THE STORY – The culmination of nearly ten years’ work and conclusion to Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on the timeless J.R.R. Tolkien classic, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” presents the final confrontation between the forces of good and evil fighting for control of the future of Middle-earth. Hobbits Frodo and Sam reach Mordor in their quest to destroy the “one ring,” while Aragorn leads the forces of good against Sauron’s evil army at the stone city of Minas Tirith.
THE 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, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm & Sean Bean
THE TEAM – Peter Jackson (Director/Writer), Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 201 Minutes
Where does one even begin to discuss the accomplishments of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King?” The trilogy it completes is one of the most unfathomably successful in film history, and “The Return of the King” is the apotheosis of its astronomical achievement. It’s the second film in history to cross the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office, and not only did it win a record-breaking 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), but it was also the victor in every category in which it was nominated. Few films before or since have come close to reaching such commercial and artistic excellence. And, as a piece of narrative filmmaking, it’s hard to understate just how well it not only caps off the entire trilogy – a difficult task in its own right – but also how it stands as a well-told and constructed individual story. For all its titanic technical breakthroughs and iconic moments of spectacle, its thematic resonance and sweeping storytelling have helped maintain its legacy beyond similar blockbusters. More than anything else, it’s a story about the virtues of hope, having faith in the world’s inherent goodness, and living a life so full of worthwhile connections and selfless deeds that the idea of reaching the natural end of our finite lives is not something to fear, but instead a soothing final chapter to an existence filled with wonder.
To watch “The Return of the King” now is to get excited about yet another iconic scene or sequence every few minutes, which is incredibly admirable considering just how many minutes are in the film. The movie begins by jumping right in where the story left off after “The Two Towers.” The former Fellowship is celebrating dual victories against the evil Sauron’s forces at Helm’s Deep and Isengard, while Gollum (Andy Serkis) leads Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) closer to Mount Doom (and unbeknownst to the two hobbits, he’s also drawing them into an arachnid trap). After some quick plot catch-up, the film settles into its rhythm. Namely, Frodo, the ringbearer, nears the end of his destructive quest, and the armies of good and bad prepare to face off in a gargantuan battle on the Pelennor Fields in front of Minas Tirith, on the edge of the dark realm of Mordor. And thus begins an unending array of filmmaking and storytelling achievements. There’s the thrilling sequence of the lighting of the beacons from Minis Tirith to call for aid from Rohan – a stunning montage that spans miles of Middle Earth, with powerfully swelling music and sweeping camerawork. And, there’s the remarkable directorial flourish of pairing Denethor’s (John Noble) gluttonous meal with his son Faramir’s (David Wenham) doomed charge into the sieged capital city of Osgiliath, while Pippin (Billy Boyd) sings a haunting, tearful ballad. The epic siege of Minas Tirith and the subsequent Battle of the Pelennor Fields is the film’s major centerpiece, spread out over nearly an hour of the runtime. It’s a mammoth feat of filmmaking, not only for the visual effects that bring it to life but also for the clarity and spatial geography maintained throughout. At times, it does get overwhelming, and it’s easy to get lost in what exactly is happening to whom and in relation to what, but it’s still an impressive set piece.
At the time of its release, the film’s visual effects were considered top-of-the-line. The only Oscar that all three entries in “The Lord of the Rings” series won was for Best Visual Effects. Twenty years later, the special effects in “The Return of the King” still hold up. Of course, everyone remembers Gollum, and the amazing pairing of CGI and Andy Serkis’s motion capture performance helps create one of the most long-lasting iconic characters who’s entirely made of code. He not only blends seamlessly into every environment he’s in, but he also interacts with the fully human characters of Frodo and Sam with complete believability. The illusion never breaks. What went mostly unheralded at the time but stands out compared to today’s blockbusters is the wise melding of real environments and CGI adornments. Director Peter Jackson uses as much of the actual New Zealand filming locations and soundstages as possible, only turning to virtual sets when necessary. Even still, CGI is mostly only used to visibly extend or accentuate a scene rather than entirely construct a location. This helps the film age well, and it also makes thematic sense. The places the characters inhabit are tangible and tactile, thus making it easier to believe that this fantasy world is worth fighting and even dying for.
In fact, this film represents the tail end of big-budget movies favoring practical effects over CGI in general. Many creatures — most impressively, the hellish orcs – are brought to life via makeup. It’s a process that surely took much more time and energy than fully animating them via computers would’ve (as would unquestionably be done today), but the effect is staggering and well worth the effort. And, while the film series famously used brand-new technology to create hordes of computer-generated crowds, there are still many extras (and real horses!) used to fill the screen. All of these actors had to be individually costumed, made up, and hair styled — an admirable feat. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of CGI, with the more outlandish, large creatures fully conjured up digitally, and they’re certainly well done in their own right. These fantastical factors are all captured with appropriately maximalist cinematography. The camera has a habit of pulling back to capture as much in the frame as possible, including massive armies and grand vistas. The camerawork is an essential component in conveying the vast sense of scale that the expansive source material requires. But, these elements are always shot in a way that still feels somehow grounded, once again bringing a tangible quality to the film that makes it easier for earthbound audiences to understand the stakes. The film’s overall style is still imitated to this day, most apparently by “Game of Thrones” and its related properties.
Howard Shore scooped up two Academy Awards for his work on this film series, and even that feels like not enough recognition for how essential his contribution was to the film’s success. He composed some of the greatest themes to ever blast through movie theater speakers, making genius use of leitmotif to immediately cue the audience into how they should be feeling or what an image represents. His music helps hold the reigns on the film’s tone and maintains a sense of importance and grandeur. This is especially important during the infamously lengthy multiple endings, all of which have an unyieldingly earnest energy that the music literally helps underscore. In addition, his work with screenwriter Fran Walsh on the song “Into the West,” sung by co-writer Annie Lennox over the film’s end credits, is truly beautiful, perfectly capturing the reverential feeling of the final moments.
The SAG-winning ensemble operates on a uniformly excellent level, bringing real-world relatability to the high-fantasy setting. There’s such humanity to their performances, which is especially laudable considering the levels of makeup and wigs with which many of them are weighed under by. Boyd uses the more high-stakes scenes featuring Pippin to add pathos to a character who was previously only used for comic relief. Ian McKellen, as always, brings an exceptionally authoritative presence to the film with his portrayal of the great wizard Gandalf. His speech to Pippin about his vision of death as a doorway to the next great adventure is especially moving and essential for the film’s unbelievably emotional finale to work. Wood’s Frodo is, at times, understandably ill-equipped for his situation and, in some pivotal instances, surprisingly intimidating. He makes for an excellent audience stand-in. Miranda Otto plays Éowyn, the niece of King Théoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill), who sneaks onto the male-dominated field of battle. She’s given one of the most memorable quotes in the film as she kills the Witch-king (Lawrence Makoare), delivering the powerful line “I am no man” in such a triumphant way that it’s impossible not to be stirred.
But, the film’s most outstanding performance comes from Astin as Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s companion who is the very image of loyalty. He goes through quite a journey across the course of the three films, both literally and internally, and this final chapter gives him some of the most riveting moments yet. After Sam is abandoned by Frodo, thanks to Gollum’s machinations, he makes a glorious return to his side, rescuing him from the giant spider Shelob and the orcs that capture him. And, even as Frodo continues to struggle as they get closer and closer to the volcano where the Ring must be destroyed, Sam is always there, eventually carrying him quite literally on his back in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Astin is beyond sympathetic. Watching him break down is the emotional equivalent of watching your father cry; it’s even more impactful because of all that he represents.
These individual aspects all combine to make a film that’s technically excellent and consistently invigorating. But, what makes it a classic, and what audiences connected with upon release and helped lift it to the exalted status it reached, is the soulful resonance it has with viewers. The film is achingly earnest, never dipping into the kind of irony that similarly high fantasy or sci-fi sometimes stoop to permit cynical modern audiences to enjoy the film. The heroic characters believe in the importance of the triumph of good, and they’re not afraid to lay their lives on the line to see that victory. That kind of unshakable bravery is powerful to see. Irrefutable righteousness is hard to find in our world, so the chance to watch a collection of characters that the audience has spent hours bonding with fighting for something so pure and worthy as their continued peaceful existence and the expulsion of bone-deep evil is a joy to witness. And, after victory is won, that’s not enough for all of them. Frodo is forever changed by his journey’s hardships and, in the film’s final minutes, departs with his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), Gandalf, and the three Elf ringbearers from Middle Earth. This leave-taking is an emotional moment for both the characters and the audience, as it represents a voluntary exit from existence as we know it. It’s depicted with proper reverence and gravitas, but there’s also something strangely hopeful about it. As Gandalf made clear to Pippin earlier in the film, “Death is just another path, one that we all must take,” and it’s shown even to be something of a blissful reward to those who’ve done their best to make the world a better place in their short but wondrous existence. This is exactly the kind of hopeful send-off that everyone wishes to have at the end of their life, and getting to see it depicted as the conclusion of a nearly ten-hour-long saga has the effect of washing over the audience like a warm, emotional tidal wave.
It’s clear from his direction that Jackson is a loyal fan of Tolkien’s source novels, and he did about as good a job as any author could hope for with his adaptations. “The Lord of the Rings” is quite simply one of the most extraordinary achievements in film history and was a tremendous risk that paid off immensely. “The Return of the King” is the excellent final flourish of the series and is impactful enough to make viewers want to return to Middle-earth again and again. It’s a journey worth consistently taking. The road truly does go on and on.