REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [2003]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 264 minutes (extended edition) | Release Date: December 17th, 2003 (USA)
Studio: New Line Cinema
Director(s): Peter Jackson
Writer(s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson / J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)

“Some things are certain”

It’s crazy how perception can be shifted over the years if your mind focuses on one specific attribute of something. I thought The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the weakest of the trilogy after seeing it in theaters (and still do), but not by a lot. A big part of this was the fatigue of watching so many endings after a three-hour epic culmination of two previous films and two years of my life since finishing Fellowship of the Ring. And as the years went by I couldn’t stop thinking about what I didn’t like about it—so much so that I began to wonder if I over-rated it back in 2003. Well, a second viewing fifteen years later proves I did not.

Is it the installment that deserved an Oscars sweep for Peter Jackson and company? No. I get why it happened—voters waited to judge the whole project, awarding the finale with praise earned by all—but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. It can’t be simply because the lead-up is where our emotions became so invested. In a “regular” film you could equate Fellowship as the first hour, The Two Towers as the second, and Return of the King as the last thirty minutes or so. As such this denouement is the result of everything the characters and we endured. Our empathy, fear, and excitement had reached its crescendo and now we sat to experience its close. This chapter provides the effect of the previous films’ cause.

This also doesn’t mean it’s bad or should be dismissed as inferior like my mind began to believe. While it’s the volume most beholden to the rest as far as standalone potential, it still succeeds. We need to know about Bilbo (Ian Holm) and the Hobbits—who they are as a species and how courageous and out of character the four risking everything to help save Middle-earth (Elijah Wood‘s Frodo, Sean Astin‘s Samwise, Dominic Monaghan‘s Merry, and Billy Boyd‘s Pippin) truly are. We need to know about Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) evolution from “gray” to “white” and the traitorous Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) role in it. And we must acknowledge Aragorn’s (Viggo Mortensen) place in the worlds of elf, man, and beyond. That context feeds what’s a virtually impeccable conclusion.

It’s an action-packed series of battles, both of swords (at Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, and the Black Gate of Mordor) and wits (Frodo and Sam combatting Andy Serkis‘ Gollum as guide, threat, and mirror to the worst of themselves). There are kings sending soldiers to die, others leading the charge, and heroes born from unlikely places if only because archaic preconceptions and ingrained prejudices rendered women (Miranda Otto‘s Eowyn) and halflings (Merry and Pippin) ill-suited for war despite their hearts being ready to fight. This is where the strict division between good and evil blurs lines that once separated elf from dwarf, both from man, and men from each other. A little trickery might be necessary for it to occur, but this unification does arrive just in time.

It’s an intriguing reversal of intent too as Fellowship was about individuals, Two Towers about nations, and Return of the King back to individuals. Rather than simply a call to arms wherein Gandalf enlists the might of Aragorn, Frodo, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the rest for their specific skill sets, they each must now reach within themselves to find the identity they need to embrace for any hope of success. The promise they showed Gandalf in the first film reaches their respective breaking points here. Will Aragorn accept his bloodline to become that which he said he never would? Can Frodo’s pure soul combat the insidious evil seeping through his skin from the One Ring, its desire to exist growing as its possible demise looms?

Faith is tested and conventions torn down as the pressure of annihilation either leaves characters shells of who they once aspired to be or forces them to somehow become more. It’s easy to forget about Aragorn’s evolution from the beginning because he was always so confident, compassionate, and patient, but the fact he never wavers on any of those counts—and agrees to each challenge presented to him whether it’s following misguided orders or confronting an army of ghosts—shows his true mettle. As for Merry and Pippin discovering whether the prospect of death causes them to run away or stand tall, the answer definitely arrives as a culmination of everything they’ve seen and endured since leaving The Shire. Everyone else’s transformation lies between these two extremes.

There’s defiance (Liv Tyler‘s Arwen deciding on the next chapter of her life), pride (David Wenham‘s Faramir being willing to sacrifice himself for honor in his father’s eyes), and dignity (Otto’s Eowyn refusing to stay behind with regrets). Smaller examples of clarity come from the likes of Rohan king Theoden (Bernard Hill) and even Gandalf (although his ego would probably force him to take credit for all surprises his company provides). And while Legolas and Gimli (expert fighters who throw caution at the wind) literally don’t change—save their selfish desires softening to follow new friend Aragorn’s lead—Frodo only appears to do the same. His descent into madness is subtle and his performance masked by a lack of control, but his painful suffering is ever-present nonetheless.

The standout, however, is Astin’s Samwise Gamgee. He takes over from The Two Towers‘ Serkis where heart-wrenching emotional turmoil and finding oneself in the midst of conflicting ambitions is concerned. His gardener has become the soul of a journey to what’s probably his death. He held tight to Gandalf’s request to never take his eyes off the ring-bearer and he intelligently recognizes when to force the issue with Frodo and when to not. Sam isn’t clouded by the Ring’s hold, his drive forward fueled by a selfless hope to save his friend rather than just the world at-large. He knows Gollum is evil despite that creature’s own horribly tragic origins. He knows Frodo cannot do what he must alone—the Ring’s claws penetrate too deep.

Sam is leader of one as Aragorn is that of all. Their trajectories run parallel as they struggle to find their voice amongst so many others despite knowing theirs is correct. Add Gandalf to the mix and you have a three-pronged defense of good led by characters with the tenacity to excel against every odd in their uniquely special ways. J.R.R. Tolkien knew what he was doing when he separated the trio and set them on their paths with singular duties targeting their strengths. What makes it genius is that we didn’t always know what those strengths were. Gandalf was always a puppet master, but could he fight? Aragorn was always a fighter, but could he lead? And Sam goes from forgettable sidekick to guardian of life itself.

None of these progressions feel rushed or convenient, the time spent with each allowing us to know them as three-dimensional figures far-removed from convention (the extended editions add up to almost twelve hours, ensuring our ability to peer beneath every surface). The focus that Jackson provides both in the way he lingers on reactions and chooses to utilize prosthetics as opposed to computer enhancements (save Gollum) assists in this goal by letting the actors earn our attention despite the breathtaking world surrounding them. Amongst the chaos are glimpses of faces—fear, joy, rage, and forgiveness. Amongst the faces are micro-expressions you may miss if you haven’t just spent half a day getting to know each character intimately. By this installment actions aren’t surprising. Only the results are.

We know what their motivations are thanks to so much backstory as adapted by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. We know how far they are willing to go and that each one will die before they ever give into Sauron’s power. Our questions now become concerned with which of these myriad candidates will get the opportunity to show it. Who will face-off against the Nazgûl’s leader known as the Witch-king of Angmar? Who will prevail as far as winning Frodo’s currently deranged mind’s trust: Sam or Gollum; good or evil? And who will perish along the way? The answers come with honesty—happiness and tears mixed as victory brings casualties and defeat the promise for another chance. History is written with each step towards oblivion.

Do the multiple ending points hamper the glorious emotional release of suspense? Yes. We’ve witnessed three-plus hours of climax and barely have a moment to breathe before being whisked off into brief vignettes of epilogue that cannot avoid feeling rushed and trite in comparison. But they are necessary. We’ve spent a lifetime with these characters (thirteen months to be exact) and thus must learn about its lasting ramifications. Warriors know they will see horrible things, but Shire-folk do not. Frodo and the others may have fantasized about adventures, but never could they have imagined the death seen by their own hands and others. This bittersweet close to all-out war is inherently out-of-place considering the harrowing journey here, but a simple fade to black would only have proven worse.

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