WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Following Saruman’s demise, Frodo Baggins and his friend Samwise Gamgee are in sight of Mount Doom, where they aim to destroy the One Ring that corrupts anyone who wears it. However, they are still guided by the devious Gollum who craves the ring for himself. If Aragorn and his allies – some less earthly than others – cannot defend Gondor’s last stronghold at Minas Tirith from Lord Sauron’s forces, man is doomed in any event.
It is literally do or die time for the peoples of Middle Earth. Saruman has been defeated by the Ents, and the men of Rohan – aided by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and some loyal Elves – have defended Helm’s Deep from a massive army of Orcs; but the final battle is yet to come to the men of Gondor. Gondor’s steward Denethor (John Noble) resents Aragorn’s return as the rightful heir and refuses to summon help to defend the capital city of Minas Tirith; but helpful Hobbits Pippin and Merry (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) take matters into their own hands and make sure the city is well defended by (amongst others) Rohan’s finest warriors under King Theoden (Bernard Hill) and benevolent wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Meanwhile, Frodo Baggins’ (Elijah Wood) exhausting journey with loyal friend Sam (Sean Astin) to destroy Sauron’s ring nears its end, but their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) schemes to make it end prematurely by luring them into the cave of vicious (and huge) spider Shelob. Worse still, while Aragorn stakes his claim as Gondor’s King, he disappears on the eve of battle for reasons unknown. With a missing figurehead and an approaching army comprising of thousands of Orcs, massive Oliphaunts, trolls and the imposing Lord of the Nazgul/Witch-King, the Men of Middle Earth face overwhelming odds to survive, whether Frodo makes it or not.
The first word that came to my mind whilst watching Return of the King was ‘worldcraft’, so it’s a shame to discover that it’s not a word people use much (except as the old name for a piece of software). Nonetheless, I am in awe of Jackson’s – and by extension Tolkien’s – worldcraft, by which I mean the way he not only creates an entire world of places and races, but also keeps control of each of the story’s many elements as the story builds to a tremendous climax. More accurately, climaxes: although Frodo’s tale and the battles that rage at Minas Tirith, then at the Black Gates of Mordor, are inextricably linked, each has their own distinct trajectory. Peter Jackson (with writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) is an absolute master of the material, and not only of the gargantuan set-piece battles.
The film begins with a marvellous prologue detailing Smeagol’s corruption into the murderous Gollum, then – quite rightly assuming that we’ve already journeyed with the characters for six hours – expertly tells the tale of our friends’ epic, perilous struggles to bring peace to Middle Earth. It’s probably redundant to repeat how good both cast and crew are, but the make-up, set design, costumes and cinematography all deserve another mention. Mortensen is equally convincing when delivering Aragorn’s rousing speeches and tender moments (gently devastating Miranda Otto’s Eowyn), Serkis (aided by the folks at WETA) makes Gollum frighteningly real, while Wood’s wide eyes convey the hopelessness of Frodo’s situation and Astin is a doughty, devoted friend. However, Return of the King is truly an ensemble effort; for example, each of the brave band of Hobbits takes on a specific and important role, cementing their place as the warm, beating heart of the film, even if there are a few too many lingering looks between them (yeah, Sam, you marry Rosie Cotton: you’re fooling no-one).
Given Return of the King’s incredible achievements, any niggles are nugatory; but here they are anyway. In story terms, Liv Tyler’s Arwen is a teensy bit sidelined, while Gandalf’s wizarding skills take a distant and vaguely disappointing second place to his swordfighting. The extraordinary siege of Minas Tirith is brilliantly orchestrated, but as the two sides bring out the figurative big guns in a game of outlandish one-upmanship (you’ve got massive elephants? We’ve got nimble archers. You’ve got Nazguls? We’ve got mighty eagles. You’ve got thousands upon thousands of Orcs? We’ve got ships full of…well, you get the idea) the screen begins to fill with virtual, and obviously virtual, elements. The visuals remain impressive, even after almost a decade; but with so little that’s physically real on the screen, it becomes increasingly hard to sustain the belief that it’s all actually happening, rather than being manipulated inside mega-powerful computers.
And then there are the infamous endings. The scene where the Fellowship reunites with Frodo at his bedside, presented in wordless slow-motion, is a little creepy (Gandalf suddenly becomes a laughing maniac) but a nice end to the movie, the cast coming in one by one to take their bows; you can imagine the actors smiling at the camera as captions tell us ‘You have been watching’, sitcom style. Alternatively, there is a perfect end to the movie when Aragorn, righteous, returned King with his Queen at his side, tells the Hobbits not to kneel before them, the assembled masses kneeling at their outsized feet instead. However, that’s not the end, as both Frodo and Bilbo (Ian Holm) must have one last round of definitive farewells before the film wraps up. It seems ungracious to complain about fifteen minutes of happy conclusions to a wonderful nine-hour story, and the material is no doubt pretty faithful to the book; on the other hand, the audience already has an innate ability to believe in Happy Ever Afters, so most of the film’s final chapter ultimately feels like a sickly additional layer of icing on a very, very big cake*.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was crowned with 11 Oscars in 2003, justly recognising the efforts of Peter Jackson and his legions of dedicated craftsmen. That doesn’t, however, mean the film is perfect; I’m not even sure that I prefer it to The Fellowship of the Ring, where our journey began. What’s absolutely certain is that it concludes a unique cinematic journey in thrilling, epic style, which by any reckoning is a job massively well done.
NOTES: And that’s referring to the 192-minute theatrical release. There’s an extended version that runs for 263 minutes, which may well fill in gaps and provide amazing fan service, but is surely borderline unwatchable in a single sitting.