Over the years, I’ve read Lord of the Rings four times. During the holiday season of 2003/4, I watched Return of the King four times. While I embraced ROTK as the third part of a dream come true, I was not totally happy, left wondering why so many things vital were missing. The 4-hour extended DVD version explains a lot.
My biggest beef was on so much missing about Aragon, and I found most of them in the DVD. One of the vital elements in the Fellowship’s strategy is to draw Sauron’s eye away from Frodo, and here Aragon’s role is crucial. The “last debate” in the movie is totally inadequate in explaining the suicidal march to the Black gate but the DVD makes it very clear, with the additional scene of Aragon revealing himself to Sauron though the Palantir. He is the bait that Sauron cannot resist.
Another important aspect is that Aragon comes into the city of Minas Tirith first and foremost as a HEALER, not as a king. The kingship comes afterwards. This is again brought out in the additional scenes in the DVD, although still missing a lot of details from the book.
Still disappointing, even for the DVD, is that so little is given to the story of Eowyn and Faramir. The dialogue through which they come to accept each other could very well be the most beautiful in the entire book. The few shots in the DVD that trace the development of their relationship are far from adequate, although that’s a least a slight improvement from the film version.
Another disappointment is Aragon’s arrival at the Pelennor Fields, which is hopelessly lame compared with the original treatment in the book: amidst the despair of the Rohan and Gondor soldiers in witnessing the approaching black ships, Aragon’s standard suddenly unfurls at the main mast: “There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but seven stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril gold.”
The treatment of Gandalf’s confrontation of the Witch King in the DVD departs from the book, in which the two are locked in a face off, then Rohan’s horns are heard and the Witch King swings around and leaves. What in heaven’s name is in Peter Jackson’s mind when he had Gandalf’s staff broken by the Witch King. But this did explain a mystery that has been bugging me for a year ? why Gandalf had to snatch a spear from the guard when he saved Faramir from the pyre of Denethor.
Enough on the DVD.I shall be remiss if I do not pay tribute to Peter Jackson for the wonderful film he and his dedicated crew have created.
Most inspired is the lighting of the beacons to summon help from Rohan. In the book, this is observed by Pippin in the ride to Minas Tirith. To satisfy Pippin’s curiosity, Gandalf explains the background to him in a somewhat factual manner. Jackson turns this into one of the most exciting moments in the film, with aesthetically superb shots of the 13 beacons (yes, I counted them) being lit up in succession, accompanied by beautifully rousing music score, culminating in Theoden’s heroic utterance of “Rohan will answer”. Watching this has to be among the most uplifting moments one can experience in a cinema.
Most poignant is the Faramir’s suicidal attempt to retake Osgilaith, under the orders of an unloving father. Starting from the soldiers of Gondor filing out of Minas Tirith in what looks almost like a funeral march to the letting loose of the swarm of arrows by the orcs in Osgilaith, every image of this scene is so hauntingly heartrending. It reminds me of John Woo’s favourite scenes, although here, the music is Pipppin’s actual singing rather than adapted background music, rendering the tragic mood even more devastating.
Directly opposite in mood is Rohan’s charge in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Even if this mission is, in a way, equally suicidal, the spirit is sky high, radiating dauntless heroism and lust for battle. This scene also reminds me of the legendary battle scene in Spartacus (1960) which is universally recognised as the model in depiction of battle strategies. Rohan’s charge in Pelennor Field, no the other hand, exemplifies heroism unsurpassed.
Although ROTK is first and foremost the King’s story, we should not forget, in the overall scheme of things, the ring bearers (no typo here because Frodo did acknowledge Sam as a fellow ring bearer in the end of the book). Elijah Wood and Sean Astin (particularly Astin) have played their roles to perfection. Towards the end of the quest, when Frodo’s strength was almost fully spent, to hear Sam say “I cannot carry it (the ring) for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you” and not be moved, one will have to be a hopelessly and irreversibly hardened cynic. The background music, incidentally, is “Into the west”.
It is certainly a good sign that the general audience worldwide has reacted favourably to the long aftermath following the destruction of the ring, indicated that their capacity to appreciate has not been impaired by the proliferation of Hollywood style slam-bang endings. Viggo Mortensen’s line to the Hobbits “My friends, you bow to no one” is delivered with sincerity and conviction. The final scene at the Grey Havens is graceful, touching, stylish. However, there is one shot that I must mention: Galadriel’s final enigmatic, alluring, half-smiling glance at Frodo before she disappears into the ship. Cate Blanchett is among the most versatile actresses around today and in LOTR, she is Galadriel incarnate.