‘The Return of the King’ completes an unforgettable trilogy

"The Lord of the Rings" — Photo courtesy of Warner Home Video

Let’s get the argument right out of the way: The Return of the King is the best film in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, I have a soft spot for The Fellowship of the Ring and few movies can rival the ferocity of The Two Towers. But this final installment is everything a movie can be: heartbreaking, dramatic, engaging, uplifting and cathartic.

Well done, Peter Jackson.

Mount Doom looms large for Sam Wise (Sean Astin) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). They have trekked all the way from the Shire and their comfortable lives to save all of Middle Earth from the evil forces of Sauron. They’ve had their fair share of difficulties along the way. From the deaths of their companions to the tortured calling of the ring itself, this was no pleasure cruise.

But even before we witness Sam and Frodo making their final incline, we go back in time to the days of Sméagol (aka Gollum, played by Andy Serkis) as a young Hobbit enjoying himself at a fishing hole. It’s a pastoral scene that is quickly interrupted by Sméagol’s friend, Déagol, finding a golden ring at the bottom of the pond. When he resurfaces with the shiny new present in his hand, Sméagol turns violent and demands the ring from his friend. The scene ends with Déagol’s death and “my precious” ending up in the hands of the future Gollum.

Back to the present, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) rounds up a motley crew of fighters to challenge the evil forces that Sauron is certainly sending their way. With him is Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen), Théoden (Bernard Hill) and Éomer (Karl Urban). Later will come Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the backup of the elves.

After reaching Isengard and the disgraced Saruman (Christopher Lee), the team rejoins with Pippin (Billy Body) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan).

In the other part of Middle Earth, back on the trail to Lord Mordor, Sam, Gollum and Frodo start fighting over the power of the ring. Everyone seems to be drawn to the golden circle, wishing to embrace its complete power. Gollum, who has been shifty the entire journey, is eventually able to turn Frodo against Sam, and the original fellowship finds itself all broken up.

Gollum, with only Frodo to contend with, leads the young hobbit into the hands of a giant spider known as Shelob. Just when it looks like all will be lost, Sam rescues the day, unwrapping Frodo from the spider’s web and swearing his allegiance to finishing the mission.

The final trek finds these two hobbits alone, with the weight of the world on their back.

In a convenient plot point, Pippin grabs hold of a magic ball that Gandalf had been carrying since Isengard. When he looks into the stormy center, he sees a vision of the future and Sauron’s forces drawing nearer.

The prophesied final showdown takes place at Minas Tirith, the city of kings. It is here that good ultimately faces evil on the battlefield. And the resulting scenes of war top even the Helm’s Deep sequence in The Two Towers. There is so much believable violence and bloodshed that it’s like watching an actual fantasy book come to life. Arrows fly through the air; battering rams barge through doors; the women and children scream for help. It’s an impressive capstone to the trilogy.

As the battle rages in Mina Tirith, Frodo and Sam finally make it to the innards of Mount Doom. The journey, even in these final steps, proves to be far more troublesome than the two hobbits ever could have imagined.

In these final scenes, when evil is vanquished and the courage of unlikely heroes is tested to the core, The Return of the King finds its indistinguishable excellence. Jackson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, seems to know exactly what needs to happen. Sure, he’s following the lead of J.R.R. Tolkien, the original scribe. But at this point, the audience should realize that this cinematic trilogy that Jackson has created stands on its own.

The final act of the film, where the heroes return to their lives and new leaders are born, is a fitting conclusion to an epic series. Everything has worked to get to this point: Howard Shore’s score, the always reliable acting, Jackson’s vision, the memorable visual effects.

The Return of the King is a gift to those who invest their time with these unforgettable characters and their impossible quest.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • 2003

  • Directed by Peter Jackson

  • Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Starring Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif, Andy Serkis, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Ian Holm, Miranda Otto and Karl Urban

  • Running time: 201 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images

  • Rating: ★★★★

  • Click here to purchase The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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