the first date, only for her friends to immediately call her out. Monica rattles off three names: Matt Wire, Mark Lynn, and Ben Wyatt. Could she be talking about the same Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation? According to Reddit, their ages check out. Ben would’ve been 26 at the time of the episode, making him a perfectly acceptable one-night stand for 29-year-old Rachel. But how does Leslie Knope feel about this?

8. JUDY GELLER HAD AN AFFAIR THAT PRODUCED MONICA.

Ross and Monica’s mom doesn’t even try to hide her favoritism. Judy Geller thinks Ross is a genius and Monica is, well, trying. (But could be trying harder.) One bonkers and since-deleted fan theory suggests Judy’s preference stems from a family secret: At some point in her marriage to Jack Geller, she had an affair, one she could never forget because it spawned Monica. Judy’s shame over this tryst is what causes her to lash out at Monica and praise Ross, her one 'legitimate' child.

9. THEY’RE ALL IN A PSYCH WARD.

Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, and Matthew Perry in a scene from 'Friends.'
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

What if Central Perk wasn’t a coffee shop at all, but rather the cafeteria at a mental institution? As one theory goes, all six main characters are suffering from personality disorders. They’re confined to a facility for treatment, and can only shuffle between their rooms (i.e. their “apartments”) and the cafeteria (i.e. “Central Perk”). This situation also explains why the group is so hostile toward new people. They’re not actually teasing Monica’s new boyfriend; they’re attacking anyone who tries to take one of the friends out of the mental hospital.

10. JOEY REALLY WANTED SOME PANCAKES.

This very silly—but very solid—fan theory is centered on Joey’s love of food. In “The One With Ross’s Library Book,” Joey has a one-night stand with a woman named Erin. He doesn’t want to see her again, and asks Rachel to break the news to her over pancakes. Apparently Chandler used to do this when he lived in the apartment. He’d even save extra pancakes for Joey. Rachel refuses to be a part of this, but once she’s left alone with Erin, she feels bad and offers to cook. Things escalate over the episode and pretty soon, Joey is the one who’s too clingy for Erin. Rachel has to tell him and, feeling bad yet again, she offers pancakes. Reddit claims this was all just a plot for pancakes. It kind of adds up: Joey can’t cook but likes to eat, and he has enough soap opera money to pay an actor (Erin) to play a part in this conspiracy. So he cons his roommate into making pancakes, twice, in a ruse that’s both delicious and diabolical.

20 Epic Facts About The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

New Line Productions
New Line Productions

Between on-set injuries, extensive script changes, and one whopper of a casting process, at various points in the life of The Lord of the Rings trilogy it seemed as if director Peter Jackson might have bitten off more than he could chew. The trilogy that changed the face of fantasy films tackled a number of challenges along the way, but it all worked out in the end. In celebration of Hobbit Day, here are 20 facts about the Oscar-winning trilogy.

1. IT WENT THROUGH A TON OF SCRIPT REVISIONS.

When The Lord of the Rings started out, it was originally going to be two movies. Later, concerned about the ballooning budget, producers tried to persuade Jackson to condense the movie into a single film. At various points in the scripting process, Arwen, not Éowyn, was the one to dress up as a man, ride into the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and kill the Witch-king; and Rohan and Gondor were combined into one kingdom. Miramax also suggested that the one-movie version be presented as a flashback, with an older Frodo “covering [the entire Mines of Moria sequence in Fellowship] by saying something like, ‘So then we went on a dangerous journey through the Mines of Moria and lost Gandalf!,’” recalled Jackson.

2. SEAN CONNERY DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPT.

Sean Connery read for the role of Gandalf but admitted that, “I never understood it. I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it … I would be interested in doing something that I didn’t fully understand, but not for 18 months.” Connery’s deal, if he had taken the role, would have been for a small fee plus 15 percent of the films’ income. Incidentally, the entire trilogy went on to earn just shy of $3 billion worldwide.

3. ARAGORN WAS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.


New Line Cinema

Nicolas Cage was offered the role of Aragorn, which he turned down due to “family obligations.” Famously, the role then went to up-and-coming Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who you probably don’t remember seeing in the final trilogy: “I was there rehearsing and training for two months, then was fired the day before filming began,” the actor later recalled. In need of an older actor, Jackson went to Viggo Mortensen, who took the role at the urging of his son Henry, who was a fan of the books.

4. RUSSELL CROWE WAS A POTENTIAL BACKUP FOR ARAGORN.

Had Mortensen turned down the role of Aragorn, there were two other actors Jackson had in mind as replacements: Jason Patric and Russell Crowe. “We sent [Crowe] a script and he did read it and was fascinated,” said Jackson. “I remember getting the phone call from his agent and being told that he had just finished another film which involved him having to have a sword and armor—Gladiator! Russell was flattered by the approach, but he had other films he was committed to and it obviously wasn’t going to work out.”

5. VIGGO MORTENSEN TOOK SEVERAL BEATINGS.

A variety of injuries beset the cast during production, but Mortensen had it particularly hard: in The Two Towers, that scream he let out upon kicking a helmet after discovering the burnt corpses of the Orcs who abducted Merry and Pippin might have something to do with the fact that he had just broken two of his toes. “Normally, an actor would yell ‘Ow!’ if they hurt themselves,” noted Jackson. “Viggo turned a broken toe into a performance.” Elijah Wood remembered Mortensen “getting half of his tooth knocked out during a fight sequence, and his insistence on applying superglue to put it back in to keep working.”

6. JAKE GYLLENHAAL AUDITIONED TO PLAY FRODO.

Jake Gyllenhaal had a less-than-successful audition for the role of Frodo. “I remember auditioning for The Lord of the Rings and going in and not being told that I needed a British accent. I really do remember Peter Jackson saying to me, ‘You know that you have to do this in a British accent?’” Gyllenhaal later recalled. “We heard back it was literally one of the worst auditions.”

7. VIN DIESEL, LIAM NEESON, AND UMA THURMAN WERE UP FOR ROLES.

Among other could-have-beens in the casting department: Vin Diesel auditioned for Aragorn; Jackson called his performance “very compelling” but said that it didn’t “feel like Aragorn.” Jackson approached Richard O’Brien, best known as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which he also wrote), for the role of Gríma Wormtongue, but his agents turned it down, believing the films would be unsuccessful. Liam Neeson passed on the role of Boromir.

There were also “discussions,” recalls Jackson, about then-married couple Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman playing Faramir and Éowyn; “Ethan was a huge fan of the books and was very keen to be involved. Uma was less sure and rightly so, because we were revising how we saw Éowyn’s character literally as we went. In the end, Ethan let it go—with some reluctance.”

8. IAN HOLM HAD PLAYED FRODO BAGGINS YEARS EARLIER.


New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings trilogy marked a return to the Shire for Bilbo actor Ian Holm, who played Frodo in a 1981 radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. His performance in that factored into Jackson’s decision to offer him the Bilbo role.

9. CHRISTOPHER LEE WANTED TO PLAY GANDALF.

The late Christopher Lee was a Lord of the Rings superfan who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (“I was very much in awe of him, as you can imagine,” he told Cinefantastique) and wanted to robe up as Gandalf, a role that eventually went to Sir Ian McKellen. (Lee himself admitted that, by the time the movies came around, he was “too old” for the action-heavy role.) Lee even played a wizard in the TV series The New Adventures of Robin Hood specifically “to show anyone who was watching that I could play a wizard and that I would be ideal casting for The Lord of the Rings.” He sent Jackson a picture of himself in wizard duds, though “it was more in the nature of a joke, really. It wasn’t me putting myself forward at all, because I think Peter had already made up his mind” to cast him as the wizard Saruman.

10. THE PRODUCER REALLY WANTED TO KILL A HOBBIT.

Early on in the development process, before it found its eventual home at New Line Cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was being made at Miramax. As Peter Jackson would later recall, Bob Weinstein really, really thought one of the four main Hobbits should die: “‘Well, we can’t have [all of them surviving],’ he said, ‘we’ve got to kill a Hobbit! I don’t care which one; you can pick—I’m not telling you who it should be: you pick out who you want to kill, but we’ve really got to kill one of those Hobbits!’ In situations like that, you just nod and smile and say, ‘Well, that’s something we can consider.’”

11. SEAN BEAN TREKKED UP A MOUNTAIN IN COSTUME.

Sean Bean typically opted against taking a helicopter up to some of The Fellowship of the Ring’s mountain filming locations, instead climbing to sets himself in full Boromir gear. “I used to be a bit terrified of flying,” he said, so “I had to walk the whole way, really. I was two hours behind everybody else on top of this mountain because I just didn’t want to get into any helicopters.”

12. FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS’S BRET MCKENZIE MADE A CAMEO.


New Line Cinema

Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie makes a brief appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring, playing an unnamed Elf during the Council of Elrond scene. Fan Iris Hadad latched onto the extra, naming him Figwit (short for “Frodo is great… who is that?”) and creating the fansite Figwit Lives in his honor. Peter Jackson, responding to the grassroots support for the character, added him to The Return of the King as “Elf Escort” and even gave him a line, “just [as] fun for the fans.” (In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, McKenzie plays an elf named Lindir. He’s not the same character as Figwit, the actor noted, because the two have “slightly different ears.”)

13. AN ENTIRE ACTION SCENE WAS DESTROYED BY A FLOOD.

The end of The Fellowship of the Ring originally featured a scene where the heroes are ambushed by a band of Orcs as they row through rapids on the Anduin river. “We had all kinds of action planned with boats flipping over … and Legolas’s boat afloat as it bucks and tosses, while the Elf—standing with a foot on each of the gunwales—would be firing arrows at the attackers,” Jackson shared. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and a massive flood—in addition to causing a state of emergency in Queenstown, New Zealand—washed the entire ambush set down the river.

14. BILL THE PONY WAS TWO PEOPLE IN A HORSE COSTUME.

Sam’s pony Bill was, in Fellowship’s Midgewater Marshes scene, actually a “panto pony,” due to the difficulty of working with a live animal in a swamp. Not sure what a “panto pony” is? Well, that’s a fancy way of saying Bill was a pony suit with one person in the front half and one person in the back. It wasn’t exactly easy to work with, either. “We had a terrible struggle to get the pony to walk through the marshes because the performers were completely blind, buried in this costume and up to their waists in a real swamp,” shared Jackson. “Bill would try to walk and then would start to wobble and everyone would have to rush in and catch him before he fell over! There was one hilarious moment where the front legs moved without the back legs and Bill got stretched into a sort of long sausage dog!”

15. SEAN BEAN WAS READING HIS SCRIPT DURING THE COUNCIL OF ELROND SCENE.

Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were constantly in the process of revising the script, even during production; the actors would frequently get new dialogue to memorize the night before a particular scene was scheduled to shoot. That was the case with Boromir’s famous speech in The Fellowship of the Ring’s Council of Elrond scene. Look closely and you’ll see the actor occasionally lowering his eyes to look at the new script page, which was taped to his knee.

16. WOMEN IN BEARDS WERE USED AS EXTRAS.

A good chunk of the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers and The Return of the King were actually women outfitted with fake beards. “There are some very good women riders in New Zealand, and it’d be silly not to take advantage of them,” Mortensen said in The Two Towers Extended Edition extras.

17. THE URUK-HAI AT HELM’S DEEP ARE NEW ZEALAND CRICKET FANS.

In the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, the chanting of the vicious Uruk-hai army was provided by a stadium full of New Zealand cricket fans. “There’s this Black Speech battle cry the Uruk do,” said executive producer Mark Ordesky. “We wrote it out phonetically on the Diamond Vision screen and Peter [Jackson] directed 25,000 people going ‘Rrwaaa harra farr rrara!”’

18. A SCENE WHERE ARAGORN FIGHTS SAURON IS IN THE RETURN OF THE KING… SORT OF.

Jackson filmed a scene for the end of The Return of the King where Aragorn goes toe-to-toe with the physical version of Sauron, in a sort of updated version of the Sauron-Isildur battle from the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. “By the time we had got to post-production,” Jackson remembers, the scene “no longer felt right,” so they cut it. But they did still use the footage: In the final battle, Aragorn can be seen battling a giant cave troll that was digitally superimposed over what was originally meant to be Sauron.

19. ONE OF THE MOST EMOTIONAL SCENES WAS SHOT OVER THE SPAN OF ONE YEAR.

It’s well known that all three Lord of the Rings movies were shot in one long stretch. As with most movies, the shoot wasn’t consecutive, meaning on any given day the schedule included scenes from all over the trilogy. Possibly the most extreme example of this has to do with the scene in The Return of the King where Frodo, urged by Gollum to think Sam has betrayed him, orders his loyal sidekick to go home. First Sam’s part was filmed, then Frodo’s … a year later. “Every time we cut to and fro between Frodo and Sam we are actually jumping back and forth across a year-long gap,” Jackson explained.

20. FRODO ORIGINALLY "STRAIGHT-OUT" MURDERED GOLLUM.

Sean Astin and Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (2001)
New Line Cinema

The final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum in The Return of the King was originally going to end with Frodo pushing Gollum off the ledge into Mount Doom; “straight-out murder,” Jackson admitted, “but at the time we were OK with it because we felt everyone wanted Frodo to kill Gollum. But, of course, it was very un-Tolkien, because it flew in the face of everything that he wanted his heroes to be.” Years later, the scene was re-shot as it ended up in the film.

Additional Sources:
Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey, by Brian Sibley
Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings, by Ian Pryor

This article originally appeared in 2016.

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