The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
Peter Jackson brings his epic Tolkien adaptation to a triumphant close with Return of the King. It doesn’t quite pick up directly where The Two Towers left off, instead starting with a brief but effective prologue showing the fateful moment in which the ring first fell into the hands of Smeagol / Gollum. Structurally, this prologue is all wrong (it was apparently intended for The Two Towers, and that is where it would have sat more logically), but it’s an added treat: it feels like you’ve received a bonus before the movie itself has truly started. Then we’re back into the action where The Two Towers left off, once again cutting between two main threads to the story. Frodo and Sam are still trying to reach Mordor to destroy the ring, while Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Merry and Pippin play various roles in the defence of Gondor from Sauron’s armies.
This is not a flawless film. But unlike The Two Towers, the flaws are mere niggles, and do not stop this from being the cinema-going highlight of 2003. So perhaps I should dispense with the problems first. Like The Two Towers, the film has to fight the structural weaknesses of Tolkien’s original story, although this film is not nearly as hamstrung as its predecessor. Frodo and Sam, for instance, still do not have a great deal to do, although this problem has been minimised here (at The Two Tower’s expense) by shifting the Shelob sequence to this film. There is also a shaky sequence at the start that glosses over the demise of Saruman, which hadn’t been properly established at the conclusion of The Two Towers. The confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman that featured in the books is missing, replaced by dialogue telling us that he has been defeated. This is just sloppy, and the fact that this will presumably be reinstated in the extended DVD cut is no excuse: the theatrical trilogy should be able to stand alone. Saruman may have been the minor villain, but he is more interesting and entrenched in the audience’s mind than Sauron. It’s roughly the equivalent of starting Return of the Jedi with a scene where Obi Wan’s ghost explains to Luke Skywalker that Darth Vader has been killed offscreen, and that now Luke must confront the Emperor instead. However, given that this material rightfully belonged in The Two Towers, perhaps its absence should be counted as a failing of the earlier film.
These are, as I said, merely quibbles. An epic unfolding over three movies of around three hours each does not live or die by the small details in the way that a lean, taut 90 minute thriller might. Structural perfection is not what epic filmmaking is about: such films depend instead on the sustained emotional involvement over an extended running time, and on the grandeur and sweep of their vision. On these points, Return of the King is truly an impressive achievement. Jackson is reaping the rewards here of his careful attention to character over the trilogy. I was surprised at how many moments in Return of the King had me choked up: the film is truly moving. The Frodo and Sam sequences might labour for material, but they benefit from the strong performances of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, and the excellent blend of Andy Serkis’ performance and animation to realise the character of Gollum. Sam’s devotion to Frodo makes it quite wrenching when Frodo (clouded by the combined influence of the ring and Gollum’s deceit) starts to turn on him. Likewise, its satisfying to see Aragorn finally assume his role as King at the film’s conclusion. Unlike The Two Towers, all the characters are active: Gandalf in particular has a much larger and more significant role, as do Merry and Pippin.
Visually, too, the film is much more rewarding than its immediate predecessor. While the film still lacks the geographic diversity that blessed Fellowship of the Ring, it manages to avoid the muted tones and endless grasslands that dulled the visuals of the The Two Towers. There is a particularly good sequence as the beacons that serve as a link between Gondor and Rohan are lit, and the city of Minas Tirith – with its spectacularly designed upper levels – is one of the most spectacular locales in the trilogy. The real showstopper, however, is the final battle, which is everything the battle of Helm’s Deep should have been but wasn’t. Fought mostly in broad daylight, and with several ebbs and flows throughout the battle, it is much more dynamic than the showdown in the previous film. Just as exciting, but on a smaller scale, is Frodo and Sam’s assent of Mount Doom, and the final struggle as Frodo must cast the ring into the fire. The scene not only caps off Frodo’s quest, but it forms an apt conclusion to Gollum’s story.
As the trilogy draws to a close, its instructive to reflect on what an achievement Jackson has wrought. Despite my relatively cool feelings about the second film, the trilogy as a whole is truly an outstanding achievement. He has taken one of the most fanatically cherished stories ever written and managed to please most of its followers. He has distilled the best moments from the books and managed to eliminate many of their shortcomings. The film trilogy is also spectacularly successful on its own terms: as an action spectacle, as character drama, and simply as a journey through an unfamiliar but impeccably realised world. All this in difficult circumstances, making three expensive, massive films back to back (an endeavour that was itself epic in scope) without having helmed a large budget Hollywood blockbuster before. Perhaps most remarkably, he has managed to finish a trilogy with a bang, rather than a whimper: I can’t, offhand, think of another major franchise that has finished with a third installment as strong as this one.