How can you preview a movie that is being released three months from now? When it’s the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King. The two-and-a half-minute trailer for King was released on Monday (see) , and although this is not much to go by, it offers hints that the last installment will get the big things right.
I have written previously (see) that the filmmakers have managed the rare feat of improving some aspects of Tolkien’s moral vision. One of the things that sets apart Tolkien’s great book from other recent so-called epics was the prominence of the tragic cost associated with the victory over Sauron’s evil. Contrast this with the treacly ending of the first Star Wars trilogy and you’ll see what I mean. The text messages in the trailer for King read: “There is no triumph without loss; No victory without suffering; No freedom without sacrifice.”
Near the end of the story Aragorn and Gandalf lead a last-ditch attack on Mordor with an inferior force that knows it marches to its death—a diversion they hope will aid Frodo’s chances of destroying the ring. In the book, Gandalf has a long parley with a senior captain of Sauron’s forces before the battle begins. It wouldn’t work very well on film, and it appears from the trailer that the filmmakers have substituted an original speech (that is, not from the book) from Aragorn in place of Gandalf’s parley that reminds of nothing so much as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V: “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. This day—we fight!”
Okay, maybe not as lyrical as Shakespeare, but both fictional scenes recall a real moment from the not-too-distant past: Churchill’s “choking in our own blood” speech on May 28, 1940. Not yet three weeks in office, Churchill was facing intense pressure from the appeasers still in his war cabinet (Halifax and Chamberlain) to seek terms from Hitler. Churchill put them down once and for all with a speech to the entire cabinet that ended as follows: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” (Churchill’s deed didn’t become publicly known until after the war. The whole story is told in John Lukacs’ superb book Five Days in London, May 1940, from Yale University Press.) The point is: moral fiction sometimes does reflect reality at moments of great clarity.
Return of the King opens December 17. See you in the theater.