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  • Year: 2003
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

It’s the final review in the Middle-earth series, and this is the big one. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Oscars including Best Picture and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, so have I just been too mean?

My Original Thoughts on Return of the King

Ugh, this was the one that killed me. So much was cut from the book that I really had a beef with Return of the King and couldn’t watch for a long time. It wasn’t that everything on screen was unbearable, but so many things were removed that it was an entirely different story.

My Thoughts Today

The extended cut helps a lot, no question. I think that’s been the case in every single one of Jackson’s films so far (in spite of the testicle-eating in Desolation of Smaug), but I’ve noticed it most in both final chapters (Five Armies and this). Both of these have long battle sequences, and the theatrical cuts just feel excessive. However, the character scenes added into the extended cuts manage to make these battle sequences feel earned. The films are longer, yes, but they’re broken up with dramatic character moments. If we care about the characters risking their lives in battle, the battle sequences are that much more interesting.

Return of the King is actually the shortest of the three volumes of Tolkien’s work (the appendices excluded). Like the previous two, it is split into two books, the first involving the war in Gondor, and the second involving the destruction of the ring, the crowning of Aragorn, and the return journey. However, there are only three chapters involving Frodo and Sam’s journey until the ring is destroyed.

I understand leaving some of Two Towers for this film, but does it all work here? We start with a prologue, showing how Smeagol (Andy Serkis) became Gollum. Both Tolkien in his book and Bakshi in his film showed this early on, but I understand wanting to wait.

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The opening prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship was long enough, and we knew who Gollum was. It also nicely cuts to Gollum now, traveling with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), showing us ultimately how far he’s fallen.

I spoke about the Saruman scene in my last Adaptation Snub, but it really is a great scene. In the book, this is the first time the characters meet Saruman in person. We know him through Gandalf’s tales and all the background we’ve heard, but this is our present-tense introduction. His army may have been defeated, but he still has his voice, and that wins over some of the company temporarily. However, Gandalf isn’t fooled and he breaks Saruman’s staff. Grima Wormtongue drops a Palantir on the ground, unsure what it is, and we don’t see Saruman again for a while.

In the film, Grima (Brad Dourif) stabs Saruman (Christopher Lee) causing him to fall with the Palantir. Even though the Scouring of the Shire is cut, I’m just glad we get a scene where Saruman truly feels like his book counterpart, and Christopher Lee is brilliant. The death scene is overkill in true Jackson fashion, as Saruman is stabbed, falls from the tower, lands on the spike of a wheel and gets drowned, but for Jackson, it’s fairly subtle.

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Apparently getting bit a poisonous snake as well would have been too much.

After Pippin looks into the Palantir, he and Gandalf ride with haste to Gondor’s capital Minas Tirith, which looks amazing.

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Honestly, some of my favorite scenes in this film are just Gandalf and/or Pippin walking around Minas Tirith before the battle starts.

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You really feel the weight of it all when Gandalf and Pippin are standing at the top level of the white city, with the fires of Mordor visible in the distance.

Inside the city, Gandalf and Pippin meet Denethor (John Noble).

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The way his character is changed is perhaps more angering than the things left out altogether. Of course a movie cannot always convey all the complexities present in a book, but this film is four hours long! There are plenty of Denethor scenes, especially in the extended cut, and yet there is barely anything sympathetic about his character. Book Denethor is deeply, tragically flawed, somewhat hopeless from relying too much on the Palantir, but still not an altogether bad person. He has descended into madness, but he still lights the beacons to call for aid from Rohan, because he might be mad but he isn’t insane. When he burns himself on a pyre, it’s one of the most tragic moments in Tolkien’s work, a once great man having given up all hope.

John Noble plays Denethor like someone out of a middle-school production of Shakespeare. He chews so much scenery that they had to start just giving him actual food to eat on screen.

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There’s a scene where he’s talking with his son Faramir (David Wenham), complaining that he didn’t bring the One Ring to him. As much issue as I had with Faramir in the last film, at least he now feels like his book counterpart. He even gives a version of the famous line about not using the ring regardless of the circumstance. However, Denethor will not have it, standing up, tripping over his throne, and muttering something that probably translates to “Boromir was loyal to me.”

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He then trips again, falling square on his butt as Faramir approaches him. For a slight moment, we think maybe he’s seeing the light, until we find out that he’s just hallucinating his favorite son (Boromir) being there. It’s just so silly.

Look, there are plenty of over-the-top Shakespearean characters in these films that work. Take for example Theoden (Bernard Hill). He gives grandiose speeches rallying his people, has his flaws but overcomes them, and has a very theatrical demeanor about him.

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It’s not necessarily the exact way I read him in the books, but it still works. Now, obviously he’s meant to be a more sympathetic character than Denethor, but his overblown moments don’t feel hammy.

Denethor on the other hand just get more and more ridiculous, leading to one of the most hilarious death scenes in cinematic history. In the book, Denethor finally gives up hope after looking into the Palantir and seeing another fleet of ships coming. In the movie, Denethor is only implied to have the Palantir, making his madness seem less justified. There is a scene in the extended cut where Aragorn uses the Panatir by Denethor’s throne, but I always thought the reveal of Denethor having one brought it all together beautifully and tragically. Subtlety is great, but this is one aspect really should be in the forefront to properly understand the character.

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There’s a great scene where Pippin sees Denethor walking by with his funeral procession, carrying the wounded body of Faramir to the pyre with him. It’s not overblown, and we do feel a bit of tragedy for Denethor as he walks through the kingdom, giving up hope fully. Then it gets stupid.

Denethor soaks himself with oil in the most over-the-top scene since… well, his last one.

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As he prepares to burn himself and his son, Gandalf rides in to save the day and casually tosses Pippin on the pyre so he can save Faramir. Denethor attacks Pippin, so Gandalf has his horse kick him Denethor back onto the fire. He has a brief moment of clarity until he catches completely and begins running down the hall like a madman (which he is).

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In a moment that was clearly shot in an earlier version of this scene that was far more subtle, Gandalf coolly says “So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion.” Yeah, passes right down the hall! You are a wizard right? Can’t your extinguish him or something? Nope, just give a calm eulogy as he runs right past you.

Oh but wait, there’s more. Denethor runs all the way to the tip of the city’s cliff and jumps all the way down into the battle.

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Why don’t you just play “Great Balls of Fire” over the scene while you’re at it? It wouldn’t make the scene any less somber. How about a 1960s Batman-esque PLOP appearing when he hits the ground? An obligatory Benny Hill theme joke?

As silly as Denethor is, I really do like Pippin in these scenes. Actually, both Merry and Pippin are much more like their book counterparts here. I get that Jackson was trying for character arcs, but they’re such cliched arcs. There’s a subplot in the book where Pippin befriends a soldier of Gondor and his young son, and while it’s not featured in the movie, we get a scene that still captures its spirit perfectly. Faramir points out that Pippin is wearing his armor from when he was a boy, and Pippin tells Faramir that he is different than Boromir, having “strength of a different kind.” Faramir’s kindness and wisdom are his defining characteristics in the book, so it’s nice to finally see them here.

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Peter Jackson is brilliant with these little character scenes, and they pop up all through his six Middle-earth films (especially in the extended cuts). The battle sequences are grand, sure, but these character moments make them worth it.

The defeat of the Witch-king is handled pretty well here… at least much better than it was in the Rankin-Bass cartoon. He doesn’t sound like the Knights Who Say Ni this time around, actually having a threatening voice and appearance.

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He never takes off his helmet to reveal a crown floating above nothing (It might not look scary, I get it), but his defeat is as satisfying as it was in the book, as Merry and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), having formed a kinship on the road, tag-team to take him down.

Surprisingly, one of the aspects of the book that seems like it shouldn’t work totally does. While Aragorn conjuring up an army of the dead works in the context of a book, how does one successfully transfer that to film? Well, Peter Jackson actually acknowledges the fact that it’s going to look a little silly without going full-on goofy with it.

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One step creepier and it might have been too much, but one step lighter and you’re riding Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. For a filmmaker that never misses a chance to be overblown, this is just the right balance. There’s even a “You and what army?” moment that actually works. It’s like the characters are aware this looks a little silly, so they play it up a bit.

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In one moment during the battle, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is in the forefront, standing up like a rugged action hero, and in the background dozens of the army of the dead are just beating up on a creature. It’s genuinely funny, and it’s meant to be (I think).

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Aragorn finally starts to feel kingly in this film, never as much as he did in Bakshi’s film, but he’s getting there. When he and Gandalf decide to lead an army to the gates of Mordor, we see his inner royalty. At the gates, they meet The Mouth of Sauron.

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Hey Jackson, STOP BEING SUCH A LITERALIST! He’s The Mouth of Sauron, as in “his mouthpiece,” just like the Eye of Sauron isn’t a literal eye watching over Middle-earth. It’s like those disgusting lip and ear devices from Santa Claus.

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All I’ll say is I’m glad Tolkien never had a portion describing how Sauron “raped the land,” or Jackson may have had to bump up the rating on this one.

Alright, now let’s talk about the dumbest thing in the whole film

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Okay… second dumbest. To be fair, the Frodo, Sam and Gollum scenes mostly work in this movie. They’re not necessarily brilliant, but a lot of the film is about creating a distraction so Frodo and Sam can slip into Mordor and destroy the ring when no on is looking. That’s the big spectacle, so it makes sense to focus on that more. However, there is one moment in the Frodo and Sam story that is so frustrating that it brings the movie to a screeching halt.

Gollum steals some lembas bread and frames Sam for it. Frodo, being corrupted by the ring (and just sorta dumb too), immediately believes the vile creature instead of his best friend, and tells Sam to go home, even though they’re on the outskirts of Mordor. Question time.

  1. The three of them only have a little bit of food left. Sam is Frodo’s best friend. Even if Frodo thinks he stole some food, he is planning to send him back to starve. How is a “good” character that cold?
  2. What has Gollum done to prove himself trustworthy? Sam has been suspicious of him and Frodo knows Sam is the wise one.
  3. The friendship between Sam and Frodo has not been gradually growing apart, not even in the slightest. Frodo has a been a bit more trusting of Gollum than Sam has, but that’s it. The two of them are incredibly tight, so why this sudden turn?
  4. This separation only exists to kill time and make the two enter Shelob’s lair alone, but it doesn’t even cover that much time. Sam just kinda walks back, sees that Gollum lied, and goes back into the cave. Couldn’t you have been a better steward of time, Jackson?

Frodo gets attacked by Shelob until she is ultimately killed by Sam, and Frodo fights with Gollum, seemingly killing him. With all the fake-out deaths in this series, this one actually works. We believe Gollum is truly gone and don’t see him again until Mount Doom.

Once Frodo and Sam are reunited, their scenes in Mordor are effective. Frodo has been very weak the whole time, but his weakness is justified as he draws closer to Mount Doom. I just wish Mordor itself stood out a bit more visually. This is a hellish land of darkness and evil, and we’ve seen it from a distance since the first film, but unfortunately, it just looks kinda gray up close. We see a bit, but in this case, less is not more.

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Even the Rankin/Bass cartoon got this aspect right.

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The Mount Doom sequence is changed a little bit, in that instead of Gollum falling during a celebration of reclaiming the ring, he falls due to Frodo lunging at him for it. It’s a small change that’s understandable, but then they fake out Frodo’s death again by having him fall of the edge and hang on for dear life. It’s the most important moment in the whole story! Why do we need more forced drama?

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Everyone in the world has talked about how this movie takes too long to end, so I’ll be brief. The only major issues I have with the endings are 1) They’re mostly fake-out endings. It looks like the credits are constantly about to roll every time and 2) The missing scenes of The Scouring of the Shire… but I already talked that to death here.

Apparently a Faramir/Eowyn wedding scene was shot but does not appear in the extended cut or deleted scenes. As much as I do love these two characters in the book and mostly in the films, I understand removing it. At least we do get a little bit of their romance, which is such a pleasant diversion in the book.

The scene at the Grey Havens is gorgeous, and I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t shy away from Frodo’s trauma. He doesn’t just get a tacked-on happy ending, and the scene at the Grey Havens is his first real sense of relief after the journey.

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Look at that shot. You could just frame it as a painting. The movie is a visual marvel, and if the Mordor scenes were more imposing, it would be one of the most visually interesting movies of all time.

Ultimately, yes the extended edition is a lot better than the theatrical. There are dumb moments, but it doesn’t just feel like endless battle sequences. I still don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but there are more moments of greatness than I had remembered. Let’s check out the final score.

Adaptation (36/50 Points)

The Gondor stuff is really well-handled, a few exceptions aside. It’s actually amazing how well the Army of the Dead story works, and while the Frodo and Sam portion isn’t genius, it mostly works alright. The stuff cut at the end still hurts.

Cast (14/25 Points)

John Noble brings down the movie a lot, but I actually think Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan really bring a lot to their scenes as Pippin and Merry. I still don’t care much for Legolas and Gimli, as they’re too stoic and goofy respectively.

Experience (23/25 Points)

It’s a gorgeous film, and most of the issues from the previous two are cleaned up. Visually, it’s the best of the three, no question.

FINAL SCORE: 73%

It’s not as good as Fellowship, because there’s not a performance that sticks out like Sean Bean’s Boromir, but it’s more consistent than Fellowship. While I don’t consider it as great as most viewers do, I can see some of what they see in it. It really is a well-made film.

Next time, I’ll take a look at my final thoughts on the series.

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