Movie Review: The Return of the King

It’s hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in The Return of the King, the third and final chapter of their historic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration; it may also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best realized cinematic trilogy of all time.

The Best of the Three

In a genre that never before had a single really good film, Jackson and his collaborators have produced three outstanding films telling a single epic story. In a way, their achievement parallels that of Tolkien himself, whose monumental trilogy was also the first in its class, and in some ways has never been equalled.

To these accolades I would add one more: Jackson’s The Return of the King has replaced The Fellowship of the Ring as my favorite in the series, and is arguably the best of the three. Certainly it’s the most ambitious; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless.

Its faults, such as they are, are generally of omission, not commission. Compared with the first two theatrical releases, no characterization or locale in The Return of the King is as troubling to me as, for example, Galadriel and Lothlórien in Fellowship, or Faramir and Théoden in The Two Towers. Granted that the extended editions of the earlier films go a long way toward redeeming their problems, with The Return of the King there are only missing moments and events I hope to see restored, not disconcerting characterizations I hope to see redeemed.

The Return of the King also displays some of Tolkien’s most overtly Catholic themes and motifs (see “Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy”).

For Tolkien fans, this film, and this trilogy, is a gift to be treasured. For all Jackson’s reimaginings and elaborations, for all he does and does not do, Tolkien’s saga is in these films honored beyond all reasonable hope.

Brilliant Reimagining

Certainly it’s Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as much as it is Tolkien’s. The director’s fingerprints are everywhere, notably in his flair for the hyperdramatic. Jackson’s fundamental instinct is always to ramp up the drama and conflict to the nth degree — never to use ten orcs if a thousand will do, nor to let a character die a sudden death if it can instead be a big action set piece.

Sometimes this results in a brilliantly heightened reimagining of Tolkien’s work, as when in The Two Towers Gandalf’s rousing of Théoden becomes something much more like an exorcism, with Saruman, who is leagues distant, physically thrown back by Gandalf’s assault. Something similar happens in Return of the King with the Paths of the Dead: It’s not the way Tolkien wrote it, but it ingeniously represents the essence of the episode in the movie’s own cinematic idiom.

Other times, Jackson’s contribution is simply to transform what Tolkien wrote into spectacularly exciting cinema. For example, in Fellowship Jackson (and the Weta effects wizards) transformed the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog into an immense set piece described by Jeffrey Overstreet of as “the greatest thirty minutes of action adventure ever filmed.” Likewise, in Two Towers the siege of Helm’s Deep only a year ago seemed the most spectacular siege sequence of all time — but now, astonishingly, seems a mere skirmish measured against this film’s siege of Minas Tirith and battle of the Pelennor Fields.

One might say that, in translating Tolkien’s work to the screen, Jackson has transposed it into another register, that of the Hollywood action-adventure. Yet the spirit of Tolkien’s work is honored in the transposition — imperfectly, yes, but brilliantly and transcendently in what it accomplishes, from the Shire with its bucolic charm to Gollum’s emaciated frame and spidery gait, from the Nazgûl, the very embodiments of terror, to the wonderful strangeness of Treebeard and the Ents.

To these wonders must now be added one of the most awesome and evocative imaginative architectural achievements in any film: Minas Tirith, the White City, with its seven tiers and tower pointing to the sky. Nothing in Jackson’s Middle-earth rivals it, not even the splendor of Rivendell or the dark might of Isengard and Orthanc. Only the Shire itself, and Edoras, the hilltop capital of Rohan, are as compellingly and unforgettably realized, but for grandeur neither matches Minas Tirith.

The Return of the King also succeeds in making frightening again images that in The Two Towers had lost much of their terror. The Nazgûl, so fearsome on their black horses in The Fellowship of the Ring, were somehow less so on their winged steeds in The Two Towers, but those fell beasts make an altogether different impression this time around. The Eye of Sauron, which in The Two Towers seemed reduced to a mere special effect, has become here a vigilant attentiveness watchfully probing Middle-earth like a searchlight.

For all this, the filmmakers don’t allow the story and characters to be overwhelmed by the action or the effects. In this third film, all the plot threads come satisfyingly together, including long-deferred events from earlier chapters — the reforging of Isildur’s sword; the confrontation with Shelob — that are so neatly incorporated into the third film that Jackson’s decision to defer them is thoroughly vindicated. (Only the final confrontation of Gandalf and Saruman, omitted from The Two Towers, is cruelly still further delayed, and won’t be seen until next year’s Return of the King extended edition.)

Characters Coming into Their Own

Nor does the film lose track of individual characters, from the hobbits to the humans. Amid all the action are moments of humanity both cheering and chilling: a crowd of men cheering Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) in an exuberant tabletop dance; Pippin reluctantly singing a hauntingly beautiful song of the Shire (written by Boyd himself) at Denethor’s request, while far away Faramir (David Wenham) leads a doomed charge toward Osgiliath.

The hobbits, especially, are better utilized here than in the last film. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are much closer to the center of the story, and get some of the trilogy’s most affecting moments, including a heartbreaking scene halfway up the slope of Cirith Ungol. Merry and Pippin, freed from Treebeard’s swaying upper branches, come most fully into their own in this film.

One bit of creative license at an extremely crucial moment is bound to be controversial among purists. Essentially, the twist reflects Jackson’s preference for the hyperdramatic; fortunately, what matters most about the scene as Tolkien wrote it holds true in Jackson’s version.

I said that the film’s faults were basically faults of omission. Looking back at the trilogy as a Tolkien fan, what I most regret, apart from a few missteps, are small but significant moments that would have deepened the characters appreciably.

I regret that Gimli’s devotion to Galadriel is forgotten after the first film; one scene with Gimli fiercely defending his Lady’s honor among men ignorantly murmuring against her would have gone a long way toward rounding out the non–comic relief side of his character. I miss small moments like Gandalf’s comment to Pippin, after the hobbit offers his fealty to Denethor, that it was a generous deed that should not be checked by cold counsel, and Pippin’s cheerful exchange with a young boy of Minas Tirith who mistakes the hobbit for a lad and threatens to stand him on his head.

The films will never replace the books, that’s for sure. On the contrary, they’re sending readers to the books in droves. Sales of Lord of the Rings books have sharply spiked in the last two years, and last year they narrowly outsold Harry Potter, according to figures from Publisher’s Weekly.

But the films also are irreplaceable. More than merely honoring their source material, with their glorious imagery and fine performances the films have for me forever enriched the experience of reading the books. For all that the films don’t do, I still have Tolkien; for all that they do, the books themselves can be enjoyed on a new level. For Tolkien fans, this film, and this trilogy, is a gift to be treasured.

* * *

2003, New Line. Directed by Peter Jackson. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm. Voice of Gollum: Andy Serkis.


US Conference of Catholic Bishops: A-III Adults

Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and goblins and other “fell creatures”; a single crude expression.

Overall Recommendability: A Highly Recommended

Artistic & Entertainment Value: 4 stars (out of four) Superior

Moral and Spiritual Value: Between Positive and A Feast for the Spirit

Appropriate Audience: Teens and Up

For more information on this movie's ratings, visit the Decent Films Guide at the link below.

(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website is the Decent Films Guide.

This review was written for and appears courtesy of the National Catholic Register.

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