After seemingly pulling off the impossible by finally realizing the first two installments of Tolkien’s legendary, fantasy game changer, Peter Jackson had it all to lose when finally compiling the mountains of footage shot for the final installment of The Lord Of The Rings. After all, nailing two out of three films of a trilogy is hardly a guarantee that we’re going to end on a satisfying high and even Return Of The Jedi, beloved as it so rightly is, is easily the least of the original clutch of Star Wars epics.
Thus it was an overwhelming relief when The Return Of The King went to great pains to bring the gargantuan enterprise to a close in a way that might have violated a few established blockbuster laws as it went – six endings? – but still managed to deliver one of the greatest and most beloved trilogies of its generation.
The dark lord Sauron’s opening salvo to conquer Middle-Earth has been thwarted after reluctant king to be Aragorn led the men of Rohan to victory at the Battle Of Helm’s Deep, but the world if men is hardly out of the fire yet. The giant, flaming eyeball of the enemy now turns its attentions to the city of Gondor in its attempts at genocide and all of the forces of Mordor are marching on it with utter destruction on its collective mind.
In comparison, the worlds of men are in disarray like never before; Denethor, the current Steward of the king-less Gondor, has blantenly lost his marbles after the death of his favoured son while King Theoden of Rohan is unwilling to aid a kingdom in their hour of that never gave aid to them and Aragorn and the wizard Gandalf find that they have their work cut out for them to United the worlds of men under one banner.
However, the liberation of Middle-Earth is in far more dire peril than anyone realises as the quest of Hobbits Frodo and Sam to take Sauron’s ring of power into the lands of Mordor in order to destroy it is at it’s lowest ebb as the strain of being the ring-bearer is becoming too much for Frodo’s ravaged state of mind. Worse yet, their guide, former ring junkie Gollum, has been plotting with his own splintered psyche to wrap his boney fingers around the throats of his companions and once again claim his precious for himself and leads their raggedy band into a hideous, eight-legged trap.
Salvation may yet be at hand if Aragorn can finally accept his bloodline, embrace his destiny and travel to the depths of a haunted mountain to recruit supernatural aid in a war that sees mere men standing against a kingdom full of creatures and beasts, all hell-bent on erasing men from the very face of Middle-Earth once and for all.
With the stakes at an all time high, the pressure for The Return Of The King to deliver must have been crushing and yet with some superlative battle scenes, a canny reshuffling of the novel’s events (the spidery antics of the grotesque Shelob originally takes place at the end of The Two Towers) and an utter devotion to doing justice to the revered source material means that the final movie actually brings everything together in a way that far exceeds even the most fervid hopes.
All the plot threads are dutifully honored, be it Aragorn’s birthright, Eowyn’s desire to see battle or Gimli and Legolas’ continuing contest to see who can slay the most orcs in battle. There’s a lot to get through, but Jackson and co. keep an admirably steady pace, neither dragging events out or skimping on show stopping grandeur whenever the scale requires it. The sequence of the lighting of the beacons is a magnificent example as the whole movie stops as we get gorgeous scenery whipping by as Howard Shore’s theme for Gondor goes absolutely bananas, but the huge is ably balanced by the small as the minimal triple header of Frodo, Sam and Gollum is given just as much dramatic heft as the jaw dropping Battle Of Pelennor Fields as scores of Rohirim on horse back throw down with enemies riding elephants the size of buildings.
It’s a lot to take in, but Jackson’s four hour plus run time (extended version, naturally) neatly covers all the bases, somehow never inducing ring fatigue amongst all the drama and clashing of swords.
There’s one or two issues here and there, one being that Jackson’s brutally short post-production schedule means that some of the visuals could have benefited from an extra couple of days polish – but admittedly, when Legolas singlehandedly takes down a mountainous Olyphant and everyone riding it, you’ll be too busy hollering in triumph to care. Elsewhere, a final march on Mordor feels a little extraneous after a titanic battle that’s seen monsters, horsemen and fucking ghosts thrown in the mix, but this is arguably counteracted by the fact that the real final battle is between a maddened Hobbit and a ravaged river person as Frodo and Gollum scratch and bite over the ring like a couple of deranged crackheads. It’s all deeply powerful stuff and watching Sauron’s tower fall after three movies proves to be a genuinely life affirming experience that even measures favourably with the destruction of a certain Death Star – but there’s one final matter that hangs around The Return Of The King’s neck and that’s the matter of the endings.
Usual blockbuster etiquette requires that once the evil has been vanguished and good has prevailed, the script needs to end things fairly sharply so that a spent audience can go home on a high – no so counters Lord Of The Ring and proceeds to go on for another forty five minutes of bladder straining endings, something that’s drawn a little criticism over the following years. However, I would argue that not only has Lord Of The Rings earned its right to keep on keeping on, but it’s incredibly vital that it does. After all, the first movie technically doesn’t start until the Fellowship first assembled an hour into the story, so to stop short at Aragorn’s coronation (or worse yet, that bit where everyone’s jumping on the bed) would deny us the closure a story of this size and complexity confidently demands.
Between the pure, simplicity of the original Star Wars trilogy and the sprawling complexity of the current Marvel Cinematic sits The Lord Of The Rings, a feat in populist cinema that remains evergreen as the grass that covers the idealistic fields of the Shire. Prequels of a dubious intent and execution may have followed with an impossibly lavish Amazon Prime series may loom on the horizon like an approaching enemy, but both were/will be hard pushed to contain even half the amount of majestic heart-in-the-mouth, hairs standing on end, chills down the spine moments that Jackson’s original swing at Tolkien provided at regular intervals.
In short, the whole endeavor provided a cinematic experience that was nothing short of *adopts Andy Serkis’ throaty Gollum gurgle* prrrrrecioussss….