“No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path . . . One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass . . . And then you see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” So goes a most beautiful passage of J.R.R. Tolkien’s cinematized prose from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final installment in the immensely popular film trilogy based on the immensely popular book trilogy. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s massive fantasy-fiction work knows that in the book, this passage comes at the very end and is spoken by the omniscient narrator, not by any particular character. In the film, however, this same monologue has been transported into the middle of a gigantic battle as the aging white wizard Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) tries to comfort a despairing hobbit who has decided that his doom must be coming soon in the present onslaught. It is these quiet, peaceful moments that take The Return of the King from just a really good fantasy / action movie to a truly outstanding motion picture.
At the 76th annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King dominated the night, taking eleven out of eleven Oscars including Best Motion Picture of 2003. It became historically the very first swords-and-sorcery fantasy film to be so highly honored by the Academy, and for good reasons. In the world of medieval fantasy films, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as one of the few exceptions in a pretty barren genre. Few, if any, pictures of this kind deliver such great performances, magnificent visuals, or carry such emotional weight as the three Rings pictures (not to mention that to produce the films required seven years of blood and sweat and hard labor and cost around 285 million dollars to bring about). Ironically, the director-screenwriter team who conceived of this overly ambitious project consisted of two one-hit-wonder Kiwi slasher film enthusiasts Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (who are also married to each other).
For four years they worked under great pressure from Tolkien fans and scholars, hoping that their films would live up to the hype. Well in 2001, the first film The Fellowship of the Ring was released to great commercial and critical success. The second film The Two Towers received much greater commercial success and only slightly less critical acclaim. Both films received Best Picture nominations. So when December of 2003 rolled around, both fans and critics alike were wondering if the third film would end the series on a high note – wondering, with anxious anticipation if a mediocre director from New Zealand could pull off the impossible. And boy! were they all left speechless. Not only did The Return of the King live up to anticipation, it far surpassed it, making it the crowning jewel in an already royal series of motion pictures. The first two films were merely the prologue to this film’s magnificent grandness.
The Return of the King begins just about where The Two Towers left off, with the two hobbits Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) journeying to the Black Land of Mordor to destroy an evil ring of power. Lost in the wilderness they follow the lead of a wretched creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) who himself has been destroyed by the ring. Elsewhere in the world Gandalf the white wizard rides to Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor, to warn them of the coming attack by Sauron’s legions of orcs and goblins while the long lost heir to the throne of Gondor Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) searches to find his true identity and place in the world. Aragorn is perhaps the most complex character in the films’ extensive supporting cast. He is the next in line to be King (hence the title), yet he does not feel worthy of the throne. He is an unmatched hunter and fighter, yet he second-guesses himself. The evil of the Dark Lord tempts him while he longs to be with his future bride, the elf-maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler). Viggo Mortensen performs with a quiet subtlety and an air of mystery uncommon in such epic films.
While Aragorn seeks his destiny, Gandalf works quickly to get Minas Tirith ready for battle against the wishes of the city’s half-mad steward Denethor (played in a very Shakespearian way by John Noble) who is stricken with the death of his son. Gandalf’s main purpose is to call for aid from Théoden the King of Rohan (Bernard Hill). Soon the armies of Mordor can be seen marching in droves toward the city. And so begins the siege of Minas Tirith: a surprisingly violent and gruesome sequence involving decapitations and humans being devoured by all kinds of wicked creatures. Here Peter Jackson begins to weave together scenes of action and violence with poignant shots of the women crying and the men despairing. Shots like these lend a human element to the battle rather than simply a fight over a castle.
Soon, the orcs break down the gate and flood the city, killing anyone in their path. At this point we begin to cut back and forth from the siege to Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. The growing power of the ring has begun to take its toll on Frodo and he becomes more and more sickly and more and more violent. To get into Mordor they must climb over a mountain range by way of a treacherous stairway up the rock face. Sam begins to mistrust Gollum’s allegiance to Frodo, which begins to create a gulf between Sam and his quickly waning master. In an extremely powerful and emotional scene for the two hobbits, the pair are actually separated by Gollum’s villainy – a substantial deviation from the book. Sean Astin’s performance in these scenes is quite good indeed. There is something so genuine and innocent about the way Astin plays Sam that he really becomes in a certain way the unsung hero of the story. Even when Frodo loses all control and sends Sam away, Sam’s loyalty never dies. Here the action takes the backseat and the drama really takes over. So few fantasy / action films have well-written, non-stereotypical characters but The Return of the King forcefully breaks this tradition. Many films of this nature are surface level thrill-machines designed only to make popcorn fly, but this film goes much deeper than that. It weaves fully written, real characters into one fine basket along with deep symbolism, complex moral themes, thrilling action vignettes, and breathtaking visual effects. This is a true rarity. The only other films of this nature that achieved this excellence in all departments like this were Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
At Minas Tirith Gandalf is pleased to find that Théoden the King of Rohan’s cavalry has arrived to help their campaign to ward off Sauron’s armies. Just before the charge Théoden gives the first of two rousing “off to battle” speeches in the style of Braveheart. Howard Shore’s intricate symphony of grand, old-style Hollywood music soars to full volume as the horses charge on the orcs. It is a great moment in the film as some six thousand horses comes sliding down a hill and into the fray of battle. At this point the movie becomes absolutely mesmerizing as we enter into what I’m sure is one of the longest, most intricate, and most epic battle scene in all of cinema: the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. It must take up forty-five minutes of screen time, and the result is one of the most amazing things you will ever see on film. Peter Jackson manages to film a battle scene so that it appears chaotic, yet is still coherent. He likes big, sweeping shots where the camera flies all over and finally comes to rest at an all-encompassing point high above the field. Those kinds of shots give a breathtaking vastness to it all, further heightening the level of impact.
The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is essentially a battle between the horsemen of Rohan and giant elephantine creatures that cause the ground to thunder and shake ever time they put a foot down. Sometimes Jackson goes back to his horror and splatter film roots and goes for out-and-out unrestrained violence. People and horses are crushed under those huge clomping feet; orcs’ heads are lopped off and blood spurts out; severed heads are catapulted over city walls – I guess that’s just the horror of battle.
The climax of the film is – I suppose – the point at which Frodo finally reaches the Crack of doom where he must destroy the evil ring. As he reaches the brink of fire into which he must drop the ring, we are put on the edge of our seat wondering, “Will he go through with it? Or has the ring corrupted him too?” This edge of glory scene is juxtaposed with the final battle outside the gates of Mordor where Aragorn is tempted one last time by the intangible Lord Sauron. All of what we’ve seen prior has been leading up to these last few moments. Right before they go into battle, Aragorn gives the second William Wallace speech of the film. For us in the audience who have by now been held spellbound by the images on screen, this last hurrah of Tolkienesque prose is just one more smashing scene after the other.
What surprises me is that the writers were able to keep the momentum up this long. You’ll notice that this review is not for simply The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—Special Extended Edition. That’s right! That means it’s longer than the original film. The original movie ran a grand total of three hours and twenty-one minutes, yet still it felt slightly rushed and incomplete. Peter Jackson was kind enough to rework some of the scenes, add some things in and give us this magnificent expanded cut of the film. At a whopping (and I mean whopping) four hours and eleven minutes, this special version of the film never feels stretched or overlong or like it’s running out of steam. In fact, it’s a more complete film than the original – giving us more insight into the characters and letting us in on the deeper nuances of Tolkien’s story. Ever since, Peter Jackson has maintained that the theatrical version of the picture is the preferred version of the movie, but I have to take issue with that. The theatrical cut is less time-consuming certainly, but it lacks a fine tempo for pacing and often skims over things too quickly. Many expanded versions of films have a tendency to be bad since directors often just throw in every single scene cut from the picture, yet it seems evident that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh spent a lot of time selecting these scenes to make a good film. Much to my surprise, the quality of filmmaking in the extended cut of The Return of the King far surpasses that of the original (that goes for the extended cuts of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers).
As the credits finally role on The Lord of the Rings, we in the audience are left in awe of the spectacle that just flashed before our eyes. The first two Lord of the Rings films are great as well, but I chose the last for The Fundamentals because it is the culmination of all the hard work that went into making this monumental film series. I imagine in history they will be remembered as great milestones in cinema history, much like The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, and Titanic. Go and watch some of the subsequent fantasy films of the 2000s decade and you can see the Lord of the Rings influence on many of them. None of them were as good though. J.R.R. Tolkien himself called his work an unfilmable book. It turns out he was wrong. I think the professor would be happy with these movies. Although they make changes, they carry the spirit of Tolkien, and because of that, if for no other reason, the films succeed. Currently Peter Jackson is working on a two-film version of The Hobbit, which was the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. We can only hope it too will be great.
New Line Cinema presents a Wingnut Films production
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Lawrence Makaore, Paul Norell, Ian Holm, Sean Bean, with the voices of Andy Serkis and Alan Howard.
Directed by Peter Jackson.