At this point, writing a conventional review of The Return of the King seems sort of futile. If you’ve seen the first two installments of the film, why on earth would you not see the third, no matter what I said? And if you haven’t seen the first two installments, maybe you should get back on your medication or contact the authorities so you can get someone to free you from the basement radiator you’ve been handcuffed to.
Regardless, there are some things you probably want to know straightaway, like: It’s really, really good. It’s probably my favorite installment. It goes very fast; indeed, my chief complaint is that it goes too fast. The battles are bigger and better than even the Helm’s Deep conflagration of The Two Towers, and Minas Tirith is extremely cool. The acting strikes me as a bit better than in the first two, but maybe that’s because the characters seem better realized. And that’s probably because we’ve had a luxury of opportunities to get to know them already. So Frodo’s descent into despair needn’t seem sudden, since it’s been building for so long.
But let’s start from the top. The Return of the King wraps up the story of Frodo and Sam as they trek to Mount Doom in Mordor to destroy the ring of power, and also depicts the battles for the future of Middle Earth. King Theoden, finally restored to confidence, understands that he must…oh forget it. Look: If you need these plot outlines, there are countless reviews where the author hits F10 on his computer and spews out the cast and plot from the studio’s promotional kit. And, besides, as I said before, if you need me to tell you what The Return of the King is about, you shouldn’t be reading this: You should be chewing your hand off at the wrist to get free of that damnable radiator.
“The greatest movie trilogy in cinema history.” That’s what one reviewer called the Lord of the Rings saga after seeing the The Return of the King. At first, when I read that, I thought it was hyperbole. But then I started running other trilogies through my head. If the third installments of The Godfather or Star Wars were simply as good as the second installments, then I would say either of them might deserve the title. But Godfather III, while more entertaining than its worst detractors sometimes allow, was still an affront to God (assuming God is a movie buff and liked Godfathers I and II). As for Star Wars, well, Return of the Jedi wasn’t awful, but in retrospect it was like that last vertical bend on a kiddie roller coaster: The delicious anticipation gave way to the realization that everything was moving downhill fast, but not in an exciting way.
But then you start thinking of other trilogies, and you realize that saying “the best trilogy in cinema history” is more like saying “the best Bavarian food in Tijuana.” A few sequels–Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II (according to Martin Scorsese, not me), X-2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn–are better than their predecessors. But most are worse. And by the time you reach a third episode, the suits have completely taken over, and the films become little more than infomercials for the latest Happy Meal giveaway choke-hazard.
So, I guess it’s true, this is the greatest trilogy in the history of cinema–at least that I am aware of.
If I sound reluctant, I apologize. The Best-Bavarian-Food dynamic notwithstanding, I guess my problem is that I really don’t see the Lord of the Rings series as a trilogy in the first place. I’m on solid footing when I say this because neither did J. R. R. Tolkien (cue crazed-fan crowd roar), nor did Peter Jackson (cue slightly less crazed, but still disturbing, roar). The Lord of the Rings was written as one book–with two fingers, banged on a typewriter for half a million words–and the publisher insisted it be cut into three parts. For various reasons–technical, emotional, financial–Jackson emulated Tolkien and shot the whole film in one giant piece. In other words, this is a ten-hour movie.
Actually, this is more like a 20-hour movie when you measure by the length of the extended DVD versions. I haven’t seen them yet, but several friends have told me that they make the theatrical releases seem like highlight reels. The Return of the King DVD, for example, will supposedly have the seven-minute scene of Gandalf confronting Saruman, which was cut despite the howls of fans around the world. I don’t have the space to get into this here, but I suspect that the Lord of the Rings may be seen by students of the industry as the dawning of a new era in movie-making, where movie theaters become marketing tools for DVDs. What will be interesting to see is whether the DVDs create a full-blown feedback loop where the digital versions get replayed on big screens down the road.
Anyway, when you bear in mind that the Lord of the Rings is really just one movie and not three, you can see why the reviewers are so blown away by this last installment. Normally, movies are made and released. If they do well, a sequel is made. If that does well, another is usually negotiated, sans a few of the original actors and most of the original enthusiasm. The downsides of this process are huge. Usually the noticeably aging actors have to be corralled back with offers of more money, more screen time, or, shudder, more creative control. Who knows what would have happened if Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and Ian McKellen had been allowed to indulge their personal politics? At best, teams of U.N. magic-rings inspectors would have been dispatched to Mordor before any fighting began. And, since Orcs appear to be all of one sex, and male, perhaps McKellen would have insisted on a brief cameo of an Orc marriage.
That’s all a bit unfair, I suppose. As detestable as I find Mortensen’s politics–which strike me as classic Hollywood faux intellectualism (he brags about quoting Kant in the latest Vanity Fair)–I must say his, and everyone else’s–commitment to the overarching spirit of Tolkien is beyond reproach.
Which reminds me, I do have one complaint about Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. His character is pretty thoroughly bowdlerized to begin with. But the number of important, fun, or memorable pages from the book that had to be torn out to make this film less than 20 hours long is too great for me to get into anyway. However, I could not shake the sense that the power-hungry, half-mad, sweaty, unshaven, deluded would-be king played by John Noble was intended to look and sound a bit like Richard Nixon. Maybe I’m alone on this, but when he is dispatched I almost expected him to give a Nixonian post-resignation wave.
And here’s where I am going to flirt slightly with committing the heresy of film spoilage. I don’t like ruining the movie-going experience for others by telling them stuff that should only be learned in the theater. And I will be careful here. But I think it’s worth dealing with the touchy subject of the film’s departure from the book. If you don’t want to take the risk of reading something you shouldn’t, I understand why you might want to leave now. Come on folks, make some room so they can shuffle out.
Okay. As everyone knows, the book ends with the “Scouring of the Shire.” In the film, the Shire remains intact. It’s been reported that this was Jackson’s least favorite part of the book. I can certainly understand that, because the Scouring was what gave the book its bittersweet ending. The movie still ends on a bittersweet note, but it’s much more Frodo-centric. I’ve gone back and forth about this for a while now, and I’ve decided to forgive Jackson. My understanding of Tolkien’s intent in that final chapter was twofold: The first is to make a (Catholic) point about sacrifice. The second was to communicate Tolkien’s own sorrow about the changing nature of traditionally rural England–which the Shire was always intended to symbolize.
As I noted in my review of the first film, Tolkien loathed technology in particular, and change in general. The Scouring of the Shire was Tolkien’s surrender to the reality that even the coziest refuges are not immune to the real-world changes too many label “progress.” By editing out this chapter, some may think Jackson is Hollywoodizing a non-Hollywood ending. I don’t think that’s how most audiences will see it, but I’m certainly sympathetic to the criticism. Personally, I think Jackson more than amply communicates the melancholy that comes with the ending of this film, and conveys the sense that unwelcome change is part of life. That’s certainly the only reason to include so much dialogue from the elves about the end of their time in Middle Earth and whatnot (one hilarious-but-bawdy reviewer at Ain’t It Cool Newscompared the elf scenes to spending 20 minutes in a candle store). So I’m giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt on this one: Some plot devices don’t translate well onto the big screen. Perhaps if Frodo and Sam had come home to see the Shire as it was in the book, audiences would find it too jarring.
Ultimately, these movies are a love letter to Tolkien. You can get into a huge argument about what’s left out from the book–and why. But at the end of the day, it is inconceivable that any other movie of any commercially viable length would have elicited similar objections.
Two things are important from my perspective: Is it a good movie? You’re damn right it is. And: Is it loyal to the most important and largest themes of the book? I think so. Friendship, loyalty, duty, honor, sacrifice, regret, change, memory, and remorseless Orc-smashing are all there. I still need time to digest the whole epic and see it a few more times. But, I think it’s fair to say even now that this really is the greatest trilogy in the history of movie-making. And, much more impressive, it’s one of the greatest movies in the history of movie-making, too.