Great Moments in Cinema: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
In cinema, as in all art, sublime beauty can sometimes be found hidden within the most unlikely of places. Such is the case with Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Directed by Guillermo del Toro, the film is ostensibly little more than a pulpy, fun, and imaginative superhero film, but it nevertheless contains one of the most heartbreaking and breathtakingly beautiful sequences in modern cinema.
Based on the comic book by Mike Mignola, Hellboy II: The Golden Army picks up sometime after the end of the previous film. Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and the rest of the BPRD are back, and they’ve brought some new friends along with them, most notably the officious and ethereal Johann Kraus (voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane). When we last saw them, Hellboy and Liz had finally declared their love for one another after saving the world from the wicked Russian sorcerer Rasputin (Karel Roden) and a Lovecraftian horror from beyond the stars. Now, they find themselves squaring off against the vengeful elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) who wants to punish humanity for breaking a centuries old treaty brokered with his father, King Balor (Roy Dotrice). Nuada seeks to reactivate the Golden Army, an unstoppable legion of clockwork robots that only serves one master, and unleash them upon Mankind; but to do that, he needs to reclaim all three pieces of the crown that controls them. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the human race, the final piece of the crown is in the possession of Nuada’s sister, the luminous and beneficent Princess Nuala (Anne Walton), and she has no intention of letting her brother get his hands on it. Unfortunately, Nuada is as resourceful as he is determined, and now it’s going to take Hellboy and the entire BPRD to keep him from setting loose an ancient evil upon the world.
At one point in the film, after visiting the Troll Market (another stunningly imaginative sequence that easily could have qualified as the subject of this column), Hellboy and Abe rescue Princess Nuala from the clutches of Nuada’s hulking sidekick, Mr. Wink. As they are making their escape, they run into Nuada, who summons a titanic Earth Elemental to stop them. Hellboy goes toe to toe with the plantlike creature in the middle of a busy downtown street, and eventually manages to bring the thing down by shooting it with a really big gun. As the rampaging monster dies, gallons of green blood gush forth from its wounds and spill all over the street, causing plants and flowers to spring forth wherever it splashes down. Soon, the entire street is covered in a tranquil green field, and the air is filled with pollen spores drifting lazily on the wind. Horror has given way to awe, and it is truly beautiful.
Guillermo del Toro is a modern day master of horror, and he knows how to find the sublime within the terrifying. This is due in large part to his love of monsters. He sympathizes with them, and wants his audience to understand his creatures even as they recoil from them. Del Toro considers the macabre to be beautiful, and he knows how to make it attractive and seductive while simultaneously being utterly repellent and frightening. This is especially evident in his more personal work. Films like Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) all straddle the line between beauty and terror, featuring horrifying images that are nevertheless compelling and oddly gorgeous. However, prior to Hellboy II, this tendency hadn’t really made its way into his more mainstream work like Blade II (2002) or even the original Hellboy (2004). With Hellboy II, however, it is on full display, and nowhere is that more evident than in the sequence with the elemental.
The creature terrorizes the city in a scene right out of a Godzilla movie, picking up cars and hurling them at helicopters. People’s lives are in danger, and del Toro makes sure to remind us of that at every opportunity (within the limits of the PG-13 rating, of course). We are meant to be afraid of this monster, which is not above killing an innocent baby in its rage (thankfully, Hellboy manages to save the kid before any harm can befall it). However, Prince Nuada soon shows up and tells Hellboy that the elemental is the last of its kind, and that it is only reacting to Mankind’s poor treatment of the Earth. Nuada reminds Hellboy that humanity hates him, and this is true. Hellboy himself is a monster, and would never truly be accepted by humans. Even his handler, the uptight BPRD Agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) doesn’t really trust him. Hellboy hesitates, and when he finally does pull the trigger, it is easy to see the anguish on his face. Thus, del Toro engenders sympathy for the creature, and the viewer is made to feel conflicted when the beast dies, leaving behind true beauty in the wake of dreadful destruction. It’s not unlike the death of King Kong, which is a triumphant moment to be sure, but one that is tinged with sadness, as the audience has come to sympathize with the beast over the course of the film.
By making horror beautiful, Guillermo del Toro manages to tap into a primal urge within people. We are often attracted to that which repulses us, and we often find an alluring sort of beauty within ugliness. It’s one of the reasons audiences respond to horror films, and del Toro is fully aware of this. That’s why he managed to create an indelible image in what basically amounts to a silly superhero film, and it’s why it stands out as a great moment in cinema.