When “The Fellowship of the Ring” was released by New Line Cinema in 2001, there was a great amount of anticipation. Many awaited the films as how most science fiction fans awaited the new Star Wars films. Some stubborn holdouts in the form of book-loving skeptics (myself included) were wary, until the day of release.
“Fellowship” was widely acclaimed, for its camera-work, props and costumes, musical score, location shooting, and most of all, the amazing chemistry between all the actors. Documentaries would reveal a deep friendship between these actors during their years of filming in New Zealand, cohesion that is rarely seen between actors in any film, nevermind one of such an epic scale such as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Audiences were shocked in December 2002 when “The Two Towers” was released. Like fine wine, the series only seemed to sweeten with time. Between the epic battle of Helm’s Deep, and the dynamic performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol, there was something for everybody.
The year is now 2003, the day is the seventeenth of December. It is the centennial of the first human flight in heavier than air craft, and also the international release date of The final chapter of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King”.
The third film of a trilogy is usually cursed. We see this syndrome in films like “The Godfather III” and even “Return of the Jedi”. What we see in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy however, is a juggernaut momentum where the quality of each film of the trilogy exceeds the last.
I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I’ve spent my time watching many different films. Anyone who can name a trilogy that progressed better, tell me, and I’ll rent it immediately.
I’ll refer to a few scenes in the film in this review. I don’t consider it spoilage since these books are over half a century old, and have already been replayed in cartoons, audio dramas, and video games. Only those that have made some pact to never read the books until they’ve watched the entire trilogy may have a problem.
The film opens with a glimpse into the past of Smeagol, 500 years ago. A serene day of fishing, marred by a discovery — namely, the One Ring. It turned cousin against cousin, Smeagol against Deagol, immediately. The scene shifts seemlessly into Smeagol’s gradual transformation into Gollum, and finally, Gollum with Frodo and Sam. Indeed, all the transitions were seemless, as the story shifted from Frodo to Aragorn to Gandalf, etc.
Tolkien’s book trilogy is quite different in the respect that the final two titles in particular are divided into 2 books; one dealing primarily with Frodo and Sam’s exploits, while the other deals with Aragorn, Gandalf, and others. Peter Jackson opted to deal with each set of characters minutes at a time, which makes for a more enjoyable screen experience, and seems to work out beautifully.
Despite the necessary efforts to make the story compatible with the theatre for a huge worldwide audience, this is in essence, a storywritten over a half a century ago, so the potential for a great, great film is there, but it merely needed to be unlocked by the right team of filmmakers. Despite some annoying changes to the original book stories (see “Problems”, I believe Peter Jackson and his people ultimately did a great job.
What makes “Return of the King”, no, the entire trilogy for that matter, execellent films for the ages? it is the story given to us by Tolkien, and the people who contributed. The chemistry between all their actors was powerful, as the Fellowship of the Ring seemed all too real. It was also things like Aragorn’s speech to the army about to storm the Black Gate, which trumps the war-like monologue of any character from any film of the past (Bill Pullman’s “Independence Day” monologue is brought to mind immediately).
It’s also scenes like the one after Aragorn’s coronation, where he and the assembled crowd all bow in unison to the four hobbits. Although unspoken, I think that any fan of the books will feel misty eyed when the group of hobbits, who made the ultimate sacrifice of their innocence, and saw far worse than the soldiers of men who reaped the glory, were suddenly honored by their comrade turned King. By this time, all the girls in the audience simultaneously grabbed a tissue to blow their noses and wipe their tears.
Special Effects, Costuming, and Props
The visual effects of “The Return of the King”, whether they involved location shooting, special effects, costuming, or props, were all beautiful and meticulously crafted to say the least.
When we first watched “Fellowship of the Ring”, me and the audience were treated to the battle of the Last Alliance, where the ring was cut from Sauron’s hand. Thousands of men, elves, and orcs fought in a huge battle royale, the fearsome Mordor its backdrop. We saw an even greater battle in “The Tower Towers” during the fight for Helm’s Deep.
Finally in “The Return of the King” we see the battle for the White City of Minas Tirith. The defenders of Gondor, the Brave Rohirrim, the vile orcs, the Haradim with their towering oliphaunts, and the enigmatic army of the dead are unleashed on Pelannor Fields for a battle to rival Isildur’s of the 2nd age.
I swear, when we were treated to a close-up of one of the great walls of Minas Tirith as an orc boulder was about to smash it to bits, I flinched and brought my arms up in a defensive posture. Although it was a bit of pandering to the thrill-seekers, I must say I enjoyed that.
We not only see great detail in the coordination of these grand battles (a feat done mostly with computer simulations, which humorously had the troopers running away at first until Jackson’s team tweaked it to have a “duty” subroutine in their AI), but we see this in the costume work, as well. The personal armors of Aragorn and Theoden are distinct, and those of the various soldiers of different realms have keen sense of uniformity, as they should.
By noting the humble garb of the townspeople and the exotic, delicate clothing of the elves, one could see that the costume designers for the Lord of the Rings series, Return of the King in particular, put a great deal of care into their work, and hopefully, an award will be won for such (in addition to a plethora of other awards).
As filming took place in New Zealand, a wide variety of terrain and climates could be had. Unlike other popular film trilogies, CGI is not relied upon completely. The lushness of the Shire, as well as the natural open space of Pelannor Fields seemed all too real, yet were able to preserve a sacred air of myth at the same time.
Sound and Musical Score
I’ll admit that I was quite disappointed when John Williams wasn’t available for the “Rings” trilogy. Apparently, they had asked Williams to do the scores in this trilogy, but the producers of the “Harry Potter” series found him first, and his schedule was tied heavily between that and “Star Wars”.
Risking severe alienation from fellow fans of the trilogy, I will say that I found some of Howard Shore’s scores in “Fellowship” to be a tad cliched, and by that, I mean that during some scores, when a great climax was about to occur, I could anticipate the notes and the instruments that Shore would use to bring us to that musical climax.
The score in “Return of the King” brings us several familiar themes, like the awe-inspiring string theme of Theoden, and the all-too-pleasant woodwind theme of the Shire.
As for the sound effects of the film, they are quite frankly, loud when experienced through the proper movie theater speakers. It’s almost like going to a rock concert. If you have very sensitive ears, you may want to consider bringing earplugs for sequences such as the Battle of Pelannor Fields. Volume aside, they are crisp and ripe with detail, from the clashing of swords to the distinctive gutteral sound of Gollum swallowing.
Very rare is the film without mistakes, and “Return of the King” is no exception.
First, the violence may be a bit much for some people. Although my mom enjoyed “Towers”, she expressed unhappiness over the violence. And I was like “But the book is violent, too, ma” which led to a dialogue which almost seemed lifted directly out of a Seinfeld episode.
Book fans will probably feel cheated, when they discover that Saruman was completely cut out of the Theatrical Release of “King”. Christopher Lee was certainly upset, and rightfully so, when the news was given to him.
In a way I find it humorous in a sardonic sort of way that first, we book fans rightfully complained when we first discovered that the chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” was cut out of all film versions. Supposedly, tribute was given to this chapter during Frodo’s vision inspired by Galadriel in “Fellowship of the Ring”. Instead, Saruman was supposed to be impaled by a stalagmite like formation at Orthanc.
Now, these same fans who complained about the cheesiness of such a death, are saying “Bring Saruman to ‘Return of the King’!” And I say, for what? To die on a stalagmite when he actually gets stabbed by Grima Wormtongue in the Shire during his final pathetic bid of supremacy is usurped by Frodo and company? Frankly, I don’t care. Although Christopher Lee did great justice to the character of Saruman, the former white wizard’s true fate was never filmed.
This doesn’t mean I am not put off by other omissions, however. I was very disappointed with no romantic interaction between Eowyn and Faramir. Now, many viewers who will sadly never read the book will just assume she dies an old maid, pining for Aragorn. Even one short scene, where it shows a charming first meeting between the two could have fixed that in a reasonable manner.
So with the cutting of essential book passages, comes the addition of “fluff” added merely to keep movie-goers on the edge of their seats. Many complained about Legolas surfing on a shield, going down a flight of stairs during the Battle of Helms Deep in “The Two Towers”.
Now, in “Return of the King”, we see Legolas climb up a great oliphaunt, ala Luke Skywalker during the Battle of Hoth. Killing all the Haradim aboard, Legolas kills the oliphaunt, and surfs down its long snout to safety, all while Gimli made some comment which was unintelligible to me due to the loud volume of war-like sound effects. No dwarf tossing lines in this film, however. Whew!
I also thought that the pitting of Frodo against Sam was a bit excessive. Although I’ve discussed at length the Frodo-Smeagol dynamic on various Tolkien boards, Jackson brought it to an all-new level in this film, one which is not seen in the books. Although watching Frodo sending Sam away exposed the Ring’s corrupting effects further, and the scene of Sam crying by himself was very touching, it never happened, only in Peter Jackson’s mind’s eye. He made Frodo more aggressive, and Arwen excessively meak, like free-flowing protoplasm.
The adding of new scenes at the expense of book passages is sacrilige. I had almost expected Cate Blanchett (Galadriel/Narrarator) to recite some passages of the Epilogue, describing the fates of the various characters in the film. I had expected to see a montage; of Pippin and Merry marrying their respective wives, then dying, and of Sam sailing off to the Grey Havens after Rose Cotton’s death. I even wanted to see Legolas and Gimli sailing off on one of the final elf-ships. But alas, no.
Many will complain about the length of this film, but I say it’s not long enough. As an avid fan of “Lord of the Rings”, I say it should be as long as it has to be to host the entire book. I believe even Peter Jackson wanted these things, but felt the sting of criticism by New Line executives, which probably hurts more than a little Witch King sword wound in this day and age.
What will you take with you when leaving the movie theatre three hours later? It depends on who you were before hand. If you were a fan of the films who had never read “Lord of the Rings” before, you’ll be completely satisfied, although your bum might be very sore from the very long period of sitting down. Unlike long airline trips, you can’t get up every so often to stretch, especially not in a crowded theatre, which they’ll probably be until next week.
Fans of the books, however, may take offense at the removal of the scenes I mentioned. This is the end of the road; the end of the Fellowship, the time of the Elves’ passing into the West, the end of magic, the end of wonder. We do not see Saruman’s pathetic fall from grace complete, nor do we see the lovely Eowyn finding love with Faramir. We only see her staring at Aragorn. Although the film’s “I am no man!” lunging for a certain great enemy, was an outstanding scene which almost makes up for the lack of romance for her. Almost.
Not seeing Sam go to the Grey Havens after Rosie’s death was also a problem, but what to do? Many have already complained of an excessively long film. I can imagine the collective groans of the fans who never read the books, if they had seen a hypothetical sequence of Sam Gamgee going to Valinor after saying “I’m back”.
Book fans have to see “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy as a theatrical treatment of the book series, and nothing more. Seeing it as an attempt to bring the series to life is a simple, inaccurate view which would only drive book purists mad. Unfortunately, the publication of the original books with covers sporting the mugs of actors of the film only serve to perpetuate this incorrect assessment, and probably irks people like Christopher Tolkien to no end.
Although the extended versions of the Trilogy will always have a prominent spot in my DVD library, my book, “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien will be set directly above it, hopefully enjoying just as much use — hopefully more.