The Return of the King
We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.
Where do you begin with The Return of the King? There is so much going on here, so many disparate and complex threads to be drawn together, so many character journeys figuratively and literally coming to an end. So much huge scope, epic conflicts and intimate emotions. And yet Peter Jackson weaves it all together in to a spellbinding and effortless narrative filled with so many incredible moments, sights, images and instances that it is almost overwhelming. Any one story thread or battle would be enough for just the one movie but here we have five threads – Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Mordor, Gandalf and Pippin at Minas Tirith, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at the Paths of the Dead and Theoden leading the Rohirrim. And within the Rohirrim there is the separate story of Eowyn and Merry. And everything is now coming to a head. Gollum’s plan to retake the ring and kill the hobbits almost succeeds by his successfully separating Sam from Frodo and then leading Frodo in to the lair of the horrific giant spider Shelob. But he didn’t count on the unswerving loyalty of Samwise the Brave. In many ways Sam is the heart and the real hero of this story. He has no real reason to be on this journey except that he is a good friend and he made a promise. And it is his strength and his determination and his good cheer that makes it possible for Frodo to do what he has to do.
At the same time the armies of men are gathering to go to the aid of Gondor as its capital Minas Tirith is being besieged by tens of thousands of orcs and other nasties from Mordor. But even the large army Theoden and the Rohirrim have managed to assemble won’t be enough for the awesome task at hand. And as usual in this tale all seems hopeless. And it is at this point that another of Tolkien’s eucatastrophies occurs. Lord Elrond arrives with the broken sword Narsil reforged as Andúril – the symbol of kingship for Aragorn and the final sign that he must now accept his destiny as Isildur's heir, the one true king of men. And Aragorn finally does. And to prove it to himself and to the world he goes in to the paths of the dead and does what only the true king of Gondor could do.
The Battle of Pelennor Fields is the great military showdown between the race of men and the forces of Mordor. And it is a huge, wonderful, terrible, thrilling war beginning with the siege of Minas Tirith and then its invasion, which is eventually halted by the arrival of the Rohirrim and their gobsmackingly amazing charge led by King Theoden. But just when the men of Rohan and Gondor think the day is won…the second, even more terrifying wave of enemy forces arrive with the charge of the enormous elephant-like mûmakil. The moment King Theoden first sees them and realises what is happening is fantastic. That almost ‘what the f***k?’ look he gives before he gathers his senses and orders a reformed charge. Pelennor Fields is a stunning battle that lasts for a good portion of the movie but is always broken down in to smaller fights and personal stories within the huge mayhem. The best and most important of these being Eowyn and Merry and their confrontation with the Witch King, the leader of the Nazgul. This comes after the Nazgul sweeps down and plucks Theoden from the ground hurling him through the air to be pinned beneath his dead horse. Eowyn, armoured and helmeted, dives in to protect her king and uncle from the approaching Witch King. They do battle, seemingly one sided and – again - hopeless. The Witch King taunts Eowyn with the old prophecy that: “…no man can kill me!” After Merry distracts the villain with a knife in the leg, Eowyn pulls off her helmet, says, “I am no man” and stabs him in the face, killing him. YEAH!!! That is simply one of THE greatest cheer and punch the air moments in cinema history. What a woman! Of course it is followed by sadness as Theoden dies in her arms but he fulfilled his destiny and did the right thing for his people and the world entire, completing a wonderful character journey in the noblest of ways.
There is so much to talk about and wonder over in this film that I can’t possibly do it all here. But in the end Frodo gets to Mount Doom. And through an act of faith in his hobbit friends, Aragorn leads a last ditch attempt at distracting Sauron in order to give Frodo a chance to succeed in destroying the ring. Aragorn marches an army to the Black Gates and openly challenges the Dark Lord. And as the dread forces of Sauron emerge and surround our smaller army of heroes, the whispered, tender words of Aragorn as he glances back at Gandalf before charging the enemy come forth. “For Frodo.” *Sniff* The distraction works…but not before Frodo finally succumbs to the ring and Gollum tries one last time to take it from him. Both ringbearers, driven mad by its power, wrestle over possession and then tumble over the edge. And Gollum falls to his death happy to be reunited with his precious once more. Eventually, after seeming to threaten not to, the ring finally sinks in the lava of the crack of doom and is destroyed once and for all.
This finale is incredibly powerful and so emotionally charged with all the pieces coming together – chiefly Gollum’s part in the story finally proving to be so crucial. Gandalf always said he had some part to play but didn’t know what. Now we do. For Gollum was fundamental to the ring being destroyed. It was his obsession and love for it that finally made it possible. Like Isildur before, Frodo also fails at the last step and is taken by the ring. And in the end it is both Gollum’s and now Frodo’s blind greed and obsession that leads to the rings end. A moral there if ever I saw one.
The film then goes in to its most controversial stage – the multiple endings. I know these annoyed lots of people at the time. But they never did me. These scenes are crucial. We have invested hours and hours and - at the time of release - three years in this story and these people. We need…we deserve to see them through to their proper ends. Aragorn meets his destiny and is coronated as king and reunited with Arwen. The moment where he says to the hobbits “My friends…you bow to no one.” And then he and everyone else kneel before them just gets me every time. The arrival back in the Shire is important to the story as we have to be reminded what the hobbits have been fighting for, what Frodo ultimately sacrificed himself for. And then we go on to the Grey Havens where the last of the Elves, Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo will depart Middle Earth for good, sailing for Valinor, the eternal world across the sea. This is where Frodo informs Sam and Merry and Pippin that his life is now over with nothing left for him in this world anymore. It is sad and yet comforting in a way as Frodo hands his story i.e. life to Sam who gets to finish it, to live life as Frodo couldn’t. This is shown perfectly at films end, just as Tolkien did in the book, with Sam arriving back home, back to the unchanged and lovely Shire to be greeted by his wife Rosie and their little children. And it is right there in that perfect moment that this huge millennia spanning saga of good and evil, of war and sacrifice ends with the simplest of happy words from Master Samwise. “Well, I’m back.”
The Return of the King is a powerful, stunning and emotional film and a perfect crowning (pun intended) finale to this story. It is crammed full of incredible moments both huge and tiny. Of images and acts that make you want to cheer and with words and deeds and sacrifices that make you want to shed a tear. It is full of dread and terror and carnage yet also hope and light and love. All the characters shine and the ones we have come to care about get to complete their journeys in the most appropriate and fitting of ways. Technically it is a stupendous effort. The filmmaking talents involved were firing on all cylinders with a special shout out to Howard Shore for his gorgeous trilogy of music that culminated in a well-deserved Oscar. The scale of this production and of the story being told is massive with the siege of Minas Tirith and the Pelennor Fields battle being jaw dropping and ridiculously thrilling. But the telling is truly in the characters and through the timeless themes of friendship, loyalty, helping those in need and never giving in to despair. Of living with the natural world and not trying to control and dominate it, of being stewards of our (middle) earth and not its masters. Similar tales and themes and ideas are ingrained in our collective consciousness and told and retold throughout generations – most recently with Avatar. And as much as I love Avatar, the complexity, the emotional depth and the genius of character and storytelling shown in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is second to none. I can’t wait to see what Jackson and Del Toro give us with The Hobbit.
Here are just some of my favourite moments in this film in no particular order:
The lighting of the beacons - an epic rousing sequence consisting of only visuals and music that ends with Aragorn rushing to tell Theoden that Gondor calls for aid. And Theoden replying “And Rohan will answer.” YES!
Eowyn in disguise grabbing Merry to head to battle
Faramir’s hopeless charge to Osgilieth
Gandalf’s beautiful speech to Pippin about how death is not the end
The Witch King perching on Minas Morgul as the hordes of Sauron begin to march forth
Gandalf riding out to save the surviving Gondorian soldiers with his beacon of light
Aragorn taking Andúril from Elrond
Gimli nudging Legolas’ bow as he fires an arrow at the Corsairs - accidentally killing Peter Jackson
Theoden’s speech to his men and the charge of the Rohirrim – one of the greatest sequences in movie history
Sam vs. Shelob
Theoden sees the second wave approaching
Eowyn vs. the Witch King “I AM NO MAN!”
Faramir’s loving gaze at Eowyn
The surviving Fellowship coming in to Frodo’s room and Frodo’s look as Sam comes in last
“My friends, you bow to no one.”
“We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved - but not for me.”
“Well, I’m back.”
The beautiful drawings under the end credits and Annie Lennox’s equally beautiful and fitting closing song ‘In to the West’