The Return of the King was possibly the most-anticipated film ever, the previous two installments of The Lord of the Rings having instantly ingrained themselves on the movie going public’s consciousness. Personally, I held little fear that the film would fall victim to the dreaded cinematic condition of sequelitis and fail to live up to expectation. But only the actual release of the movie an agonising year after The Two Towers would remove this uncertainty, and fulfill my desire to see on the big screen the end of one of the great stories. As with The Fellowship of the Ring, I need not have concerned myself. As a spectacle, The Return of the King is by far the most impressive of Peter Jackson’s landmark trilogy. Unfortunately, like TTT, it has flaws, but fortunately these are not fatal.
Jackson’s great triumph is that even with all its CGI wonders, his film does not neglect its characters, in particular the relationships between Gandalf and Pippin, Eowyn and Theoden, and of course Frodo and Sam. Each resonates in the memory. Even in the midst of battle Jackson focuses on the people into which he has invested so much time and care. It’s a shame Hollywood in general is blind to the possibility of overwhelming spectacle co-existing with the human element of cinema. The intercutting between the battle in front of the Black Gate and the desperate struggles at the Crack of Doom is just stunning, with the expressions on the faces of the each of the Fellowship members underlining what a tour-de-force of storytelling this movie is. The relationship of Frodo and Sam becomes the centrepiece of the movie more and more as it goes on. This is the way it should be, because their parting at the Grey Havens is the last act of the story. Jackson shows that his sensitivity to Tolkien is still there, in spite of the harsh verdicts of many who disapprove of the changes from book to film. Ironically, the clamour of “too many endings” by those who hadn’t read the book demonstrates why the earlier changes had to be made.
A lot of story had to go into this movie, but this is necessary for the following reasons. In TTT there is a convenient pause in the story between Helm’s Deep and the Isengard reunion. After Pippin looks into the Palantir the momentum is unbroken in the FotR movie until the end of the great battle inside and outside Minas Tirith. Thus, a great deal of TTT book narrative was still to be shown because the movie of TTT left out many of the last chapters. There was no place for the Voice of Saruman chapter at the end of TTT, because in cinematic terms it would have been too anticlimactic, but more about that later. Also, Jackson really has no option but to put Frodo’s and Sam’s fights with Shelob and the battles for Gondor at the same stage of the movie. This makes so much more sense than separating them and having to handle a buildup in tension, then the Shelob fight, then another tension buildup before the great battle for Gondor. The structure of the movie would have been too cumbersome. Anyway, when Tolkien’s chronology in the appendices is read, you realise both events happen at nearly the same time.
The worst consequence of the packing of so much narrative into this movie is the underwritten character of Denethor. He is totally unsympathetic, which is a mistake, because in the book he is much more interesting. Jackson should have found a way to include Denethor’s struggle with Sauron through the Palantir, because this is the real reason for Denethor’s madness. In this film the cause is his grief over Boromir’s death, which also partly explains his treatment of Faramir, but this sells the character of Denethor short. Not only that, but also the death of Denethor is perhaps Jackson’s worst error of judgement. The fiery 100 yard dash and plunge over the edge is just ridiculous.
There is nothing “wrong” with the arrival of the Army of the Dead to win the battle, but its just not as stirring as the end of Helm’s Deep battle. The high point of RotK’s battles is the charge of the Rohirrim and their fight against the Mumakil (ie giant elephants), which tends to make the actual of end of the battle a let down. Wisely, Jackson does not focus on the green tide washing over Sauron’s hordes, instead he cuts back to Miranda Otto’s wonderfully passionate portrayal of Eowyn killing the Witch-King, then throws in the now-famous single-handed bringing down of a mumakil by who else? Legolas, of course.
No discussion of this movie should neglect the Extended Edition DVD. Possibly the greatest flaw in the theatrical version of RotK is the omission of the Voice of Saruman scene, and insertion of a silly, misleading line of Gandalf that Saruman had lost his power. But unfortunately, as with the omission of the sons of Denethor scene at Osgiliath in TTT, the scene breaks the flow of the movie too much, and given the three hour plus running time, this decision was understandable. As with TTT, Jackson is given a get out of jail card by the EE, on which Saruman’s demise can be seen for the first time. I am sorry to say that I was not as generally impressed by the RotK EE as I was by the EEs of FotR and TTT. Jackson is too self-indulgent with Gimli’s character. In the theatrical version of RotK I didn’t mind these gags, but in the Paths of the Dead scene in particular I found that Gimli’s antics spoiled the mood of horror and dread that should have been maintained. All of that being said, the EE still deserves the highest recommendation. It adds many important details, such as Eowyn and Faramir falling in love. The LotR movie experience is incomplete without it.