THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING review
I’ve already given 6 hours and 44 minutes of my life over to RETURN OF THE KING, I’ve seen it twice. On Tuesday, I’ll see it again, and after that, I imagine I’ll see it 3 more times by the end of the week.
This is frankly one of the greatest films ever made. It towers over the other so-called epics of the year in a way that one could only imagine it was like when INTOLERANCE was released 87 years ago. What was it like in 1916 to see a film on that scale? Beside all the two-reelers and three-reelers and four-reelers to see a true epic. One with spectacle and size so immense that as you watched it, you knew… you felt the screen busting at the seams to hold it all.
However, unlike INTOLERANCE, this film takes the care to tell intimate… almost private adventures and stories with all the care, love and passion that you could ever hope for. The performances burn into us. I am sitting here trying to go over the history of epics in my mind to remember one that juggled so many characters and gave us so much to care for and I’m coming up empty. There truly is no film to compare to RETURN OF THE KING.
For all it’s visual effects wizardry, the scenes and the moments that linger with me are not those moments. I remember Ian McKellen’s Gandalf telling Billy Boyd’s Pippin about the adventure beyond death amidst a battle to decide it all. There’s a serenity to Ian’s face… an impossible calm and resolute ease and anticipation to beginning that final adventure that puts Pippin at peace and calm. Billy Boyd’s face begins with sadness and in the end of the conversation… you see his nerves become calm, though the end is at hand. The scene is brilliant.
Just about every moment with Sean Astin in this film is one for the history books. Sean, bless him… He’s stunning as Samwise Gamgee and I can’t imagine the cold dark pathetic heart that doesn’t weep for him. There upon the endless steps…. Or upon the side of that cruel and desolate volcano… watching him carry the weight of Middle Earth upon those shoulders. No longer do I hear his speech at the bottom of a well, nor do I see him in football pads… Forever he will be the bravest of all cinematic characters, more noble than the The Cid of Valencia or even Boorman’s Lancelot… here you have on screen captured for all eternity as we will know it… the power of true friendship, duty and sacrifice. If somehow this performance is overlooked by those that give out baubles, then it is only their own insignificance that is illuminated, not this role, because this role will be taken into the hearts of all that see it.
Miranda Otto’s Eowyn and Bernard Hill’s Theoden… Tremendous work here. There’s a resolved sense of finality to the way Bernard plays his role in this final film. Watching him play this you get the sense that he knows what is ahead, but that he also knows the price of avoiding it. Eowyn is so good here, with so little. Watching her steal tiny moments and take on fantastic gigantic moments… Great. The spears scene with Bernard is classic.
Elijah Wood in many ways has the thankless Mark Hamill role in these films, but if he wasn’t perfect… the whole thing would topple. His eyes in this film tell such sadness and loss. You can see the innocence he had 2 films ago completely ripped from him. There is something taking seed inside his soul here that places deceit, suspicion, fear, want and spite where once was cheer, song and love. The transformation is complete and that moment where suddenly he can see again… absolutely killer.
Finally… there is Gollum and Andy Serkis… Here too you have a transformation, and to me… in this film there is truly no Gollum Visual Effects. Not once as I watched the film did I think for a second about anything other than the reality that he was there with them. Watching Gollum talk in his sleep, the conversation in the pool, where the Gollum personality is no longer a taunting jackal, but the resolute leader of the splintered remains of Smeagol. Here is a colder character, here we see the killer. In a way, while watching Gollum I was reminded of Melanie Lynskey’s Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet’s Juliet Hulme from HEAVENLY CREATURES. Melanie’s Pauline was the resolute one that was going to lead mother to the trail and kill her. Kate’s Juliet was the slightly reluctant, albeit obedient companion that went along with it. The pair were truly one by that point in the film, and both were confused lost creatures with evil taken root in their souls. Gollum is both of them… Colder and more pathetic than either. More lost, more sad and ultimately incredibly deceived by his obsession. There is an impossible subtlety at work with this character and performance that is just… impossible to imagine being created at a 24th of a second, yet it is there. Like so much in this film… that achievement has no parallel.
It is easy for many to overlook the enormity of the accomplishment in RETURN OF THE KING. It seems so effortless, but the concept that in spite of all the gigantic visual delights, that beyond all of that… above it all, the performances and the work of characters and actors and the constructed written scenes… for those things to shine above the battles and the beasts and the sets…. That this film is not swallowed up whole by the production design, that the digital effects do not make this film ring with the clunk of plastic… that the weight of what is at stake isn’t rendered mute and that the highlights of every battle are intimate personal risks of singular characters having to reach within to pull out that strength to face an evil bigger than they… well… that falls upon the shoulders of Peter Jackson and the astonishing spirit he placed into this spectacle that kept each piece of the puzzle centered on being exactly what it needed to be to create the whole.
While it seems I’m avoiding talking about the gigantic effects moments in the film, it is only because I feel words will fail me. The battle and encounter with Shelob is stunningly perfect. The coming of the Ohliphaunts, the dueling catapults of Sauron’s hordes and those of the White City of Minas Tirith. The trolls, the fell beasts, the charge of Theoden’s Rohan masses… The gaze of the EYE in Mordor, the return of the moth and all that follows. Pippin’s uncontrollable urge to look… the lighting of the signal fires atop mountains… the paths of the dead… All of this… these things must be seen to be believed. Trying to describe them… well… you would need to be Tolkien to do it justice.
This film isn’t a movie filled with “Where’s Waldo’s” leaping about for the camera’s attention. This film is always exactly what it has to be from moment to moment. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a film series to match this. That is truly a sad thing to contemplate. Ultimately it will inspire others to mount impossible productions, but will they have the support, the vision and the resolute determination to pull it off? For me, the greatest trilogies have always been subject trilogies… things like John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy or Kieslowski’s Colors trilogy or Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. Personally, I feel the best trilogy that carries a single narrative story is probably Hiroshi Inagaki’s SAMURAI series with Toshiro Mifune. However, as much as I love that series… This series surpasses it in terms of scale, intimacy, performances and just my own personal tastes. I still love the flawed, but great, trilogies like Coppola’s GODFATHER trilogy, Lucas’ STAR WARS, Spielberg’s INDIANA JONES, Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN trilogy, Weissmuller’s TARZAN trilogy, Arnold’s TERMINATOR trilogy and the Wachowski’s MATRIX trilogy… but Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS… for me, it is without equal or parallel. It does not diminish the others to any degree, it is just what it is… perfect. Like when Lean did BRIDGE OF THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DR ZHIVAGO… there was just fate leaning over the shoulder and perfection was achieved. It happens rarely that a filmmaker is given a perfect run… folks like Hitchcock and Ford and Lean and Kubrick and Spielberg and many others have had their runs… never with the same story, but with a consistency of vision on multiple projects. Now we see if Jackson can move past these great tales when he takes on his personal lifelong passion of KING KONG… Spielberg didn’t fare so well when he took on his passion with Peter Pan, let’s pray that Jackson does better.
And finally… this last thought needs a SPOILER WARNING -- Do Not Read Below This Line If You Do Not Wish To Know The End Of The Film. I write about it, because so many seem to have issue with the alleged multiple ending of the film, but frankly… I feel they are completely missing the point.
THE ENDINGS are in actuality one. You see the story is THE LORD OF THE RINGS and the end of this film is about the passing of the ring bearers. We see the end of Sauron, the ultimate soul of the one ring, but we are also compelled over the course of these films to see the end of each who has carried the ring. In FELLOWSHIP we saw what became of Isildur and Boromir – both of whom carried the ring, no matter how briefly. In RETURN OF THE KING – we see the destruction of Sauron and Gollum… The passing of Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo from the Gray Havens… and finally, the last ring bearer… Samwise Gamgee returning to his hole in the ground where the story which began in the HOBBIT started. THIS IS A SINGLE ENDING, following the narrative of the ring bearers and concluding as it began… with a hole in the ground.
As for me, I can not wait for Trilogy Tuesday… To watch it all play as one. What a treat!