6c. The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King (2003)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian MacKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, Sean Bean

The wait between “The Fellowship of the Ring” and the release of “The Two Towers” was minimal in comparison to the anticipation I felt in waiting for the arrival of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to theaters. Here, we finally see the culmination not only of the Fellowship’s quest to vanquish the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, but also of the remarkable work done by the cast and crew of the film. I still remember, as the title card and opening scenes first came up on the screen, I was so excited that I could barely breathe. Although I maintain that my favorite character is Éowyn (Miranda Otto), “The Return of the King” is as much Gollum (Andy Serkis)’s movie as it is anyone else’s.

As Gandalf (Ian MacKellen) had once told Frodo (Elijah Wood) way back in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Gollum has a role to play, for good or ill, because of his uncontrollable need for the One Ring, which has taken its toll on him physically as well as mentally. He is frail, but surprisingly limber for a river-dwelling Hobbit who rightly should have died at least four centuries earlier. The prologue gives us a quick origin story, where we see the day that Sméagol first laid eyes on the One Ring, killed his own brother for possession of it, and was banished as a result. Over time, the once plump simpleton became Gollum, an emaciated cave-dwelling creature with a dangerous case of split-personality disorder. His transformation is almost as startling as the scene from “The Two Towers” where Gandalf released King Théoden (Bernard Hill) from the spell imposed upon him by Saruman (Christopher Lee).

By this time, Sauron is a none-too-pleased disembodied Dark Lord. His pawn, the white wizard Saruman having been defeated at Helm’s Deep and imprisoned in his tower at Isengard, Sauron is left to focus his rage… and an enormous army of Orcs, Goblins, Uruk-Hai, Trolls, Oliphants, Nasgul, and other nasty creatures at his command… towards the last place in Middle-Earth yet to be penetrated: the kingdom of Gondor. We’ve heard much talk of this place up until now, but we haven’t really seen it aside from brief glimpses in flashback. Though Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the one true heir to the throne, he has not as yet claimed it. In his place, Denethor, father to Boromir and Faramir (Sean Bean and David Wenham) sits as Steward. Denethor knows that dark forces are coming, but he believes that no harm will ever come to his city. It should be noted that Denethor’s overconfidence is surpassed by his madness, made worse by his depression resulting from Boromir’s death. Actor John Noble has since endeared himself to fans of the recently cancelled TV series “Fringe,” in which he starred for all five seasons as the lovable eccentric Walter Bishop.

Once again, because it bears repeating, Éowyn is my most beloved of all the characters of “Lord of the Rings.” With the greatest of all wars imminent, she is determined not to be left behind like all the other women of Rohan. Unbeknownst either to her uncle or her brother, Éomer (Karl Urban), Éowyn disguises herself and joins in, taking the equally eager Merry (Dominic Monaghan) on horseback along with her. My favorite moment from either the books or the movies comes when she stands in defense of her wounded uncle against the lead Nasgul. A former king of men before the will of Sauron corrupted him and eight others like him, he taunts Éowyn, boasting of his inability to be killed by mortal man. Clever lady that she is, Éowyn points out the one word that the Witch King (as he is known) probably shouldn’t have said, and finds a loophole in his invulnerability.

Had the movie ended as the book does, two things would be very disappointing about it, almost to the point of ruining the entire experience. Firstly, there is no need, once the quest is over, to show the entire journey back home (you’d need a fourth movie for this… and why bother?), and secondly, the return home for the Hobbits is quite different from the cinematic version. I get that Tolkien was writing this as a metaphor for what he and all of Great Britain went through during World War II, but the ending he uses would seem almost like a middle finger to the all the people who went to the theater and made the trilogy one of the most lucrative franchises in movie history. Thankfully, we got the ending these movies deserved. I never quite understood why neither of the first two films didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture. “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago” are both decent films, but are like dwarves standing alongside giants in comparison to “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers.” Thus, when “The Return of the King” was rightly honored with a record-tying 11 awards including the big prize, I felt vindicated as a fan. Incidentally, Bernard Hill has the distinction of being the only actor to appear in two films which have won 11 Oscars, as he was also the Captain of the titular ill-fated ship in “Titanic.”

I don’t generally make a habit of going to see a movie more than once, but I did so for all three “Lord of the Rings” movies. “The Return of the King” still stands as the one movie I went back to see the most times, for a total of four. Does that make it my favorite of the three? Well, not necessarily. To be honest, each movie is so spectacular, did so much to blow away all expectations, that it’s pretty much futile to pick a favorite. Even if I did, “The Lord of the Rings” really is just one long story (as the books themselves were originally intended), and should be considered as such.

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