Last month John S began his look back at Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. He looked at The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Now, he turns his attention to the last chapter in the trilogy, The Return of the King.
Of all the films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I had the highest expectations for The Return of the King. The final installment in the series did make Oscar history, winning all 11 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. On IMDb, the movie is ranked 11th on the Top 250 films of all time. According to many critics, including Roger Ebert, it was The Return of the King that cemented the status of Peter Jackson’s films as true epics.
Aside from the praise of others, though, was the simple fact that The Return of the King was the final installment in the Lord of the Rings series. As I’ve said before about other things, conclusions are always important to a story that you’ve invested a lot of time in, and how a story ends often reshapes how we see its beginnings. The Return of the King, then, was where things that seemed odd or irrelevant in the first two movies would start to make sense, and where the ongoing stories of those films would finally get their much-worked–for payoffs.
Unfortunately, The Return of the King was a big letdown. The longest movie of the three (the Extended Edition clocks in at a nice, round 250 minutes), it still feels like it’s juggling too many pieces in too little time, rushing through stories and introductions and resolutions and explanations and battles and so, so much else. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King feels cluttered and disjointed. In the opening film of a trilogy, that’s understandable and even somewhat enjoyable, since part of the appeal of the opening film is the introduction of an entire new world. At that stage, explanations about mythology and character relationships make sense.
By the time we’ve reached the third film, though, those things feel completely out of place. The final installment is the time for stories we care about to reach their conclusions, for emotional payoffs and epic showdowns.
At the very least, the final film should not repeat the previous films of the trilogy, as The Return of the King does. Much of the plot feels like a do-over of stories from the first two films. As in The Two Towers, Gandalf uses special, unexplained powers of wizardry to figure out that Sauron is planning to attack a kingdom of Middle-Earth that we haven’t been introduced to yet. Instead of Rohan, though, now it’s Minas Tirith, the capitol of Gondor, which seems like a bigger deal for reasons that go unmentioned. Like Rohan, Gondor is ruled by a king who is mourning the loss of his son (Boromir, who was killed way back in the first film of the trilogy). Instead of Theoden, though, this king is Denethor. Like Theoden, Denethor’s grief is clouding his judgment, although this time, instead of being possessed by Saruman, Denethor is possessed by paranoia and greed: He is convinced that Aragorn intends to depose him (and he has reason for such a suspicion, after all, since Aragorn is the descendent of Elendil and is therefore destined to become king again).
If these plots sound remarkably similar, it’s because they are, and it has a lot less impact the second time around. Denethor refuses to call for help from Rohan to defend his city against Sauron, but the internal politics of a kingdom in Middle-Earth are something we’ve already seen, and it’s no less confusing in this film than it was in The Two Towers. Once again, we aren’t given much detail about the relationships between the two kingdoms—is Denethor refusing to call Rohan simply because of Aragorn’s presence in Rohan, or is the alliance between the two nations already tenuous? Why does Rohan have to wait for Denethor to signal for help anyway, if Gandalf has already told them that Sauron is planning to attack?
There is also very little dramatic investment in the Gondor story, despite a couple new twists. For one, Denethor is mourning the loss of Boromir, his favorite son, despite his younger son Faramir’s constant and seemingly doomed attempts to prove his merit to his father. The problem with this filial conflict, though, is that it has received virtually no treatment in the earlier films. In Fellowship, we were not even introduced to Faramir and, frankly, Boromir was kind of a dick. In the Extended Edition of The Two Towers there are scenes that introduce us to Denethor, his love of Boromir, and his disdain for Faramir, but it is a rather minor and tangential plot–one not even included in the original film.
It would be fine for the film to spend more time exploring this relationship if it were treated with real depth in this film, or if it felt necessary to the overall structure of the story, but neither is true. Because so much else is going on in the film—battles with the Orcs, love triangles, Frodo trying to enter Mordor with Sam and Gollum, etc.—Jackson never devotes enough time to this story to keep it from feeling rather flat. It is hard to feel really involved in this story since Boromir’s original depiction was rather dickish. Also, John Noble plays Denethor as so one-dimensionally angry that it is hard to really feel much empathy for the character.
The one twist that does seem to work, though, is Pippin’s pledge of allegiance to Denethor. Boromir died trying to save Pippin back in Fellowship, so when Pippin sees the king’s grief, he cannot help but feel responsible and pledges to obey Denethor and help him however the king deems fit. This, of course, puts Pippin in an uncomfortable situation when Denethor becomes so consumed by grief that his reign puts the kingdom in jeopardy. This plot works, since Pippin is a character we have an investment in; it rightfully brings the hobbits—who got kind of the short end of the stick in The Two Towers, hanging out with Treebeard for the whole movie—back to the forefront.
Ultimately, though, there is very little payoff for this whole plotline. Denethor sends Faramir on a suicide mission, and when he thinks his second son has been killed, he goes even crazier. Eventually, he ends up lighting himself on fire, but the dramatic moment is more of a spectacle than a substantive plot point.
The most compelling part of the trilogy continues to be the Frodo-Sam relationship, and the introduction of Gollum to that duo. Gollum becomes much more treacherous in The Return of the King, tearing Sam and Frodo apart by convincing Frodo that Sam wants the One Ring for himself. Nothing sells Frodo’s descent into a madness caused by The Ring more than his willingness to believe Gollum’s lies and turn on Sam. Unfortunately, Elijah Wood’s portrayal of Frodo in this film is the most wooden of the trilogy, as he plays him with a permanently frightened and dead look on his face. Even so, the highlight of the third film comes when Frodo, now alone after abandoning Sam, enters the Lair of Shelob—on Gollum’s duplicitous suggestion—and must fight off a giant spider. Jackson’s direction is at its best when its framing a huge, impressively rendered monster against a humble, diminutive hobbit.
Of course, Sam—who, at this point in the trilogy, would doubt Sam’s loyalty?—comes to Frodo’s rescue, although he believes Frodo is dead when he finds him. Eventually, Frodo’s body is found by Orcs and taken into Mordor, with Sam following.
Meanwhile, the battle against Sauron’s army in Gondor is saved, as in The Two Towers, by some as yet unexplained magical phenomenon. Instead of animated trees, though, it’s now an army of ghosts spurred on by Aragorn.
As I’ve harped on in both my earlier reviews of this trilogy, what The Lord of the Rings really lacks is a compelling villain. With Saruman disposed of in The Two Towers (although the Extended Edition of The Return of the King features a final scene with him, including his death), I had assumed we’d get to know more about Sauron himself in this final act. But instead we just see more armies of Orcs and Ringwraiths. The film tries to hold the Witch-King up as a super-villain, but he is exactly what he looks like: an empty suit of armor. He feels more like a stand-in for a generic Top Bad Guy. Sauron himself is never more than the flaming eye that appeared cryptically in The Fellowship.
Without any real compelling villain, the action feels like progress towards nothing. The battle scenes are, once again, impressively rendered, but they feel like empty violence, since so many of the people fighting the nameless, interchangeable bad guys are themselves nameless and interchangeable. Plenty of the good guys we do know, like Denethor, are even dislikable and arguably villains in their own right. It’s also often hard to keep up with who is fighting whom, and where, and when. These details may not seem important, but when the politics of Middle-Earth are as complicated and unclear as they are in the films, not knowing these things is important.
The final battle scene, which comes about three hours into the Extended Edition, is the only one that’s really clear in both its reason and its action. Aragorn, after having defeated the Orcs and Minas Tirrith, realizes that he must distract the armies of Mordor if Frodo and Sam have any hope of reaching Mount Doom. Although they are going up against almost certain death, Aragorn rouses his armies at the Black Gate in order to draw the Orcs out. Viggo Mortensen looks and carries himself like a reluctant but valiant king, so this battle feels like the culmination of a substantive story.
The other story that needs concluding, of course, is that of Sam and Frodo, who can now make their way to Mount Doom with the Orcs busy fighting Aragorn’s new army of the West. The hobbits are the real heart of Tolkien’s story, so the scene at Mount Doom should be the most important of the trilogy. By this point, though, Frodo’s descent into madness and the temptation of the Ring has been reinforced so repeatedly by Wood’s blank stares and his dismissal of Sam that it feels almost anticlimactic and predictable when Frodo gives in to temptation and refuses to throw the Ring into the fire. Luckily, Gollum mounts one last attempt to get the Ring back, biting off Frodo’s finger, and in the ensuing scuffle, Gollum and the Ring fall into the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo himself hangs off the cliffs, and only when he chooses to accept Sam’s help and climb back up—instead of falling in after the Ring—does the Ring perish, destroying Sauron.
With the Ring and Sauron eliminated, the Orcs fighting Aragorn’s army quickly perish as well. You may think that this 11-hour trilogy would end there, but no—the Extended Edition has about another half hour of epilogue, in which pretty much every character, from Aragorn and Frodo down to Bilbo and Faramir, gets a happy ending.
Have I made it clear yet that I think this film is too long? Because it is. By, like, at least an hour. Granted, I watched the Extended Edition, with 50 extra minutes of footage, but even some of what is featured in the Extended footage—the actual death of Saruman, for example—seems more important than scenes in the original release. Overall, this third film is plagued by a desire to close every chapter and tie together every loose end. As a result, almost every story feels diluted and weighed down. The resolution of a story may come 45 minutes after the story was last addressed.
The biggest problem with this trilogy as a whole, and the cause of this cobbled-together feel of the final installment, is that Jackson’s films, in addition to lacking a compelling villain, lack a real hero. Frodo is the protagonist, but he is only really “heroic” in the first film; in The Two Towers he is sympathetic, but by the third film, his corrupted fate has been more or less made clear. Aragorn is the most valiant character, but his story lacks the real narrative progression—most of his scenes have to do with the trilogy’s boring love triangle. Sam is the character with the most courageous acts, but he plays too much of a secondary role to Frodo to be truly compelling on his own.
As a result, Jackson has done a good job of visually rendering and depicting Tolkien’s large and complex world, but a rather mediocre job of animating its center. Epic stories are only memorable insofar as they have a strong glimpse of humanity at its center: Superheroes like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman have alter egos like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker; the struggle between the Empire and the Jedi is centered on the Skywalker family, etc. The Lord of the Rings simply juggles too many stories and too many characters to be grounded in this way. The entire trilogy, then, is beautifully staged, and parts of it—mostly those centered on Frodo, Sam, and Gollum—are particularly compelling, but, as whole, the emotional resonance of the films is too small to befit an epic.