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Wednesday 10 December 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Reviewed by John Shirley

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson

Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John-Rhys Davies

We want to believe. We want to believe that life has meaning, and that the good guys can win — and that the good guys actually are good guys, that evil is definitely evil and not just a sequence of unfortunate accidents. We want to believe our suffering is actually a journey that takes us beyond death to Gandalf's far green land with a swiftly rising dawn. Many books try to give us a meaning that offers hope, woven into a story that enchants us. Few succeeded so well as J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson knows this, and for all the darkness and sacrifice and tragedy in his cinematic rendering of The Lord of the Rings, we're never really far from hope. In The Return of the King we march with reassuring inevitability to sanctuary, back to the beginning of the circle, the tale ultimately as round as the doorway of a hobbit-hole.

Despite our well-schooled confidence in the defeat of evil, Jackson knows he has to hammer his material out long and thin and sharp with suspense, the momentary illusion that all will not end well, and in this third installment he looks for every opportunity to induce breathlessness. He succeeds — even when his mastery falters a bit, as when the pacing goes out of kilter toward the end (Aragorn seemed about ten minutes under the foot of that troll-thing), or when he falls back on the conventional manipulations of Lucas and Spielberg and Hollywood action films, still he succeeds, he wins us over. For proof, notice that The Return of the King is about three and a half hours long — and notice that when you watch it (unless it's just not your cut of broadleaf), it seems only about two hours long. Or perhaps you don't notice the time at all...

Enormous citadels there are, in The Return of the King, standing against a directorial emphasis on vertiginous drops, on teetering peaks; sprawling battles there are too, and monsters of a size fitting the scale of the tale — but all this seems consciously counterpoised to contrast the smaller but even more powerful dramas that take place between the third installment's principals: Frodo and Samwise and Gollum chafing on one another as they struggle across the wastes of Mordor; the Steward of Minas Tirith and his belittled warrior son, resenting one another; Gandalf's will clashing with Denethor's as the Steward's grief for Boromir drives him into despair; Arwen convincing her father Elrond to let her die for love...

The story carries on seamlessly from The Two Towers. Frodo must destroy the seductive, living ring of power in the place it was forged, Mount Doom, before the archonic Sauron can find it and use it to redouble the length of his shadow over Middle Earth. Aragorn, the King who's Returned, must find a means to fight the oncoming hordes of orcs and trolls and giant elephants and whatever-the-hell those other things are. Arwen turns back from her journey of exile to demand Elrond help Aragorn and restore her to him. Merry rides with the Riders, Pippin with Gandalf to the capital of Gondor — where Gandalf literally browbeats Denethor into stepping aside... Legolas and Gimli ride with Aragorn into a skull-festooned cavern where an army of cursed warrior spirits awaits his word to set them against Mordor — and then set them free.

Jackson and his writers have carefully chosen which of the multiple strands of interpersonal drama in The Return of the King to bring to the screen: Frodo's break with Samwise, orchestrated by Gollum, and the ringbearer's increasing burden of doubt exacerbated by extraordinary fatigue and duress; the King of Rohan's beautiful daughter Eowyn falling hopelessly for Aragorn; Pippin's horror at being caught up in Denethor's growing madness, in the despairing Steward's determination to cremate himself and his son alive; Hugo Weaving giving a movingly understated performance as Elrond coming to terms with his daughter's own immolation in mortality for the sake of love; Merry overcoming fear to find the warrior within. Unfailingly, Jackson's team finds the spark of each drama and quickens it. Here is nothing of the twee and all-too-precious. This is the grist of human drama, even when it's milled through elves and halflings; this bread you can sink your teeth into.

There are directorial moments of real inspiration, Jackson's and ours, as when Pippin manages to light a high beacon, an enormous signal torch, that is seen on a nearby mountaintop where another signal torch is lit; that one is seen by the crew at a third beacon on another mountain, which is lit in turn, and so on, across a mountain range, so that we see how the great citadel of Gondor calls out to its ancient allies in Rohan, across a gulf of distance and snowy peaks, and the effect is transporting.

Speaking of effects, the special effects in The Return of the King push out the envelope, sometimes right to the edge and beyond what's possible. It's state of the art, the best there is, and it summarily suspends our disbelief. The surging armies convince, and we can see their commander's tactics writ large before our eyes; the green-glowing army of the dead sweeps chillingly across the bloody battlefield. Yes, we can see those are computer generated crowds and horses on the great white citadel; we can see those are computer generated trolls battering the gates. But they're superbly computer-generated and we're helplessly drawn in. Gollum seems even realer in this installment — his eyes more lustrous, his skin more lined, his frame more defined. The effects don't quite make their own grade when Gollum/Smeagol clings to the invisible Frodo in the final struggle for the One Ring, however. And in the battle scenes some of the orc makeup is perhaps shown too closely, so we can see it's makeup. But so much else is magnificently carried off — and with such creativity and detail — that these lapses are but momentary footnotes to our raptness, scarcely noted. The Eye, as the orcs call Sauron, is literally a great burning red eye of flame that looks this way and that, and somehow Jackson gives this faceless eye actual personality, especially noticeable when the tower falls (the particular way it falls uncomfortably, probably accidentally, like the fall of the World Trade Center towers), as the eye looks frantically about, Sauron seeking a way out of the fantastic dilemma he has constructed for himself.

There are moments when Jackson seems to have shoehorned in some Hollywood cliff-hanging — Frodo clinging to a spur of rock over the bubbling lava, as, shades of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he's coached by Samwise in faith and finding his way back up; Legolas climbing the elephantine behemoth like Luke Skywalker grappling his way up the Empire's mechanical behemoth. Some will find Gimli's fill-in-the-blanks wry comic relief all too familiar. But the deft delivery of John Rhys-Davies makes you believe in Gimli. Ian McKellen is wizard-powerful as Gandalf, Elijah Wood is heartbreaking as Frodo and Sean Astin is touching as Samwise. (And if my wife is any indicator, Viggo Mortensen is hot as Aragorn.) The actors are uniformly superb and, let's face it, if you're susceptible to The Lord of the Rings at all, you're putty in their hands.

The three films doubtless work best when watched as one film, say over two or three days. Some of the editing that occasionally seems heavy-handed, for example, probably feels righter over the long haul. Perhaps Aragorn's character is given depth over the course of all three films that makes up for his slight underdevelopment in The Return of the King. It's true that with many scenes what Jackson is offering is not quite Tolkien — but something merely Tolkienesque. That was inevitable. But we're not likely to feel Jackson has shorted us — he has sincerely tried to bring us The Lord of the Rings and he has succeeded with much of this imperfect but wonderful film.

Much has been made of World War Two symbolism in Tolkien's trilogy. I seem to perceive yet another level of metaphor, emerging even more clearly in the movie version. Whether Jackson intends it or not — and whether Tolkien wanted to admit it or not — the novelist's conservative Catholicism shines through: Frodo in Mordor is like Jesus being scourged on the way to the cross. The ring is a constant temptation — as Jesus was tempted by Satan and then tempted, in the garden, to put "this cup" from his lips. Gollum is Judas, who sees to it that the sacrifice is made. To be born again you must first die; to get the ultimate prize you must give up the tawdry gold of this world. Store not your treasures in this world, Jesus said, store them up in heaven. So Frodo must again and again reject the lure of the ring which at last is returned to Hell, to the lake of fire, to its originator. After making the sacrifice Frodo is marked with stigmata — his finger is torn away — and he gives himself up to death. He seems to have died — but then is taken up into heaven, in Tolkien's gospel by eagles, winged salvation from the sky. Like Jesus after the Resurrection, Frodo can only return briefly to the world of ordinary men — to the Shire — before going, as Jesus did, into the kingdom of God, which for Frodo is the Grey Havens. Jesus ascends bodily, Frodo sails bodily — into the afterlife...

Gandalf, for his part, seems to represent the Church, the repository of spiritual mystery and faith, who takes over when Kings fail. When leaders become sickened with the influence of evil, or give in to despair, those who transmit the will of God must step in and show the way. With both the King of Rohan and the Steward of Gondor, Gandalf had to take over and direct the faithless back to the path.

But if this kind of symbolism makes you squirm, just assume that Tolkien wasn't thinking of all this consciously, and return to the more primeval symbols underlying the Christian ones, as Osiris underlies Christ: Life has a meaning, the good guys will eventually win, and our suffering is a journey that takes us beyond death to Gandalf's far, green land...

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Crawlers from Ballantine/Del Rey. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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