I freakin’ love The Dark Crystal! Let’s watch it! I took a break over the holidays, but now I’m back and ready for the famous “trial by stone” scene, 14:22-19:32 on the Blu-ray.
The scene takes place in the Skeksis’ throne room. There’s no establishing shot of the castle beforehand, as the audience is now familiar enough with the Skeksis to know that’s where they are. Even in this first shot there are some interesting details to notice. Both the Garthim and some Podling slaves are milling about in the background, before being properly introduced. Also, there are stairs off to one side. I could be wrong, but I believe this is the only time we see stairs in the movie, as most of the architecture prefers big ramps to stairways. This is of course easier to accommodate puppeteers and cameramen moving around the sets, but it also gives the structures an organic feel, especially after reading passages in the tie-in books that describe the characters’ homes as “grown” or “shaped” rather than built.
The Skeksis gather in this room, expositing that the Emperor is dead, and a new one must be chosen. The Chamberlain confidently declares, “It should be me,” while the General growls, “Not him. I must rule.” It’s hard to tell, but it looks like Skeksis are divided, without about half gathering in support of the General, and half in support of the Chamberlain. Given what we’re about to see, it’s hard to imagine the Chamberlain having supporters, but in these few moments, he does. One Skeksis even calls him “My Lord Chamberlain,” showing that he has some status and high regard over others of his kind. I bring this up because as we go through this rewatch we’ll see that, despite his mewling whimper, the Chamberlain is really… a man of action.
Chamberlain says it’s time for him to make his move, that move being merely walking up to the throne and reaching for the emperor’s scepter. The General goes to stop him, and the two face off, hissing at each other. Notice the General’s back, how the robes on his back rise up as he gets angry. We’ll get back to this. The General says, “I challenge!” Then there’s a nifty bit of puppet acting on the Chamberlain as he blinks a few times – a very realistic-looking blink pattern – and he responds, “Trial by stone.” It’s interesting that one Skeksis makes the challenge, and the one being challenged gets to choose what the challenge is. This suggests that the Skeksis have these customs or rituals in place so they’re not just always clawing at each other. But wait, in the manga Legends of the Dark Crystal, when the Chamberlain challenges SkekLach, it’s the Chamberlain’s idea to make it trial by fire, and SkekLach goes along with it. In the manga, SkekLach was betraying the emperor, so perhaps the Skeksis’ customs were changed after his betrayal was (I’m assuming) eventually discovered.
Everyone in the tie-in books always talks about how the Skeksis are cunning and scheming, but after Chamberlain says “Trial by stone,” we see another aspect of the Skeksis’ personalities, which is how easily excitable they are. They freak the hell out, running around crying “Trial by stone! Trial by stone!” The Skeksis’ Slave-master gets his big scene, in which he commands the castle’s slaves to “raise the stone.” Then the Podling slaves enter, their faces shriveled and their eyes blank and white. Interesting that this is how the audience is introduced to the Podlings, before even knowing what a Podling is.
The slaves pull a bunch of ropes, triggering an unseen mechanism that brings a giant black stone up out of the ground. The stone has two huge swords affixed to it. We get our “action movie” shot in which the Chamberlain and the General raise their swords, yell with anger, and clash them together. That final part is captured in a close-up of the swords clanging into each other. Chamberlain and the General circle the stone while still hissing and growling at each other, but this is no high-flying swordfight. The General swings his sword and strikes the stone with a mighty blow, to which all the other Skeksis cheer for him. So this trial is a test of strength, whoever can ding the stone the hardest wins. During this, the Blu-ray’s subtitles have one of the Skeksis in the background saying “I’m taking it.” Does this mean they’re gambling on the outcome?
Then the Chamberlain takes his swing. Remember that shot in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is trying to break through the door with the axe, and Kubrick’s camera manages to follow the path of the axe back and forth as he swings it? They do that same shot here, as the camera follows the sword as Chamberlain first rears it back, and then swings forward, cutting a large gash into the stone’s surface. The Skeksis show how ever-changing their loyalty is by immediately switching sides and cheering for the Chamberlain. The fact that he does well in the contest again shows that the Chamberlain is a man of action. But it’s not over. The General wipes some drool from his chin (nice little bit of grossness there), and he swings. He strikes the stone so hard it breaks in a burst of sparks and smoke, glowing red-hot pieces of it falling onto the floor. There’s a moment of silence as the Skeksis look on, shocked.
The tie-in fiction has a lot to say about this stone they’re using. It’s called the Haakskeekah, and it was the Skeksis’ attempt to create a second Dark Crystal. It’s not a second Dark Crystal, but it apparently has mystical properties, or at least the Skeksis believe it does. Knowing this adds a lot of dramatic weight to the General cleaving it in half. It means that in their hundreds of years inhabiting this castle, the Skeksis have never seen this happen before. It also speaks to how this world is broken and out of balance with the third great conjunction about to happen. Plotwise, this act means that the General is victorious, and there’s no way the Chamberlain can talk his way out of this one. The General immediately declares himself the emperor, and the Ritual-master speaks up, saying that, by law, the Chamberlain must pay. (Pay for what, though? The challenge was the General’s idea. I guess he must pay for making a move for the scepter to begin with.)
The stuff of nightmares: Then it’s one of the movie’s famous watch-from-between-your-fingers moments, in which the other Skeksis, now devoted to their new emperor, surround the Chamberlain. What makes this freaky is that we don’t really see or are told exactly what the other Skeksis are doing to him. They’re removing his clothes, that much is clear, but the way he’s screaming suggests he’s in horrid pain, so maybe, just maybe, this hurts him somehow? The General declares that the Chamberlain is banished. The rest of the Skeksis part ways, and we see the Chamberlain NUDE!!! He’s leaning against the wall, whimpering in humiliation. The effect is as mind-blowing as it is horrifying, because this is the filmmakers’ way of saying that there are not puppeteers under the Skeksis’ robes, but actual Skeksis.
Look closely: During all this, we can see that one of the Skeksis has a metal hook for a hand. Unless I’m mistaken, I believe that one is the Slave-master.
Scepter in hand, the General declares himself emperor and has all the other Skeksis bow down to him. All except for the Chamberlain, still shuddering in the corner. He bundles up some of the torn up rags that were once his clothes and walks off. One question fans ask is, “If the Skeksis and the urRu are connected, why don’t the Skeksis have four arms like the urRu?” In this shot of the Chamberlain, you can see a pair of tiny secondary arms growing on his back, with itty-bitty claws and everything. Some fans think the secondary arms are at the Skeksis’ bellies, but no. Earlier, when the General’s robes rose up, those were his secondary arms doing that. Also, Brian Froud’s sketchbook drawings in the back of the second Creation Myths graphic novel shows these small arms quite clearly on the Skeksis’ backs, holding up little flags and whatnot.
The Chamberlain does his famous whimper again as he heads for the exit. The scene isn’t over yet, but there’s a lot to say about what happens next, so we’ll end this one here.
Next: The Crystal calls!
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