Should I Watch..? The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
What's the big deal?
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King is an epic fantasy film released in 2003 and is based on the third and final volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's series of fantasy novels The Lord Of The Rings. Like its predecessors The Fellowship Of The Ring (1) and The Two Towers (2), it was directed by Peter Jackson in his native New Zealand and was a huge critical and financial hit. It won 11 Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards, tying it with Ben Hur (3) and Titanic (4) as the most successful film of all time and was also only the second film in history to take more than $1 billion at the global box office after Titanic. With the two earlier films, it is widely recognised as the greatest fantasy film ever made and also one of the most significant films of our time. It would also lead Jackson to revisit Tolkien's work for another trilogy in Middle-Earth based on The Hobbit.
What's it about?
Gandalf the White leads Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Théoden to Isengard where Merry and Pippin led the Ents into battle against Saruman. Imprisoning the wizard in his tower along with Grima Wormtongue, Gandalf retrieves the Palantír (a magical seeing orb) from Saruman but Pippin's curiousity allows the Dark Lord Sauron to attack Pippin's mind. Gandalf deduces that Sauron means to march on the city of Minas Tirith and makes his way there along with Pippin. Aragorn, meanwhile, is approached by Elrond who hands him the mighty blade Andúril and directs him to fulfil his destiny as King of Gondor by recruiting the Army Of The Dead for the forthcoming battle at Pelennor Fields.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Mordor en route to Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam are finally betrayed by Gollum who lures them into a deadly trap with a giant spider named Shelob. With Frodo poisoned and surrounded by Orcs, will our heroes manage to ever complete their quest to destroy the One Ring and if they do, what possible hope is there for their survival?
Sméagol / Gollum *
Gandalf the White
Gimli / Treebeard (voice)
Faramir, Steward of Gondor
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson *
Release Date (UK)
17th December, 2003
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Set Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
If The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers didn't have enough in the way of action for you then this epic film more than makes up for it. The mayhem and violence of Pelennor Fields is film-making on a truly epic scale featuring vast war machines, monstrous trolls and Oliphauts and of course, the Nazgûl swooping down on their foul flying steads. With the jaw-dropping architecture of Minas Tirith behind it, it is a rich reward for impatient fans eager to see some serious bloodshed. But it isn't all battles either - Jackson balances the violence with tender scenes of heart-breaking emotion. The love affair between Aragorn and Arwen, mostly glossed over previously, is given greater prominence here with Éowyn about and the film's lengthy conclusion will have even the most stone-hearted of viewers reaching for the tissues. Jackson even finds time to squeeze some humour in there too, courtesy of Gimli who has some terrific lines. There really is something for everyone.
Like the others, The Return Of The King is so much more than a polished special effects exercise. The huge ensemble cast, from the leads to the anonymous stuntmen, all give the film enormous credence by making this most incredible of settings feel utterly real. Jackson's masterpiece simply will not be bettered in terms of scope, imagination, technical wizardry, detail or entertainment in our lifetime - I can't conceive of any film that could come close.
- Viggo Mortensen estimates that he must have 'killed' every stuntman working on the three pictures at least fifty times.
- For the world premier in Wellington, 100'000 lined the streets - roughly a quarter of the city's population.
- This is the only film in Academy history to win more than 10 Oscars but not a single nomination for acting.
What's not to like?
I realise now that the books have the same, overblown ending that this film has but it does feel like it drags on quite substantially. Plus, it's the end to a story which has lasted for three long films so what else was I expecting?
The emphasis on action actually didn't sit too well with me. Don't get me wrong - I still enjoyed it and it looked fantastic on screen - but I always felt that the films (and indeed, the books) were about more than simple sword-fighting and spells. The movie lacks a bit of the essence of the story as we obviously approach the end of the tale but I found myself wishing for a touch more plot exposition.
Should I watch it?
I feel like watching it again right now, thanks to the extended editions of Blu-Ray which I thoroughly recommend. Personally, I feel it is the weakest of the three but still head and shoulders above every other fantasy film ever made that such nit-picking is irrelevant. The numerous awards and box office receipts should tell you everything - it's rare to have a critically applauded film resonate with ordinary cinemagoers in the way that this film does. The fact that we are still talking about these films after everything that has come since - the Harry Potter series, the Twilight saga, Game Of Thrones, etc - is testament to this film still being one of the best ever made and a genuine achievement.
Great For: fantasy geeks, fans of cinema, citizens of New Zealand, Tolkien's royalties.
Not So Great For: people with short attention spans, people without an HD TV at home, morons.
What else could I watch?
Still wanting more Tolkien? Well, you can always revisit Middle Earth via Peter Jackson's follow-up trilogy based on Tolkien's The Hobbit assuming you can ignore the sound of cash cows mooing.
In truth, it's hard to know what else to say. All three films are simply so far ahead of the competition that comparisons would be cruel and demeaning. As before, those wanting a more modern setting can fall back on the Harry Potter series (which are much better than one might expect) or the lovesick vampires of the Twilight saga but both are a long way behind these three. Then, of course, you have the fantasy films that came before - the likes of Red Sonja (5), Conan The Barbarian (6) and Willow (7) may have their admirers but they simply cannot hold a candle to Jackson's timeless series.