Here we are three Christmases later, and the final Lord of the Rings film in the trilogy has arrived, as promised.
First question: Was it worth the wait? Yes, very much so. Second question: Is it the best of the three? In most ways, yes. Third question: Does the film as it stands justify the decision to cut the scenes involving Sarumon (Christopher Lee)? Considering that the theatrical version of Return of the King already clocks in at 210 minutes, I think it was not only justified, but unavoidable (the eventual DVD release will restore the scenes in question). Plus, their excision is handled in a reasonable and — to anyone not familiar with the books — seamless manner. So I, for one, am not complaining.
So what does it all add up to? To put it simply, King is perhaps the finest movie of its kind ever made. Of course, it works best if you’ve seen the first two films as a lead-in; it’s hardly a stand-alone movie, though it was never intended to be. Rather, it’s the appropriately glorious climax to the trilogy, the end of what is really one huge film. The Lord of the Rings is no different in its own way than such acclaimed works as Fritz Lang’s Niebelung or Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films — and with much more in common with those estimable works than with other, more-recent, pop-culture artifacts (such as Star Wars).
King is the justification of Jackson’s grandiose vision to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga to the screen. The New Zealand director has presented his films — following the basics of the books — in a way that, at least, seems like genius.
The Fellowship of the Ring was warm and expository, and blessed with an emotional center to which few films of any genre can lay claim. Its final scenes between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are among the most emotionally resonant I can recall. Fellowship was — and is — a film without an actual ending, yet it managed to be wholly satisfying, because it concluded “right” by stopping at its emotional peak.
The Two Towers lacked most of this emotionalism (not surprising in that it was the developmental section of the trilogy). Yet it offered compensation in its sheer — and obviously intelligent — spectacle.
King has it both ways, combining the emotionally satisfying characteristics of the first film with the sheer spectacle of the second. And on a single viewing, I’m not prepared to say whether or not Jackson’s new film outdoes the resonance of Fellowship, but I have no hesitation stating that it’s even more spectacular than Towers.
There’s no point in detailing the plot here. Anyone interested in this final film knows full well what the story is. Even recounting certain incidents in King seems somewhat superfluous; the film itself isn’t about incidents. Rather, it’s about the brilliantly exciting story, which is designed to examine one essential statement from the first film that sets the trilogy far above such epics as The Last Samurai (to use a recent example).
Partway through Fellowship, Frodo bemoans his fate as the person responsible for the fate of the ring. He declares that he wishes none of this had ever happened, only to be told by Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
That, I think, is what is at the core of the entire story — not the adulation of some era that we might like to imagine as more idyllic than our own, or some esoteric culture that might appear to be superior to ours, but the choice of what we do within our own time and culture.
Though set in the fantasticated world of Middle Earth, the story’s import lies in its relevance to us now. Tolkien’s trilogy also raises numerous other issues, as when it questions the ultimate wisdom of the idea that the end justifies the means. (“I would use this ring from a desire to do good,” Gandalf tells Frodo at one point in Fellowship. “But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”)
The tale also takes pains to point out that salvation lies not in magic and fantastic beings — but, as Gandalf remarks, “It is in men that we must place our hope.” This depth of theme and its attendant purpose is what makes the trilogy remarkable. That it is served up as a grand, involving adventure with the finest, most-accomplished and breathtaking special effects ever seen, and is housed in a brilliantly literate script performed by a cast it would be impossible to top makes its remarkableness accessible and powerful.
It’s almost impossible to overstate Peter Jackson’s achievement with this series, and with this entry in particular, since it manages to be not just the most spectacular film imaginable, but a work of depth that never loses sight of its humanity.
What is perhaps most astonishing is the way in which Return‘s epic quality and more intimate side stand on equal footing. And that has nothing to do with amazing effects (though amazing they are), but is the product of unreservedly brilliant filmmaking of the most personal kind. This gigantic spectacle came from the same sensibility that gave us the much simpler, but equally fine, Heavenly Creatures. And Return never lets us forget it.
Those of us who find Tolkien’s prose style too much to quite get through may feel that Jackson’s last entry has too many points where it could have nicely ended, in those scenes following the resolution of the central plot. Yet none of these perhaps-excessive wrap-ups is any less worthwhile than the film that leads up to them.
Hunters of subtext will have a field day with Frodo’s advice to Sam about the impossibility of living with one foot in two different worlds (e.g., Frodo’s world and the world of his family in the Shire). And this is perfectly in keeping with the theme of deciding what we do with the time that is given to us — though it’s but one aspect of a film of sufficient depth and scope that King could be seen a dozen times without any loss of power, and with new “mysteries” revealed on each subsequent viewing.
This is a film that truly deserves every bit of its hype. The only question is how on earth Jackson will be able to even equal these three movies, let alone top them.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke