Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Grade : A+ Year : 2003 Director : Peter Jackson Running Time : 3hr 21min Genre : ,
Movie review score
A+

Originally Written: December 2003

It’s the little moments that’ve made Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films masterpieces. Frodo and Gandalf’s greetings at the beginning of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Bilbo and Frodo’s reunion in Rivendell. Sam’s attempts to compose a lyric for Gandlaf’s fireworks as a lament calls out in Lothlorien. Aragorn and Boromir’s discussion of Gondor in Lothlorien. Frodo’s grave look when Gandalf falls in Moria. Merry and Pippen’s distraction of the Uruk-Hai at Amon Hen. Sam’s devotion to Frodo when the Fellowship breaks. Eowyn’s soulful song at her cousin Theodred’s funeral in the extended edition of “The Two Towers.” Gimli and Legolas’ kill count competition at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Smeagol’s psychological battles with the mischeivous Gollum. Smeagol’s gift of dead rabbits to Frodo and Sam. Sam’s compliment of Faramir’s quality. Faramir’s best wishes to Frodo as he continues on his journey. Frodo’s appreciation of Sam in the wilderness. Like so many little moments in dozens of films before these, these are the moments that make classics.

There are moments in “The Return of the King” of equal power and grace. Is “Return of the King” better “than one and two combined,” as Elijah Wood- whose work as ring-bearer Frodo Baggins has been under-the-rader, underrated, and unforgettable- has said? I’ll let you know when the extended DVD edition is released next year. What I can say is that “King”- on J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative pages and Jackson’s visionary celluloid- is my favorite of the three epics, the most emotional of the three chapters of the story (Kleenex will be needed), the most suspenseful of the journey, and the most satisfying cinematic experience of the year.

Over the past months, I’ve been thinking about the movies I loved as a child, movies that thrilled me time and time again, and made me laugh without fail. The movies that have made up my “cinema DNA,” as AICN’s Harry Knowles put it when mentioning the films he watched as a child in his “Two Towers” review last year. All remain favorites to this day, all seen before I moved down to Georgia in 1988: the “Star Wars” trilogy, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Predator,” “The Princess Bride,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Spaceballs,” “A Christmas Story,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Karate Kid,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Rocky IV,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Goonies.” All cinematic classics? Hardly. But these are the films- above all others I saw in my early childhood- that gave me my tics, tastes, and things I look for in a movie- from sharp wit to great music to exciting action to enjoyable characters.

In this thinking, I’ve been struck by how much in common “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has with many of these films. The poignant friendship so powerful in “E.T.” is echoed in the bonds of the Fellowship of the Ring, and Frodo and Sam in particular. The sense of old-fashioned adventure in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”- also featuring “Rings'” John Rhyes-Davies- and “The Goonies”- which holds the bonus connections of its’ fellowship of children on an epic adventure and a shared star (Sean Astin)- is mirrored in “Rings'” thrilling battles and journeys. The inner courage mustered by the protagonists of “Rocky IV” and “The Karate Kid” can be found in the hearts of the Hobbits as they are thrust into the middle of the War of the Ring. The lush, old-fashioned romanticism of “The Princess Bride” comes through in the star-crossed love story between Arwen and Aragorn. The primal terror of the Uruk-Hai and Orcs as they hunt the Fellowship rivals “Predator,” only on a much more epic scale. And finally, the mythic sense of destiny and a grand battle of Good vs. Evil taking place in the “Star Wars” trilogy is not only rivaled by the cinematic tellings of Tolkien’s tale, but clearly inspired by the story’s printed version. That I can find these similarities in such an extraordinary piece of cinema with films I loved as a child is more a personal thing than a tribute to “Rings” and Peter Jackson’s accomplishment, but it makes one thing clear- that I’ve become fully enamoured in the universe Tolkien created- so much so that I’ve finished reading “The Lord of the Rings” and its’ predecessor “The Hobbit,” and look forward to further literary explorations of Middle-Earth via “The Silmarillion” and other works- and treasure Jackson’s films among my favorites of all-time should be of no surprise.

Neither should the fact that Jackson has concluded his historic undertaking on the highest of notes. He’s made no secret that “Return of the King” is his favorite of the three books and films, and it shows in every frame, and in this- it’s the most faithful adaptation to the book of the three films (but we’ll get to that). For nearly three and a half hours, Jackson keeps you enthralled with the emotional final Battle for Middle Earth, as the Fellowship are thrown into the fray on several different fronts- the titular heir to the throne Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhyes-Davies) making their way to the battlefield by way of the Paths of the Dead, which sets a test for Aragorn to prove he is the man to take the throne of Gondor; hobbit Merry (Dominic Monaghan)- now separated from his friend Pippen (Billy Boyd), who’s taken by Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen, in a towering and nobel turn as the great Wizard that surpasses his Oscar-nominated one in “Fellowship”) to the city of Minas Tirith after the Dark Lord Sauron comes to think the hobbit has the Ring- becomes a squire for the kingdom of Rohan as they head into battle; all this time, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue to follow their not-to-be-trusted guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) into the heart of Mordor to Mount Doom, to destroy the One Ring.

It’s this last story- the journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum- that takes center stage in “King,” and is felt emotionally through all of the other stories. What genius it was on the part of screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens to not only cast Gollum- whom Serkis (actually seen for the first time onscreen as Smeagol before the Ring corrupts him) continues to invest with brilliant pathos and humanity- as a genuinely sympathetic character in “Two Towers” and the prologue of “King” (making his inevitable betrayal a moment that pulls the rug from underneath the audience), but for also deepening his connection with Frodo- as a fellow ring-bearer- to the point of creating a rift in the relationship between Frodo (whose growing corruption by the Ring- at its’ darkest and most devastating here- has been hauntingly poignant in Wood’s hands) and Sam, making the devoted Sam’s loyalty to his friend all the stronger, and more heroic. The story’s built up to it in “Fellowship” and “Towers”- “King” is Sam’s time to shine, and Astin plays him with thrilling conviction and courageous soul. Samwise the Brave indeed; many of my favorite moments in “King”- and actually the trilogy as a whole- belong to Sam, above all being his furious fight with Shelob, the frightening- and frighteningly fast- eight-legged menace lurking in the tunnel above Minas Morgul (the home of the Ringwraiths) where Gollum plans to trap the Hobbits for Shelob, and take the Ring from Frodo. The fight is one for the ages, with gripping power and potent suspense, brilliantly staged by Jackson- it’s probably his best directing of the trilogy, stunningly scored by Howard Shore (more on him later), with another digital coup by the folks of WETA Digital in Shelob, and played with fear-defying bravery by Astin. Like his onscreen counterpart, this is Astin’s finest hour, and Oscar voters would do well to remember his work here. Remember- Goonies never say die.

My next favorite stories are those of the other Hobbits- Merry and Pippen (so beyond the mere comic relief they were in “Fellowship” that special recognition of the work by Monaghan and Boyd in this trilogy is required). In “Fellowship,” they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and thrust into the middle of a dangerous journey that’s only gotten more dangerous. In “Towers,” they mostly stood on the edges of the mounting war as they waited as the Ents- the walking, talking trees of Fangorn Forest- decided their fate in the tale, until they take the decision in their own hands through cleverness and loyalty to their companions. In “King,” the time for them to show their quality comes- Pippen’s when he pledges his allegance to the Steward of Gondor, Deneathor (played with a Lear-like sorrow and desparation by John Noble), in honor of the service his late son Boromir (Sean Bean) gave in protecting him and Merry to the end- the way he repays that debt as Minas Tirith is sieged by the forces of Mordor is inspiring; Merry’s when he becomes a squire to the King Theoden of the Rohan, and is swept off to battle by Theoden’s disguised neice Eowyn, played with wonderful spirit by the luminous Miranda Otto, whose fire and passion in an all-too-brief role- sadly, Eowyn’s romance with Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham, who makes Faramir’s undying loyalty to his unloving father Deneathor palpable) at Minas Tirith’s House of Healing is on hold until the extended edition DVD- is worthy of Oscar’s attention. Merry and Eowyn show their quality beautifully in the tremendous Battle of the Peleannor Fields with a thrilling call to arms charge lead by Theoden (the performance of whom by the stirring Bernard Hill is deeper and more befitting a King than the ashamed, failing monarch he was in “Towers”), and come to the King’s aid with heavy heart and inspiring courage in a showdown with the Witch King, the Lord of the Ringwraiths which has a throwdown with Eowyn worthy of the cheers and tears it ellicits from the audience.

That my favorite storylines in “King” include the underdogs is not a slight at the warriors of the Fellowship, or the actors whom play them- I love the orc kill count competition that’s rekindled on the fields of Peleannor between Legolas (Bloom continues to bring silent charisma to the role) and Gimli (Rhyes-Davies’ gruffish comic portrayal of the dwarf has been the trilogy’s most pleasant acting surprise), and Aragorn- now inspired by his Elfin love Arwen (Liv Tyler, imbuing more feeling and romantic longing in an underwritten role- both in the scripts by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens and in Tolkien’s books- than she’s gotten credit for), whose fate may rest in the hands of Frodo and Sam- shows the same dogged determination and unbreakable will he displayed on the hill of Amon Hen in “Fellowship,” and at Helm’s Deep and on the plains of Rohan chasing the captured Merry and Pippen in “Towers” as he dares the Path of the Dead, a test of whether he is willing to take upon himself the challenge of reclaiming the throne of Gondor for a bloodline long without honor in the world of men. Like his character, Mortensen rises to the challenge, finishing a thrillingly heroic- and soulfully romantic- trilogy-length performance with his most, well, kingly work yet. Despite being the “King” of the title, his limited screentime will harm his shots at a hinted-at Best Actor nomination (though that’s never really been an issue with the quirky Academy before- see Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Dame Judi Dench in “Shakespeare in Love”), but it doesn’t really deserve to- if Russell Crowe can win for the old-fashioned heroism in “Gladiator,” Mortensen can merit attention with his equally-memorable- and certainly more emotionally-complex- turn as Aragorn.

Howard Shore. What can be said about his music for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy that hasn’t been said, by me or someone else? These three scores, these elevate him to the pantheon of the great modern composers, to the creative level and critical respect of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Hans Zimmer, Carter Burwell, and Danny Elfman. If he was a great composer before “Rings” (and how could he NOT be after such diverse scores for “Ed Wood,” “Philadelphia,” “Dogma,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Spider”), he became a true master afterwards. Like Williams’ music for the original “Star Wars” trilogy a generation before, Shore has written a cinematic symphony of tremendous depth and stunning emotional power. The dark dramatics of the introduction, which starts as a lovely, lyrical serenity as Smeagol and his brother Deagol are fishing, only to grow progressively more intense as the One Ring begins to take hold of Smeagol, which provokes not just the murder of Deagol at Smeagol’s hands, but is the catalyst the eventually leads to the great War of the Ring at the heart of “Return of the King.” The majestic grandeur of Minas Tirith and the lighting of the beacons, which comes to signal the storm of war. The furious heroism of the warriors of Rohan and Gondor as the protect Minas Tirith and meet the armies of Sauron on the Peleannor Fields. The desparate feeling of Frodo and Sam’s perilous and exhausting climb up the slopes of Mount Doom. The stout friendship of the Fellowship and the friends who follow them into the fray. The spine-tingling terror of Shelob’s lair and Sam’s fight with the spider. The tragic poetry of Faramir and his company’s suicidal ride back into Osgiliath as Faramir tries to prove his worth to his unloving father (both Shore’s orchestral score and a haunting song sung by Pippen provide an indelible musical backdrop). The ethereal beauty of the Gray Havens. All are scored by Shore on an epic scale that can only be considered operatic, and an emotional level that pierces the heart and inspires awe. I love all that Shore has written for the “Rings” trilogy, and “King” above all else. And as if the icing on a memorably delicious cake, we are given another classic “art song” in the form of Annie Lennox’s profoundly lovely “Into the West”- which, like Enya’s “May It Be” and Emiliana Torrini’s “Gollum’s Song” before it, sums up our emotions of the past three-plus hours, but also does something the first two- by design- could not; it provides closure to all that we have seen and felt, and takes us away to that place that only the finest film music goes. Quite simply, this is one of the greatest scores ever written, befitting perhaps the greatest filmmaking achievement of our time and all-time.

WETA Workshop & WETA Digital. Peter Jackson’s personal playground has given us extraordinary sights in both “Fellowship” and “Towers.” But they were simply the tip of the iceberg. “King” is their best work yet. Thinking of what struck me hardest of the new images: the Army of the Dead, awoken by Aragorn to aid the free people of Middle-Earth in this last war; the 200,000 orcs, trolls, and Ringwraiths that descend upon Minas Tirith, and charge with the wrath and brute force of a never-ending battering ram; the thousands of horse-riding Rohirrim that arrive at the darkest of hours, and slice through the orc ranks on the fields of Peleannor; the great, majestic city of Minas Tirith, seven levels high and brought to vibrant life before and after the clouds of war pass on the land; the Crack of Doom, where Frodo’s will- which would be long broken were not for Sam’s devotion- is put to the final test; Smeagol’s gradual transformation into the sickly Gollum; the dead city of Minas Morgul, once a place not unlike Minas Tirith, now a stronghold of the enemy; the stairs of Cirith Ungol, a winding, completely vertical cliff and the entrance into Mordor Gollum has shown to Frodo and Sam.

And yet, it’s the little moments that’ve made Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films masterpieces of our time and beyond, “The Return of the King” most of all, and one moment in particular. It happens during the film’s extended epilogue, and finds the four Hobbits back at the Green Dragon in the Shire. But whereas the mood back in “Fellowship” at the Dragon was one of lighthearted fun for the four (as Hobbits are prone to do), now they just sit. Sit as their kin around them go about their business, oblivious to what might have been. Sit as they enjoy a nice brewed ale in peace and quiet among themselves. These are the same Hobbits that left on the adventure of their lifetimes 13 months ago, only they aren’t. They’ve shared an experience they cannot put into words to their friends back in Hobbiton, and need not put into words to those who accompanied them on their journey. What they’ve shared binds them forever, beyond the years of their lives, beyond the distance they may be separated, beyond the changes in their lives that might see them drift apart, and beyond each’s eventual departure for that final journey we all must take, when their bodies will no longer move, their souls will take the last ship to the undying lands, their stories will be recounted in legends over the generations, and they will find themselves reunited once more with those who matter most. That we’ve been blessed to be in their presence for the past three years- and forty before that- is J.R.R. Tolkien’s gift to us. That we’ll be blessed to be able to recount and revisit their story through such an unforgettable retelling for the next fifty years and beyond is Peter Jackson’s.

J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson- you bow to no one.

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