The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) November 17, 2008

An much-abridged version of this review was published at Christianity Today.

In a recent British poll, U2’s song “One” was voted the greatest song of all time. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t a poll of musicians, historians, and songwriters, but of music fans. Still, the poll proves that U2’s song about longsuffering has struck resonant chords in its listeners over the last decade. The refrain, “We’ve got to carry each other…” is indeed powerful and true.

The song is not included in the soundtrack for The Return of the King, but the same sentiment, the same chord, is struck in a line of dialogue, in a vividly literal image, and in a metaphor that will move viewers to tears around the world for decades to come.

It happens when brave Samwise Gamgee, perhaps the most inspiringly brave soul to ever journey across a silver screen, cradles the suffering and battered form of his dearest friend, and determines to finish the journey on his own two feet if he has to. Sam is suffering the hardest thing that a loving soul must suffer—not his own personal torment, but the torment of seeing the one he loves suffering from a burden that cannot be taken away. Crumbling from the burden of grief, he grits his teeth and says, “I can’t carry it for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.”

It is, arguably, the most powerful moment in what now stands as the most important and beloved film trilogy yet made. While J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us to a world of fantasy, in a way it takes us to a world more true to our own than most “realistic” dramas. It “rings true” because it was told by a storyteller who believed in the Truth. “The closest thing to true communication between two human beings is story-telling,” writes Orson Scott Card, “for despite his best efforts at concealment, a writer will inevitably reveal in his story the world he believes he lives in.”

So what happens when that story is retold by someone else? In the case of The Lord of the Rings, as retold by director Peter Jackson and his screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, we get some semblance of the world Tolkien believed in, but that is clouded a bit by a vision of the world that the retellers believe in.

Nevertheless, Jackson’s big screen victories far outweigh his failures. In these films, what Tolkien described in detail has been given its most powerful visual representation yet. The quaint Hobbit culture, the elegant and ethereal Elves deep in their woods, the “tough bones” of the country ruled by men, the dead lands of the enemy—these have all been brought to vivid life, as if we could fly to the film’s New Zealand locations and find the ruins of this ancient world.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson finishes the epic with a flourish that leaves all other big screen fantasies thoroughly humbled. It stands as a rare exception: a trilogy’s third film that surpasses its predecessors in bold storytelling choices, thrilling action, heartbreaking emotion, eye-filling spectacle, and technical accomplishment. While I prefer The Fellowship of the Ring’s greater balance of distress and delight, this grief-burdened journey achieves something far more complicated—resolving the myriad plotlines with style, drama, suspense, and grace. It goes to show that even in the production of multi-million dollar blockbusters, sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Our heroes reach “the end of all things…”

The Return of the King opens with a prologue that portrays Smeagol’s disintegration into Gollum (played by Andy Serkis), a tormented wretch obsessed with and addicted to the great Ring of Power. In this surprising flashback, Serkis plays the as-yet unspoiled Smeagol unenhanced by effects, and it becomes clearer just how much of the actor’s brilliant work indwells Gollum’s animated expression. This reminds us of where the Ring is taking our story’s ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), whose every step Gollum follows with malice and deadly intent.

As we watch brave Frodo march toward similar spiritual ruin, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), his steadfast companion, gets to “show his quality.” When Gollum cleverly separates the hobbits, Sam demonstrates newfound courage and loyalty. First, he confronts Shelob, whose intelligent malevolence makes her film history’s most frightening spider. Soon after, he takes on a tower bustling with orcs. Right to the end, when Frodo’s will teeters on the edge of an abyss, Sam perseveres.

While Sam’s determination is truly inspiring, the deciding factor in the quest and the conflict is, in the end, the compassion of Frodo for suffering Smeagol, a quality that provokes an unlikely but profound conclusion.

Some reviewers have interpreted Tolkien’s epic as a mandate for “the West” to send Muslim extremists “to an early grave.” This is sorely misguided. The saga’s central thread is one of longsuffering and mercy. In the books, Aragorn even offers the orc armies a chance to surrender. Violence remains a grievous and questionable necessity for the protection of innocence. Unfortunately, in places, Jackson and company transgress in their storytelling, glorifying vengeful instincts. (At one point, Sam offs an orc with the words, “Not if I stick you first!” Someone next to me responded, muttering, “George W. Bush!”)

It is hard to imagine actors who could have portrayed Frodo and Sam better. No film that comes to my mind has portrayed a more intimate and powerful friendship. Their transformation from simple whimsical folk to battered, beleaguered survivors is heartbreakingly convincing. Astin will likely earn more acclaim and attention for his part; tearful breakdowns win awards. But Woods’ emotional performance equals Astin’s, a riveting portrayal of disintegration.

Their sufferings are painfully tangible, for the audience is only given two hours of journeying in dark, dank, dying Mordor, while Frodo and Sam endure it for days. The Ring of Power grows heavier on its chain around Frodo’s neck, carving deep scars there as he seeks to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom.

That fire-blasted wasteland is a visual metaphor for many forms of modern devastation, not more poignant than the modern world’s destruction of the environment that God asked us to “replenish” in the first command he ever gave us. Tolkien wrote, “The horrors of the American scene I will pass over, though they have given me great distress and labour. They arise in an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished to a degree only paralleled by the lunatic destruction of the physical lands which Americans inhabit….”

Frodo and Sam are not the only dynamic duo divided in this chapter. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who so far have served as comic relief, are separated as well, thrust into differing dire straits.

After King Theoden (Bernard Hill) orders his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) to stay behind while he leads the Riders of Rohan to battle, she defies him, carrying the equally willful Merry with her. They join what is perhaps the most exhilarating exhibition of an army on horseback ever filmed, riding to save the city of Minas Tirith.

The city is a wonder to behold. As the camera reveals it, we gasp at what is clearly the most spectacular achievement of design in the trilogy. But this beautiful white city is besieged by an orc army commanded by the ugliest orc ever invented: a monster resembling a Giant Evil Elephant-Man Yoda. The parts our heroes play on that battlefield lead to a showdown that earns the film’s biggest cheer.

Meanwhile, Pippin (Billy Boyd), pledges his service to the despairing Steward of Gondor, Lord Denethor (a scowling, snarling John Noble). In a time of distress, he sings a haunting song, like little David singing to a sour King Saul. (Yes, that is Boyd’s real singing voice; in fact, he composed the song.) This music becomes the soundtrack for one of the saga’s most excruciating episodes, and creates one of the masterstrokes of Jackson’s directorial career. Thus, Pippin too finds opportunity for heroism, as Denethor descends into a suicidal madness that threatens to take innocent victims.

Elsewhere, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are off on another memorable journey, one that gives Peter Jackson a chance to revel in his love of zombie-movie spectacle. While this particular subplot is certainly thrilling to watch, it also represents a diversion from the text that makes the literal “return of the king” rather anti-climactic. Aragorn’s rise to claim his kingship is, in the end, overshadowed too much by the other adventures. His final stand at the gate of Mordor is edited poorly and lacks the inspiring emotion of King Theoden’s rallying cry at the battle to save Minas Tirith.

These adventures are only a few in a film that tests the limits of audience endurance. If viewers had any trouble following interweaving plots in previous installments, they’ll be disoriented by the many additional characters, monsters, races, places, talismans, histories, and prophecies presented here. Be patient. Do not put your coat on too early. Viewers around me at the sneak preview applauded too early, and were surprised to learn there were still fifteen minutes of epilogues to take in. (My colleague Greg Wright chuckled, “It’s like being at the symphony, surrounded by people who have never been to one.”)

Many critics will complain about the parade of emotional endings. And the sequence is indeed awkward. Some things work in a book that do not work very well in a film. But all of those endings are necessary. The thrilling climax of the action is not the end of the story. Tolkien’s brilliance lies in illuminating how much is lost in a conflict, and how the brave must carry on, bearing heavy burdens. Some of the survivors may never be able to return to the quiet happy lives they once lived.

In spite of its awkward marathon of endings, the film boasts far more triumphs of translation than failures. Jackson wisely returns us to an approach of intimate close-ups, giving us a perspective on the conflict from the hobbits’ point of view. This gives us the sense of being a small observer in an intimidating and amazing world, a more effective tactic than the panoramic “eye in the sky” approach of The Two Towers. It also succeeds in making the monsters scary again. Shelob makes us squirm. Flying serpents called Fell Beasts, merely a spectacle in Towers, sweep down like bone-shattering nightmares.

Let me put it bluntly—The Return of the King may well be the most awe-inspiring visual spectacle ever to play on a big screen. It represents standard-setting work by a vast host of artists. We get a feast of superlative performances from actors who committed more time and energy than a cast has ever given to a film project. Writers have beaten the odds to triumphantly please the majority of Tolkien’s vast fan base as well as many newcomers and fantasy-wary critics. Designers, effects-makers, the cinematographer, the composer, the costumers, and the other wizards—all have thrown down the gauntlet and said, “Top this!” Nothing of its scale is likely to be attempted again for a long time.

If the Academy voters once again deny Peter Jackson his overdue Oscars, they only accelerate their increasing irrelevance. Titles more likely to win awards—Mystic River, for example—are impressive, but also bleak and morose. The Return of the King is not only a Herculean feat of workmanship, it is also charged with tangible hope. It will be quoted by young and old alike for decades to come. It has inspired a generation to read, surpassing Harry Potter in motivating them to read literature. Jackson’s saga serves us not only with entertainment, but with art that will inform the decisions of the wise and tweak the consciences of the proud and self-serving.

While it qualifies as the most violent film of an excessively violent cinematic year, its masterfully choreographed battle scenes are essential parts of the story, bringing us to the edge of our emotions as well as the edge of our seats. Losses pierce us like spears. Courage thrills us like an electrical jolt. The strain of battle sends us home suffering from a vicarious exhaustion, as though we ourselves fought alongside King Theoden in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. We walk away with wounds that will not heal, with a bittersweet wisdom and glimmers of hope.

Flawed heroes, a higher hope…

After the press screening, I overheard several critics complaining about “the Neverending Movie” and “the Movie with Seven Endings.” (They’ll probably hate this “neverending review” as well.) There seems to be an inexplicable disconnect between some people and Tolkien’s style of tale-weaving. (One woman complained that she still couldn’t tell the difference between “Merry and Trippy.” Go figure.) I have no explanation, just sadness that their skepticism stands between them and so many rewarding metaphors and characters. Did they at some point outgrow fairy tales, deciding that they are valuable only as charming flights of fancy for the naïve?

Most Tolkien fans will be enthralled by Jackson’s vivid depictions, unless their insistence on adherence to the text is too strong. Purists bothered by the diversions in The Two Towers will find plenty to gripe about here.

Yes, the film’s quick dismissal of Saruman is disappointing. Sure, the removal of “The Houses of Healing” and “The Scouring of the Shire” chapters leave holes in the plot. But fans who have complained about these things on the Internet will probably forgive Jackson, as I did, when they’ve reached the 3-hour mark and the film still shows no signs of stopping.

Tolkien once wrote, “The failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” The Return of the King’s weaknesses do indeed stem from exaggerations and intrusions that betray the screenwriters’ misinterpretation of Tolkien’s convictions. Not professing to a faith of their own, they often avoid the story’s suggestions of higher powers. They instead shift their focus to how men endeavor to save the world. They think it is about finding the strength within ourselves to stand up and overcome evil.

Do not let any critic or viewer steer you wrong in interpreting the culminating scene. Jackson admits he tried to make Frodo’s final actions “deliberately vague,” hoping to please audiences who want valor instead of failure. But in that ambiguity, Tolkien’s ideas are still there for the taking. Those who read the book will understand: This is not a hero story. Tolkien insisted, “Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.”

While Tolkien certainly advocated courage in resisting evil, and while his story reflects his grief over the way people destroy the natural world, for him the book was about something different: “If the tale is ‘about’ anything (other than itself), it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power’. Power-seeking is only the motive—power that sets events going, and is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, and hoarding memory.”

But we must keep in mind, Tolkien was never opposed to a film version—even a simplified or “vulgarized” version. I think he would have been surprised to see how well it survived the transition. Nothing has been spoiled… only tarnished.

And do not take too seriously the misconstrued interpretations of the story given voice by actors to the press.

Ian McKellen tells us that what resonates most profoundly with him about Tolkien’s vision is that Hobbiton, the ideal society, has no church. He does not understand that the energy and profundity of the story stem from the very things that the Church declares to the world.

Andy Serkis tells CNN that if he had the ring, the first thing he would do would be to “Banish all religions.” That’s the attitude of wicked Denethor, who trusts only in feeble humankind; it is not the perspective of Gandalf or Galadriel, and definitely not Tolkien.

Middle-Earth’s master called his story “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults and practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

We can be thankful that the truth shines through this finished work as brightly as it does. The triumphant epilogue offers tangible hope rather than mere Hollywood sentiment. We can look back now and see that, while this edition of Tolkien’s epic is a bit out of tune, it is still a rousing and redemptive cinematic symphony.

“I know, of course, that I never stood at the Cracks of Doom and watched [these events],” says writer Orson Scott Card. “But that faith in the distinction between my own actions and the actions of fictional characters is merely another story I tell myself. In fact, my memory of that event is much clearer and more powerful than my memory of my fifth birthday.”

Fortunately for moviegoers, they now have a trilogy filled with fantastical moments that may profoundly influence their daily dealings with “reality.” Perhaps Gandalf’s voice will come to them in their moments of discovery and distress. Perhaps they will think of Gollum or Galadriel when faced by temptation. They may see Sauron in the news, and the kingdoms of men struggling with issues of courage and conviction. They might experience the loss of their own childhoods, their own innocence. They will see humankind tested… and they will see humankind fail.

They will also ultimately learn that the fate of the world is not entirely up to them—a plan both higher and deeper is at work, in which the compassion of one man redeems us, while the darkness collapses upon itself.


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