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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the epic by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Principal Cast
Elijah Wood -- Frodo Baggins
Ian McKellen -- Gandalf
Viggo Mortensen -- Aragorn
Sean Astin -- Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee
Liv Tyler -- Arwen Undómiel
Cate Blanchett -- Galadriel
John Rhys-Davies -- Gimli
Billy Boyd -- Peregrin 'Pippin' Took
Dominic Monaghan -- Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck
Orlando Bloom -- Legolas Greenleaf
Hugo Weaving -- Elrond
Miranda Otto -- Éowyn
Karl Urban -- Éomer
Bernard Hill -- Théoden, King of Rohan
Andy Serkis -- Sméagol/Gollum
Sean Bean -- Boromir
Marton Csokas -- Celeborn
Ian Holm -- Bilbo
Bruce Hopkins -- Gamling
Ian Hughes -- Irolas
John Noble -- Denethor
Paul Norell -- King of the Dead
Bruce Phillips -- Grimbold
Thomas Robins -- Deagol
David Wenham -- Faramir
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

Wow. It finally arrived, and it was worth the wait. The Return of the King is the capper to a great cinematic trilogy, with the geographically-stretched action and epic warcraft of The Two Towers, but also the superior energy and balanced feel of The Fellowship of the Rings. Things slow down a bit towards the end, but that's mostly because Jackson is in the position of having to wrap up what amounts to a ten-hour film.

When it was announced four years ago that New Zealand director Peter Jackson had been hired for the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, there was apprehension. Who was this guy? What could have made New Line think his involvement would justify the $300 million they were investing in this production? His reputation at that time rested on an ultra-violent horror film (Braindead, aka Dead Alive, depending on where you are), a twisted movie about sick puppets (Meet the Feebles), and a drama about a real-life murder (Heavenly Creatures) that snagged Jackson and his writing partner Fran Walsh some Best Screenplay Oscar nominations in 1995 (they lost to Pulp Fiction). Though his horror/comedy, The Frighteners, proved that he wasn't intimidated by cutting-edge special effects, there was really nothing to suggest he could accomplish something with the scope of Lord of the Rings. But four years later, he's done it.

We should all be familiar by now with how this story goes. Aragorn and his companions, along with the Riders of Rohan, have survived the assault on Helm's Deep. Gandalf and Pippin ride ahead to Minas Tirith, where Faramir and his resentful father Denethor are preparing the city to endure a siege from the massed forces of Sauron; meanwhile Frodo and Sam continue on their doomed trek into Mordor to destroy the Ring, accompanied by the treacherous Gollum.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Miranda Otto's Eowyn is heartbreaking and courageous, while David Wenham puts Faramir's doomed sense of honor and obligation into focus. Viggo Mortensen understands that Aragorn is burdened by his fate, but wisely underplays the gloom of the character. Bernard Hill is a portrait of brave resolve as Theoden, and gets to deliver one of the best pep talks before a battle since the St. Crispin's Day speech. Elijah Wood still acts Frodo mostly with puppy-dog eyes; he doesn't have the grimness that Tolkien's Frodo does, but it's a satisfying performance. His march across Mordor, while it doesn't have the same agony that it did in the book, has a resignation and hope that become quite moving, helped by Sean Astin's surprisingly good turn as Sam.

In fact, Jackson's The Return of the King captures a mood of the novel that could take you by surprise if you haven't visited the book in quite a while: it's remarkably sad. In their Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute and John Grant put forward the concept of "thinning," which refers to the fading away of a time or place or quality in the world, a kind of background radiation of melancholy that's essential to much of fantasy fiction. We see the thinning of Tolkien's Middle Earth as the Elves make their way for the Gray Havens, never to return; in Arwen's choice to give up her immortality for a life with Aragorn; and in the moral and environmental corruption of Hobbiton, captured in the now-famous chapter "The Scouring of the Shire" (but not filmed by Jackson). I had forgotten, until I saw this movie and then returned to the text, how much of this feeling Tolkien invested in trilogy's final volume. Much of the action is about approaching an end or saying goodbye, and there is an intense feeling that lives, land, the future -- everything -- is at stake, not to continue as it has, but to change irrevocably.

All of the film's set pieces work like magic. Just the simple lighting of the beacon fires can put a thrill into you. Frodo's encounter with Shelob is creepy and exciting, helped by some of the best CGI you could ask for and a soundtrack that knows when not to "help" a scene. Even Gollum looks and performs better in this film, if you can imagine. The Battle of Pelennor fields is massive but never confusing, thanks to Jackson's careful setups and roving camera-work, and contains moments of humour, drama, and tragedy side by side with whipcrack action. Most satisfying are Eowyn's stand against the Witch King and Legolas' one-on-one with an oliphaunt, a gigantic, mammoth-like beast that looks carved from an ice age nightmare. Absolutely spectacular.

Jackson keeps falling back on the theme of heroes riding or marching to their likely or inevitable deaths: Faramir leads his company against an Osgiliath impenetrably overrun with orcs; Theoden leads the Rohirrim into the heart of the battle at Pelennor Fields, against an army, no less; Frodo and Sam crawl towards what they come to realize is the "end of all things." Some -- mostly SF writers, oddly -- are fond of saying that Tolkien's myth-making reflects the cowardice of the middle class, but I sure don't see it here. Repulsive as it is, war has been a great endeavour in human history, and Jackson's film reflects what Tolkien captured -- that in war, both the worst and the best of individual behavior rises to the surface. These characters are heroic and noble in a cinema that's usually dominated by cynical revenge fantasies, and only a crank would look at this story as being naive or "pro-war."

The Return of the King isn't without flaws: John Noble's Denethor is arresting, but desperately needs character development to make his motivations clearer. Saruman's end isn't handled at all in this edit, and you'll find yourself missing the Mouth of Sauron confab near the end; both would added appreciated depth. But there's so many riches here, why grumble? Especially when we know the Extended Edition DVD will be arriving in the future to set things right (cross your fingers; everything I just mentioned is said to be included in Jackson's final edit for the disc).

I can't think of another trilogy that appeals to so many fans of differing kinds. Jackson's films have enjoyed that same appeal, and seem destined to be regarded much like the book, as works of art that elevate popular commercialism to new heights. This has been an audacious undertaking. Let us praise it with great praise.

Copyright © 2004 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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