I can’t really give any one specific reason why, to this day, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King remains my favorite film of all time.
Maybe it’s because of the beautiful sets and environments, or the excellent acting, or the flawless sound and music, or the epic battles, or the story that comes to a close in such a satisfying way. Maybe it isn’t any one of these things, but I would say that a movie with all of these surely deserves to set the standards for the genre for many years to come.
It’s been a tremendous journey revisiting one of my favorite series of movies, from relaxing with Frodo Baggins in his quiet days in the Shire to standing with him on the slopes of the volcanic Mount Doom–but more than that, it’s been a joy to me to explain exactly why I love these movies so much, as well as what I wonder if they and the story beneath them might not have done differently. But any of the few flaws The Return of the King may have are surely washed away in a flood of successes that earned the movie all eleven Academy Awards for which it was nominated.
And as any great record-breaking, mountain-shaking, explosively successful blockbuster epic should … it all begins with a worm.
Our only wish, to catch a fish …
The conclusion of the journey through Middle-earth begins on an oddly happy note, with two Hobbits fishing in the lovely Shire, centuries before the events of the main plot. One of the men is named Déagol, the other Sméagol. The former is so determined to catch a large fish that he risks his life in the water, but of all possible things stuck in the mud for him to find … he finds the Ring of Power.
Déagol pores over the ring in his mud-covered hands, but Sméagol’s desires get the better of him (and of Déagol), leading to a vicious fight that feels like a bloodless but nonetheless equally unpleasant version of the Mandingo fight in Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Django Unchained. Sméagol chokes the poor Ring-Bearer until the latter begins to suffocate, complete with increasingly fast-paced drums and frightening whispers playing in the background … and then the drums cease to be, as does Déagol.
Sméagol was cast out by his kith and kin. “Murderer,” they called him, with painful reason. The Ring prolonged Sméagol’s life, but at the cost of everything and everyone he could have ever hoped to enjoy, except for one thing, which itself had nothing of value to offer him. Sméagol forgot all of these things, even his own name … but he found another. The movie takes a pleasant scene and quickly turns it sour, but the rest of the plot knows how to skillfully balance joy, despair, and hope in their proper measures. Sméagol’s origin story is a simple yet strongly delivered tale of crime and punishment, with justice that, while deserved, is as tragic for the murderer–what might he have done with his life if not for this, and how might he have contributed to his world?–as it is for his victim, who was never given the chance either way.
Onward toward the mountain
Frodo and Sam continue their journey to the land of Mordor, where they hope to once and for all destroy the evil Ring that Frodo carries. Sam optimistically believes in the likelihood of a journey home and makes preparations for it, even as he knows the only way to go is forward. In another area, the surviving heroes of the series are reestablished while the title appears over a rousing overture. Not including the opening scene, the movie actually has a rather lighthearted opening, with some events feeling like they wouldn’t have been out of place in the peaceful days of life in the Shire.
A villain from the previous films makes his return, albeit in a rather disgraced state; having lost everything he’s worked and fought to achieve, he is offered a chance to surrender that he rejects with a restrained but booming performance. One of his insults hits the mark a little too hard, however, and it leads to a rather gory fate, which is shown on screen. The level of violence stays within PG-13 boundaries throughout the film, while also seeming to try to push them.
Some scenes later, a victory feast is held for one of the events of The Two Towers, the previous film, in which a drinking contest is held. I’ve heard certain people I know in real life express moral objection to some of the magical events that happen in this film, but one that bothers me more on a practical, cultural level is the casual acceptance of drug use, even to excess, found in the series as a whole. (Yes, it was neat to watch Gandalf blow smoke into the form of a ship, but whether this affects him adversely or not, I can’t imagine it’s good for anyone else.)
Gollum’s “conversations” with himself now work through reflections in water, wherein he continues plotting the fate of Frodo and Sam as he moves toward his personal resolution and endgame. The latter notices Gollum talking to himself, hears his plans, and gets into a fight. Frodo tries to stop this, and Gollum accuses Sam of being a liar. The drama here seems at once forced (why would Frodo believe that someone who’s never lied to him would suddenly start doing so?) and yet somewhat reasonable (the Hobbits do need a guide to be able to reach Mordor, and the Ring may be impairing Frodo’s judgment).
Our resident gentleman Aragorn tucks Éowyn in while she sleeps and unintentionally wind up leading the poor girl on. (While I’m satisfied with how Aragorn’s and Arwen’s relationship was dealt with, for all of its difficulties, I’m less happy with what happened to Éowyn. She feels like she’s tossed around from one potential partner to another, at least three if one stoops to including Aragorn, who isn’t interested but is kind enough to at least wish the girl joy, and the one she ends the movie with isn’t someone with whom she had much of any interaction.) Elsewhere, through some of the most foolish means imaginable, one of the other characters fortuitously receives an omen, a partial sign of Sauron’s plans to come. Sadly his curiosity without responsibility threatens to cost him one of his dear friends.
Arwen returns, as does the column of Elves preparing to leave Middle-earth. Their timing seems unfortunate for the other races, with war on the horizon, but in any case Arwen herself literally watches her storytelling change for the better: her romantic subplot improves handily thanks to improved dialogue with her father Elrond, which seems to get to the point more quickly than in the first two films. More importantly, she receives a vision, of sorts, of hers and Aragorn’s hypothetical son, with the boy wordlessly condemning her indecision with only a glare.
The meaning of haste
Minas Tirith is a tall, gorgeous city that almost looks like a gigantic wedding cake made out of stone and marble. Here we are introduced to Denethor, a steward in the kingdom of Gondor, whose throne has no actual king. Having lost one of his children to battle, Denethor has significant fathering problems to deal with, as he explicitly wishes that the other child, Faramir, had died instead. The latter’s reaction of heartbreak is itself difficult to watch. Meanwhile, Denethor fiercely clings to a rule that doesn’t technically belong to him.
Diverse forces from far and wide are joining Sauron’s war, including the Witch-king of Angmar, who leads Mordor’s armies. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum come to Minas Morgul, a green-glowing, very obviously haunted and dangerous place that nonetheless just looks incredible, as does basically every other place in this movie. A great evil army marches out of the city, and the Witch-king flies away on his fell beast. Minas Morgul is one of the most impressive displays of special effects in the whole series, and while many places such as Rivendell were wonders enough thanks to their architecture alone, the Dead City (as the movie also refers to it) goes for extra detail and benefits hugely from it.
A city named Osgiliath lies in ruins and still manages to look beautiful, and there’s a very well choreographed and shot nighttime action scene that takes place there. It’s anything but an excuse to showcase the abilities of the heroic forces, which keeps the story interesting thanks to the element of actual risk and danger. The Orc-boats are aesthetically nicely designed, and some of them actually look like the kinds of landing boats one might have seen at Normandy.
The Return of the King juggles subplots similarly to how The Two Towers did, but there’s a bigger sense of importance here as the dark lord Sauron nears his ultimate victory and as the various plot threads intersect more tightly here. Frodo and Sam are still distantly separated from their friends, but both groups are now so close to Mordor that certain locations, obviously including Mount Doom, are easily visible to all. The pacing also feels like it’s been stepped up from the second film: there are no subplots like Frodo’s or Treebeard’s that take forever to feel like they’re going anywhere. The whole movie feels like it’s one big, epic payoff delivering on what both of its predecessors were leading up to. More subplots are resolved, more characters receive their ultimate rewards and destinies, and more of the action feels more important thanks to the plot raising the potential of what can be won or lost at a moment’s notice.
Muster the Rohirrim!
After one of the series’ most well-meaning but least competent characters proves himself again valuable by lighting the beacon of Minas Tirith, there’s a gorgeous montage of numerous beacons being lit up all over the mountains. The air shots are so beautiful that Peter jackson should just do a travel documentary about New Zealand and be done with it.
The battle for the realm of Gondor (of which Minas Tirith is a part) isn’t built up with as much suspense and nervous waiting as the battle for Helm’s Deep was, but the former feels more significant than the latter because of Gondor’s geographic location. It also feels more gruesome, with various men being bloodied and at least one being impaled (as well as an enormous flying fell beast getting decapitated), and the sheer intensity of some of the fights may be a bit much for some viewers. Emotions run high, with Denethor being furious over the One Ring not having been kept in Gondor, and with Frodo’s judgment being weakened by that ring moment by moment. There is just something “off” in how Gollum accentuates his caring for Frodo, such that the tone of his voice really doesn’t even sound sincere, even as he legitimately does help at times.
As Faramir and his men ride out to a battle that frankly does not go very well for them, there’s a haunting fight montage set to song; both succeed in giving the movie a darker atmosphere as it leads up to its halfway point. With indirect assistance from Elrond, Aragorn and company set off to find some very unusual allies–though it would have helped if Aragorn had informed his men of at least part of his plans, as a number of them think he’s abandoning the fight. It does not help that there’s an Orc force on its way that makes the Uruk-hai army that attacked Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers look miniscule.
While the next scene raises a lot of questions about how spirituality and the afterlife really work in Jackson’s portrayal of the setting, since they’re not concepts that are often brought up, it’s still a ton of fun to watch, and it’s not worth spoiling. Aragorn’s solution to his current problem of recruiting others to his side seems a bit convenient, as well as simply being too awesome to only show up once in the whole story, but at the very least it works. There’s also an avalanche formed out of lots and lots of one of the most unpleasant things one might imagine. (What must that have done for the film’s budget, I wonder, and how long did it take to set up?)
Minas Tirith is currently under siege, and there’s an enormous Orc force inflicting morale damage by using–yes, indeed–visibly decapitated heads as catapult stones. When they switch to real stones, huge amounts of destruction are inflicted on (and by) Minas Tirith, causing massive damage to both sides. The Orcs try but fail to break down the gates … which leads them to bring out their bigger ram. End of disc one.
Before I continue onto the second disc and the remaining half of this epic story, I’ll recap by saying that up to this point, The Return of the King has already done more of a service for the tale of the Ring than all of The Two Towers did in my view. Whereas the latter film and its underlying story didn’t often focus on the big picture as much as I would have wished it did, this story knows it’s ending soon (inasmuch as four hours can be considered “soon”), and pretty much everything it says and does feels like it’s meant to prepare for that conclusion–and, in the case of the Elves, for the time beyond.
Howard Shore’s music has been as amazing as it ever was, though it’s not afraid to become legitimately creepy whenever this film decides it wants to be a horror movie. The production values have remained consistenly top-notch and may well have improved, with friendly and enemy armor remaining as impressive as it ever did, while some special effects like the ominous beam of light shot up from Minas Morgul make the film feel more “magical,” if perhaps slightly less grounded in a relatable setting, than the first two movies did, other than in places such as the Mines of Moria and to some extent Rivendell.
If The Return of the King as a whole is a payoff for the series, then the second half of the movie feels like a payoff for the first. Less time is spent watching both sides gather their forces instead of engaging in open conflict. Some of the best stylistic elements from The Fellowship of the Ring are revisited without reusing content, Frodo’s quest really feels like it’s making appreciable amounts of progress (and finding danger in equal measure), and the setup of the past two and a half films heads toward the finish in a big way.
An uphill journey
As corsair ships of evil Men approach, Aragorn’s thoroughly bored you-shall-not-pass one-liner and his subsequent smug expression are hilarious. The ships look great, and it would have been nice to have seen these corsairs as a recurring villain, in another story where they perhaps might make more sense. (I wouldn’t want to see such wonderful art direction go to waste.)
By this point, Frodo is becoming rather dense, whether due to his own fault or the influence of the Ring, as he doesn’t pick up on Gollum’s unrestrained glee and excitement at the thought of escorting him into a dangerous-looking tunnel. Said tunnel is a sight to behold, and its scenes surprisingly do a good job of keeping the place lit well enough for the viewer to consistently see what’s going on. The best part of this is that the great “monster-movie” tension and build-up from The Fellowship of the Ring have returned for one last challenge, which in its own way serves as a valuable lesson about the cultivation of friendship.
Two different “not quite dead” plots unfold in different locations, with one of them ending in something of a convenient solution and the other ending in a truly heroic deed, followed by an actual death. At this point the story starts to feel simpler, as the two threads are essentially the fates of Gondor and of Frodo.
The Witch-king is back and is actually doing quite well for himself, and the series’ signature battles of huge numbers of combatants are really taking off. Horsemen charge into Orc archers, with these and other action moments being intense and often brutal, and the oliphaunts, those enormous, glorious creatures that were briefly shown in The Two Towers, finally get their day in the gray sun, as does Legolas, who goes from being merely “peculiarly competent” to being a giant-slayer.
After a fell beast gets its head cut off, there’s a grisly but surprisingly welcome level of detail present in what’s left of its neck, as what would logically be the creature’s spinal column is distinctly easy to recognize. The battles in this film manage to look incredible and nearly incomprehensible in scale without trivializing those of the earlier movies, as thankfully this story’s earlier moments took time to show that sometimes a few enemies can be as formidable as a thousand under the proper conditions.
Frodo, meanwhile, is in a bad situation, having had his personal effects taken, including the Ring, but this leads to some hilarious (and, for being such, well timed) scenes involving a marching army of Orcs. They are just so much fun to watch as they bicker and fight that I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories from their perspective if they’re going to be so entertaining.
The various plot threads finally “intersect” as much as they ever will, as Aragorn and company prepare one last gambit to distract Sauron’s attention away from Frodo. Victory cannot be achieved through strength of arms, and the only thing in the world that has the chance of bringing victory is humility, as distinct from self-denigration, which some characters actively struggle with. The Hobbits have always represented this humility to some degree, being neither the tallest, nor the strongest, nor the wisest of any of the races of Free Peoples, but it is this characteristic of theirs that makes their deeds of courage and perseverance stand out all the more, perhaps because these aren’t consistently expected of them, which is something that the movie also brings up. Going along with this, at one point one character actively tries to taunt Sauron and loses something deeply precious as a result.
Hour of reckoning
Poor Sam at this point is pessimistic about the idea of being able to go home. Frodo is beset by a threat that recalls the unnerving drums and whispers of the beginning of the movie. His friends are led to believe that he is dead. Nearly everything that can go wrong at this point does, but this is not the end.
Aragorn gives one of his greatest and most inspiring speeches in the whole series, summoning some of his best acting abilities to do so. As the music swells, the scene serves as a great rallying-cry for the forces of good and for the viewer, both of which could likely used a mood boost.
Sam displays an amazing act of friendship as an instrumental version of the film’s closing theme, Into the West, begins playing, and the quest for Mount Doom reaches its conclusion, for good or for ill. (Both are played with before the movie makes its ultimate choice, and it’s at once impressive and deeply disturbing when the balance of power shifts heavily in favor of Sauron.)
The ending itself can best be described as bittersweet and even a little tragic. It’s mostly satisfying, in that some of the romantic threads feel abrupt and unnecessary, and some of the decisions made among the best of friends seem heartless and cruel. But these don’t significantly take away from the many things the ending does right, which in itself is a testament to the strength of the story and of this series. It’s not something I can take for granted that a single movie will have a satisfying conclusion, and so it’s especially impressive when the final part of a trilogy manages to pull it off so well.
I’m reminded of something that was said at the end of The Two Towers: sometimes, after a great disaster or conflict, it can be understandably difficult to believe that the world would or could go back to the way it used to be. Maybe it won’t, and perhaps some ways of life are changed forever. Sometimes it’s surprising how much can change in even a little time, and sometimes it’s surprising how much doesn’t. One thing that all of these movies have done excellently, however, is to feel like very different creations at their ends than at their beginnings. Much has changed in this world and its people since the days of Bilbo and the Shire, and while parts of the fate of Middle-earth are left to ambiguity, the answers that are provided are more than enough.
Conclusion: Here, at the end of all things
Here we are. It’s been a very busy week for me, as I revisited one of my favorite film series of all time, and I’m very happy to have been able to share it with people I hold dear. The story of Frodo, and the Ring, and Sam, and Aragorn, and all the rest, even for all its imperfections, is still such an overwhelming success story that I doubt I and many others will forget it any time soon.
It’s impossible for me to stop and think about how much work must have gone into these movies, and yet it’s exceedingly easy for me to appreciate how much all of this was worth it. So it is for Frodo. Stepping outside of his comfort zone in a big way, he set across a vast land into places and events he could hardly have imagined, and in so doing, he and his friends made a tremendous impact on the future of the world they share. And as the story closes, it behooves us to remember that while time and distance sometimes separated these friends, they were forever bound in love, and that was something that no evil or tragedy, even death, could take from them.
The Return of the King made over a billion dollars worldwide without, to the best of my knowledge, any help from IMAX or 3D technology, and it deserves every penny. It’s a staggering success story and a testament to the power of courage and bravery to overcome impossible odds, in our world or any other.
Special thanks go to the B+ Movie Blog–commentary not safe for work–for many awesome still images from the movie.