One film to rule them all

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

“Trade you this fine blade for one of those gold statuesThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s Oscar-worthy capper to his J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.


“Trade you this fine blade for one of those gold statues": Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins the ring bearer in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s Oscar-worthy capper to his J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.

Rated 5.0

With The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson keeps the promise he made with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and repeated with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He has, indeed, given us one of the supreme achievements in the history of movies. Jackson’s vast, richly textured film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy reaches its rousing, deeply stirring resolution in the final confrontation between the forces of the evil Lord Sauron and those of men (and elves and dwarfs and hobbits) at the gates of Mordor itself, while Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) continue their desperate trek into Mordor to destroy the One Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom.

What makes The Lord of the Rings unusual (if not unique) is the fact that it’s a genuine trilogy—not three movies but one, released over a two-year period. This isn’t one of those hit-movie-and-two-sequels packages pretending to be one unified work—like The Godfather and Star Wars, which didn’t become “trilogies” until their studios smelled some serious money.

The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, has been one story from the very start. (Even in book form, Tolkien always meant it as one; it only came out in three volumes at the insistence of Tolkien’s publisher, utterly against Tolkien’s wishes.) With this third and final installment, the breadth of Jackson’s vision (one he shares with his co-writers, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and that’s fully equal to Tolkien’s) comes to full fruition, and his extraordinary patience in building his film over nine-and-a-half hours (even longer for the “extended” DVD versions) pays off. The Return of the King is the longest of the three films, but, at the same time, it’s the most relentlessly headlong, the most eventful, the most spectacular, the richest emotionally and the most compelling dramatically.

It’s also the one that makes the most changes in Tolkien’s original text, trimming and compressing as events come to a head. Gone, for example, is “The Scouring of the Shire,” a 100-page anticlimax after the end of the war (Tolkien evidently couldn’t bear to leave Middle Earth even after his tale was told). It was fun, and it gave us the ultimate fates of Saruman and Wormtongue, but it was arguably beside the point; at any rate, the movie is stronger without it. (And don’t look for it on the DVD; it was never filmed.)

The king who returns in The Return of the King is Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Ranger originally known to the hobbits as Strider but of the royal line dating back to the first war against Sauron, in which the One Ring was taken and lost. The character of Strider/Aragorn grows in stature as the books go along, from a stout-hearted vagabond to a great leader in battle to (finally) the noble monarch born to rule wisely and well. Mortensen’s performance follows that same arc; given the time and space by Jackson to build his character in all its nuance, he becomes Aragorn to the life.

The other character that rises to his destiny, rather surprisingly, is Sam Gamgee. In a sense, The Lord of the Rings is Sam’s story even more than it is Frodo’s or Aragorn’s—that of a simple, ordinary spirit called to do great things (in the film as in the novel, Sam gets the marvelously understated last line of dialogue). Astin was an inspired choice to play Sam, and as Sam’s simple courage expands to carry the faltering Frodo through their common quest, Astin himself seems to find hitherto unsuspected resources as an actor.

Beneath the sweep and spectacle of its action sequences—the cast-of-millions battle on the plain of Minas Tirith is simply the greatest battle scene ever filmed—and behind the Maxfield Parrish splendor of Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, The Return of the King is a haunting and haunted film, showing the awful cost of war even to the victors fighting on the side of right. That depth makes Tolkien’s story more than a sword-and-sorcery adventure. In capturing the full measure of that depth, Jackson’s three-part film is a monumental work, dizzying in its audacity and dazzling in its achievement.