LOTR Revisited: “The Return of the King”

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I think it’s safe to say that The Lord of the Rings is easily one of the most important trilogies of my generation. While the baby-boomer had the original Star Warstrilogy, us early 90’s kids had The Lord of the Rings. True, The Phantom Menacecame out a few years before The Fellowship of the Ring, but even as a child something about Episode I rang hollow to me. It wasn’t until 2001 when I, a scrawny nine year old child, sat down at my local theater to watch what would turn out to be one of the most awe-inspiring films of my short life. I vividly remember holding back the incessant urge to pee, and the pain of my numbing butt, in order to continue watching the three hours of pure epicness unfolding before me. So, as you might imagine, I was ecstatic to hear that Peter Jackson was returning to Middle-Earth for The Hobbit. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to revisit one of my favorite trilogies of all time in preparation for The Hobbit. For the next week or so, I am going to re-watch all three of The Lord of the Rings films and see if they’re as amazing as I remember, or if I am simply fond of them due to my nostalgia for my childhood. I’m not necessarily going to review each film, but rather discuss how the films hold up today over a decade later.

Unfortunately we’ve arrived at the end. While it’s been a fun and exciting journey back through Middle-Earth, all good things eventually have to come to an end, as difficult as that may be. As a child I had a hard time accepting that The Return of the King was the last Lord of the Rings film I was ever going to see. Entering the movie, I thought it was going to be impossible to successfully conclude the immense amount of story and character development they had established in the first two films. I so badly wanted to believe that Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema were going to make a last minute decision to add an extra film to the series. Looking back, this would have been a horrible decision, but to 11 year old me, more Lord of the Rings would have been good no matter what. So it was to my disappointment that The Return of the King was truly the definitive end to my favorite childhood series. However, if they were going to end the series at all, The Return of the King was, and still is, a fitting and perfect ending to the series, bursting with heart-pumping action and real human emotion. While it may hit some bumps on its way to the finish line, I couldn’t ask for a better conclusion to this one-of-a-kind series.

Something immediately noticeable about Return of the King is the way it’s paced. Where both Fellowship and Two Towers took their time and patiently ramped up their pacing over the course of the film, Return of the King instantly throws you straight into the sprint towards the roaring conclusion. While the first fifteen minutes or so serve as an extended epilogue to the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Flooding of Isengard, the rest of the four hour runtime are all effectively dedicated towards the final push against Sauron. The other two films had to establish the world and the conflict so they had to take their time to successfully achieve their goals; Return of the King, on the other hand, is what everything has been building up to, so it’s no surprise that Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens wasted no time getting to the ultimate conflicts. For the majority of the film’s epic length, we are knee deep in the last stand of Man. All of Sauron’s forces are descending on Minas Tirith, the capital city of the kingdom of Men, while Frodo and Sam make the final push towards Mordor and Mount Doom. There’s no time wasted on little tangents or side stories; everything in the film is encapsulated around these last two conflicts and how the forces of good are struggling to stay alive in an ever-darkening situation. It’s a pretty grim film for the majority of the time, with even more dark imagery and violence than Two Towers, but this only strengthens the film by making our heroes’ eventual triumph over evil that much more satisfying despite the predictability.

This brings up an interesting complaint that is prevalent among fantasy as a genre and “The Hero’s Journey,” which is the fact that the main characters are almost always going to succeed. Specifically in The Lord of the Rings, there was never really any question whether or not Frodo and Sam were going to be victorious. While the stories and imagery may be a bit bleak at times, all in all these are films that are supposed to be family friendly, so there was no way in hell that Jackson was going to spend nine hours building up a quest for it simply to fail. While some might claim that would have been a ballsier ending, in reality it would have been unbelievably unsatisfying and disappointing. We, or at least I, don’t watch these films to be surprised or shocked by its plot progression, but rather for the uplifting message of the resilience and determination of the human spirit.  We all know Frodo and Sam are going to destroy the ring and survive, but we simply do not care. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, and Jackson manages to make the journey so harrowing and dangerous that we get our enjoyment from watching our beloved characters overcome the seemingly impossible. A perfect example of this is Sam’s fight against Shelob the giant spider. As the fight scene begins, we know Sam isn’t going to be killed by Shelob, he’s simply too important to the story and has had too much development and growth as a character to die right then and there; at the same time, however, we are still taken aback by the staggering odds against our hero’s favor. We sit there thinking, “How the hell is this little Hobbit going to take on that giant spider?!?!”  It may seem impossible, but we know Sam is going to prevail, and it’s our curiosity and excitement over just how he’s going to achieve this feat that ramps up the tension. Many claim that a character needs to be fully expendable for there to truly be tension in any action scene, and while there is some truth in this statement, Jackson and Co. deftly manage to circumvent this idea throughout the movie thanks to amazing character development and fantastically tense battle scenes.

One thing I never paid enough attention to on my first viewing of these films was the definite arcs of the characters. I simply enjoyed the story of the films and pretty much based my favorite characters on their badass-ness and choice of weapon, so clearly Aragorn was my favorite because he had the coolest sword and always appeared to be the best fighter in every battle scene. Upon my rewatch, it was to my surprise just how much I found myself loving the hobbits this time around, specifically Merry and Pippin. When I first watched the films, I viewed Merry and Pippin merely as comedic relief, and for the majority of my re-watches my opinion hadn’t changed – they had very little to do in Fellowship, and in Two Towers they were pretty much only used as our perspective for the introduction of the Ents. However, in Return of the King, both Merry and Pippin are given a lot more screen time and are surprisingly fleshed out thanks to them being separated and thrown into extremely foreign situations.

Pippin is forced to go with Gandalf to Minas Tirith thanks to his run in with the Eye of Sauron, while Merry stays with Aragorn and Théoden in Rohan. Both end up in the service of the two different kingdoms of Men and both get the chance to prove their courage in battle. The way in which they both interact within these foreign environments really deepens their characters and those around them. Merry and Eowyn are naturally drawn to one another, as they both want to prove themselves in battle but are looked down upon for being a Halfling and a woman, respectively. Their best scene together is when she picks him up from horseback and they ride off to war together, ready to prove their worth. Meanwhile, Pippin serves as our eyes into Minas Tirith and the strained relationship between Faramir and his delusional father, Denethor. Like Merry and Eowyn, Pippin and Faramir share a lot of similarities and through their interactions we get a better appreciation for both their characters. Pippin has never been viewed as anything else but a clumsy buffoon, while Faramir has always been the lesser son in the eyes of his father, and both desperately want to prove their quality. These are both fantastic character arcs that had a much more significant impact on the plot than I remembered.

However, no hobbit stands out quite like Samwise Gamgee. Over the course of the three films, Sam has one of the clearest and strongest arcs. He goes from the loyal but tepid gardener into the true hero of the story. While Frodo has the burden of the ring, he would never have been successful if it wasn’t for his good friend Sam. He not only saves Frodo’s life multiple times throughout the story, but also serves as a constant reminder to Frodo of what he’s fighting and struggling for: he is going to Hell and back for his friends and for the people he loves. He needs Sam there so he can never lose sight of why he’s carrying this ring, and so the ring doesn’t take control over him as it did Gollum.  However, in Return of the King specifically, Sam really steps it up a notch. Where in earlier films he seemed nothing more that Frodo’s companion, in Return of the King he really lives up to the name Samwise the Brave that Frodo bestows on him at the end of Two Towers. Not only does he fight off Shelob in the aforementioned scene, but he also saves Frodo from a tower filled with Orcs, fights off Gollum, bears the ring without giving over to its power, and carries Frodo to the top of Mount Doom. If there was any question at this point of whom the real hero of the story is, I think we’ve answered it. A huge reason Sam is such a great character is the performance from Sean Astin. Astin seems like he was born for the role, and he perfectly conveys the undying loyalty and love he has for his friend Frodo. His has a wide variety of great scenes, but nothing shows his range quite like the scene where Frodo tells him to go home. Sam goes from furious with Gollum, to broken and dejected within a matter of seconds and breaks down in tears. While he cries a significant amount more throughout the series, it never once felt artificial or forced, and Astin is simply a great crier.

Since we’re talking about Frodo and Sam, I feel this is the perfect time to bring up my one major caveat with the film, which is the depiction and character arc of Gollum.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think Gollum is one of the best characters of recent years and WETA and Andy Serkis do just as good a job depicting him on screen as they did in Two Towers, maybe even better. However, my major problem comes with his character as a whole in Return of the King, and the fact that he is pretty much a full on villain and antagonist for the entire film.

I believe that Gollum is at his best when he is the conflicted and sad creature we see throughout Two Towers, where we get to see his internal struggle externalized thanks to the influence the ring had on him for hundreds of years. Some of my favorite scenes of the last film are simply conversations between his two halves, and while we still have those in Return of the King, the two personalities are unified under the common goal of trying to kill Frodo and take the ring back. Again, it’s not necessarily that this is a terrible way to take the character. In fact, it’s the natural way to progress his character, it’s just that he is nowhere near as captivating a character when he’s a villain. He works so much better as the pitiful character that we want to escape the grasp of the ring, but once he’s accepted and given into the power the ring has over him he loses the majority of our pity along with some of his nuance.

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This is just one small blemish on an otherwise amazing and spectacular film. I’m amazed that I’ve managed to go this long without talking about the epic battle at the center of this film. While Two Towers had the climatic Battle of Helm’s Deep, Return of the King has the Battle for Minas Tirith at the center of the story, and boy is it staggering. While the Battle of Helm’s Deep may be a bit more intense thanks to its amazing build-up, the Battle for Minas Tirith more than makes up for it thanks to its uncompromising scope.  There are so many different aspects of the battle that occur over a two-hour run time.  From the initial attack on the outer city walls, to the Trolls breaking through the gate, to Rohan’s late arrival, the immensity of the Elephant attack, and finally the appearance of Aragorn with the army of the dead. The battle is so long and epic that it even allows for some down moments, like the amazing scene where Gandalf tells Pippin that death is nothing more than another journey to embark on. It’s a beautifully paced battle that remains one of the most epic to this day.

However, the battle has one small problem, and that’s the depiction of the Dead Army. While it is already enough of a Deus Ex Machina to have an army of the dead that can’t be killed, Jackson’s depiction of the dead King and his soldiers leave a lot to be desired.  Instead of casting loads of extras, Jackson went the cheap route and made the Dead Army mostly out of CGI. While this isn’t a major problem, the way in which he uses the CGI to make the Dead Army appear “ghostly” was extremely uninteresting. To make matters worse, the makeup of the Dead King underneath the green CGI layer looks fantastic, so good in fact that I would have greatly preferred if he simply hadn’t used the green filter.  It also doesn’t help when there are these grand, sweeping shots of the battlefields and the majority of the screen is taken up by a sea of green CGI. It causes the battle to lose some of its tension and simply hurts some of the gorgeous cinematography.

Again, this is a very small complaint in this otherwise unbelievable finale. A major problem that most trilogies face is successfully finishing the story. Often, the previous two films leave too much story to tell that the last film buckles under its own weight, i.e. Spiderman 3 and X-Men: Last Stand. However, Jackson manages to evade this trend by crafting a film full of heart, adventure, and intrigue that will live on as a perfect example of how to end a trilogy. He spends the ideal amount of time focused on both characters and the spectacle and combines the two into a fantastic conclusion to a fantastic series.

So Here we are. We’ve reached the very end, no more Lord of the Rings. As sad as that is to say, it’s impossible to look back on my experience of re-watching this marvelous series with anything but content and delight. While I may have been initially worried, as soon as the music started in Fellowship of the Ring, there was no question whether or not I still loved these films. There were some surprises along the way, and there were parts I loved more than I remembered and some not as much, but I still get that same warm feeling every time Middle-Earth is on screen. If anything, watching them again a decade later has reaffirmed and expanded my love for this series and has cemented each film, separately and as a whole, as some of the most ambitious and successful films ever made.  The entire story is brimming with so much emotion, exhilaration, and pure fun that I find it impossible to not love each and every moment of the series. It’s been a long and arduous journey, but damn if it wasn’t worth it. Now bring on The Hobbit!

Article by James Hausman

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