The third and final chapter of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King broke records both financially and critically. It became only the second film to surpass $1 Billion at the box office and received a record equalling eleven Academy Awards having won in every category it was nominated for. It also became only the second sequel to win Best Picture and the first to win when its predecessor hadn’t. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, I loved the film upon its initial release and also like the first two; my affinity has waned in the subsequent years. Personally I don’t think it is much better than the other two films and have a feeling that its huge awards haul has more to do with the series as a whole than the individual film.
While Frodo, Sam and Gollum edge ever closer to Mordor, Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith comes under attack from an even larger Orc force than was present at the battle of Helms Deep. Gandalf sends word to Rohan and an old alliance is rekindled as the two nations of men stand side by side one final time. Even with help, Gondor looks set to fall unless Aragorn is able to muster fresh troops and Frodo is able to destroy the Ring.
The Return of the King’s plot focuses on two main areas. The first is Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring and the second is the preparation for and battle of Minas Tirith. The battle itself dwarfs even Helms Deep in scale and length and is played out in various stages. The introduction of new forces at various points helps to keep the battle fresh. Had it been a repeat of Helms Deep it probably would have ended up feeling quite repetitive and mundane but the addition of different armies at different stages of the battle helps to keep it ticking over and remain interesting. I’ve always felt though that Aragorn’s part in the fight felt like a bit of a cop out. It’s nothing new to come in at the last minute to save the day but the force he brings with him never felt like it fitted with the rest of the world. I’ve always thought that it slightly ruins the battle. Even with Aragorn’s surprise (well…) appearance, the war is far from won and the second, smaller battle has its problems too. I like the idea of our heroes riding out towards almost certain doom, against insurmountable odds and the way it ends is also fine but there is a sudden crack in the Earth through which many of their foes fall which has always annoyed me. The Earthquake type thing stops at their feet, forming a semi circle around the human forces. I’ve always thought it looked silly and was totally unrealistic.
Something I like about the plot is that all four Hobbits are given a role to play. In the previous films Merry and Pippen were a little underused but here both go their separate ways and are integral to the final outcome. Sam too shows his worth, not giving up even when all looks lost. If anything Frodo appears as the weakest Hobbit in the final film, albeit with the Ring taking hold of him and his actions. As the title would suggest, the final film is also more Aragorn heavy than the other two. Aragorn finally takes control of his home nation and is integral in sealing any potential victory. If there are any characters who feel a little forgotten then it is Legolas and Gimli. They are given little to do other than kick ass in battle and the long final farewell that most characters are given has less impact for them. Miranda Otto’s Eowyn is also given a larger role as a sort of proto-feminist, determined to fight for her land and people. There is also little attention to details which I find really impressive. I only noticed on this my forth or fifth viewing of the film that during a scene when Sam kills a group of Orcs with Frodo’s sword that as soon as the final one dies, his sword turns from blue, back to its natural colour. It’s only a little detail but it’s the sort of minutiae that makes Jackson’s world so deep and believable.
All three films in the series feature incredible special effects but the effects in Return of the King are the best in my opinion. There are fewer instances where the CGI shows signs of ageing and there are plenty of wonderful looking battle scenes and individual shots. The giant spider Shelob looks really impressive and lacks the telltale shine of lesser effects. The ghostly Dead Men of Dunharrow also look really impressive although I’m not a fan of their role in the film. The giant elephant like Mumakil are another example of the remarkable visual effects and creature design done by Weta. The prosthetic work is again exemplary and nearly a decade on I don’t think the look could be bettered. I’m a big fan of the design of Minas Tirith, the Gondor capital which is the setting of the saga’s final battle. The sets look reminiscent of the Eastern Mediterranean and the way the city rises up from the earth is really striking. We see a darker, more imposing side to Middle Earth in this, the final chapter. The scenery is still beautiful but is often much more craggy and alien. My favourite shots of the film and possibly the entire series are those of the Orc army marching towards Minas Tirith. The scale and detail is extraordinary and I love the view of the entire battlefield from above.
It’s perhaps strange given the film’s success but I have more problems with this film than any of the others. As I’ve mentioned I don’t like the Dead Men of Dunharrow and I think the way the Earthquake shapes around Aragorn et al looks ridiculous. Something else which has always bugged me is the appearance of the giant Eagles. They arrive as the battle closes but why didn’t anyone suggest during The Fellowship of the Ring that the Eagles just fly to Mordor and drop the Ring into Mount Doom? Something else that has always confused me is Gandalf’s use of magic. I’m sure that he could have done something about destroying the Ring or at least used his powers to help a little more. To be honest these are problems with the series as a whole and stem from the source material but over the years they are niggles at the back of my mind which have grown in size. The film also has what feels like several endings. While it was nice to see what happened to the various characters after the expedition, it dragged on a bit.
Despite my criticisms I still really like The Return of the King. I don’t think it deserved eleven Oscars but much like Scorsese’s The Departed win; it was perhaps Peter Jackson’s turn. I find it difficult to choose my favourite from the series but overall I think The Fellowship of the Ring just edges ahead of The Return of the King as I prefer getting to know the characters, even though I already now know them so well. I’ve given all three films 8/10 ratings but on my first viewing all would have rated at nine or maybe even ten. The overall scale and detail of the series is what helps to make it so great. The trilogy is undoubtedly one of my favourites and I can’t wait to return to Middle Earth for The Hobbit.