I recall watching the Fellowship of the Ring with awe and wonder, marveling at how Peter Jackson and his team had captured the imagery and splendor of Middle Earth and its cast of diverse characters so thoroughly. Upon viewing the Two Towers, a revelation struck me. Surely, this was the beginning of a cinematic epic in the making. Jackson has not disappointed. The Return of the King is an inspiring depth charged finale to a great cinematic masterpiece, one that provokes a wide spectrum of emotions. In the end, it is a bittersweet tale of redemption, of endings and new beginnings.
The opening flashback prologue gives us a peak into Smeagol’s fall into decrepitude as a result of the Ring; a scene that inspires both revulsion and pity for the creature. Occurring 500 years prior to the events of the current tale, we bear witness to how the Ring immediately ensnares its bearer. We see that Smeagol was once a creature much like a hobbit. Upon encountering the Ring its toxicity and evil permeates the entire soul of what otherwise should be a benign being. Gollum is an alter ego that emerges as a result of the Ring’s influence. We know immediately that he will stop at nothing to possess the Ring, which has ultimately possessed him.
Moving forward, Frodo and his trusty companion, Sam are not faring well as the head deeper into Mordor. Frodo in particular, continues to be affected by the weight of his burden making him more susceptible to the influence of Gollum. Sean Astin’s portrayal of Sam is an emotionally charged and affective one as he watches helplessly while Frodo continuously falls under Gollum’s spell. As Frodo gets closer to Mordor, this triangular relationship has particularly gut-wrenching consequences. For those who have already seen the film, they will pardon the pun. The loyalty of Sam to Frodo continues to be an important part of the story and is crucial to the heroes achieving their ultimate goal. An especially horrifying scene as they encounter the terror that guards the tunnel through the Morgul Pass reminds us why this film is rated PG -13. During my second viewing of the film, I was especially irritated with a woman who brought her young son to the film. This film is not for young children. The scene at the Fires of Mount Doom is riveting and tension filled as Frodo struggles with the Ring’s influence (and more) while Sam can only watch in horror and anguish.
Much of the film is dedicated to plight of mankind and its struggle against the Dark Lord Sauron’s push to dominance. Humanity’s perseverance is embodied in Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, a descendant of an ancient race of kings. The entire fate of man, we learn rests solely on Aragorn. He needs to accept and embrace his bloodline and at the same time reconcile the failures of his ancestor Isildur who 3500 years prior had the chance to destroy the Ring but instead succumbed to its spell. There are lesser but also compelling side stories surrounding the path of man. Theoden king of Rohan, played masterfully by Bernard Hill is a sad but noble character who regrets deeply his long slumber under Saruman’s spell and that he despaired while Aragorn rallied the horsemen of Rohan, the Rohirrim, in the defense of their realm in events in the second film. His moment of redemption is particularly poignant. John Noble provides a visceral portrayal of Denethor, the steward or caretaker of Gondor. The stewards are charged with the governing of Gondor from its capital Minis Tirith until such day that the ancient race of the kings return to reclaim the throne. A minor complaint about Denethor, one that hopefully will be rectified in the extended DVD, is that we know little of why he despairs so beyond the death of his son Boromir in the first film and his relationship with his second son Faramir. Necessary details crucial to his character and ultimately his demise are omitted from the theatrical release.
John Rhy-Davies’ Gimli the Dwarf continues to provide comedic relief while Orlando Bloom’s Legolas the elf placates the extreme sports enthusiasts among us with his acrobatic accomplishments in battle. But both characters, as in the books, are relegated to lesser importance. Gandalf, played wonderfully if unceremoniously by Sir Ian McKellen continues to provide the moral compass for the cast of characters in the film. Ultimately, he assumes control of the defense of Minis Tirith, leading the knights who face the overwhelming forces of darkness.
The other two hobbits in the story have increased roles. Merry, played by Dominic Monhagan accompanies the Rohirrim shield maiden Eowyn into battle in the spectacular Battle of the Pellenor fields sequence. His participation in fighting the Lord of the Nazgul is of crucial importance and probably needs to be accentuated in the extended DVD. Pippin (Billy Boyd) continues to find trouble but also plays a key role particularly in the fantastic scene of the lighting of the beacons between Minis Tirith and Rohan.
The cinematography and special affects continue to excel in the Return of the King from the first two chapters. In fact, it is this author’s belief that ROTK surpasses the first two films in these categories.
With all of the praise that can be given to this film, there are still weaknesses that need to be addressed. The much publicized omission of Saruman’s fate with be in the extended DVD. I have already mentioned that Denethor’s portrayal was incomplete. Other reviewers have cited the extended ending, but in my opinion, more could be explained and the ending could have been enhanced with a narration sequence. For those less versed in Middle Earth lore, a better explanation of the end of the Third Age and the beginning of the Fourth Age could have helped. But given the achievements of the entire film, these are minor complaints. The Return of the King deserves all of the attention that it is receiving and merits its probable Academy Award for Best Picture. Peter Jackson also deserves Best Director, more so for the accomplishment of the entire body of the three films and the incredible organization and undertaking of putting such an epic together.
Sadly the epic is over. I was struck by this in the end of the ROTK. Not only are we witnessing a bittersweet finale to the trilogy, but also the conclusion of cinematic ouevre de maitre. We may look forward to the DVD release and the extended DVD release. I would not be surprised to see a third release of each of the films incorporating even more omitted scenes. One can only hope that the issues surrounding the rights to “The Hobbit” are settled. Then what for Middle Earth fans? Perhaps a mini series of The Simarillion? While the chance of the latter supposition is slight, “Rings” fever is here to stay and the echos of Peter Jackson’s accomplishment will resonate throughout generations of film enthusiasts.