Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


The world has awaited this powerful final episode in The Lord of the Rings trilogy ever since the first film took the box office by storm. In some respects, this review is hard to write since it brings the conclusion of an epic. The Return of the King provides closure in ways we could have never anticipated, yet also imparts a sense of sorrow since we know at long last Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Gandalf will no longer loom in our horizon, promising yet another installment. When Tolkien penned his series of fantastic tales in Middle-earth, he never knew the impact they would carry on numerous generations. If you're a long time fan, this movie is everything you've been waiting for and then some. If you've never before entered Middle-earth and grown to love its wonderful characters, this film will seem nothing more than a disjointed sequence of events.


Defying the dramatic opening scene of its predecessors, the final installment brings empathy to the figure of Gollum (Andy Serkis) by offering us a flashback into his past. The One Ring had been lost for many years, but his cousin obtained it while fishing. Overcome with greed and desire, Smagol as he was then called, requested to have it. His cousin refused... and lost his life. Gollum held the ring for many years, but now it's come into the keeping of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who has been commissioned to destroy it in the flames of Mount Doom. It's a long and tedious journey through the kingdom of Mordor, lorded over by Sauron, the ring's forger and a mortal threat to all of Middle-earth. Having promised to lead them through the mountains above the Black Gates, Gollum is driving the hobbits into a trap.


Faithful Sam (Sean Astin) believes Gollum is leading them astray, but cannot alter Frodo's mindset, which has been turned against him by the whisperings of their guide and the overwhelming desire of the Ring to be freed. They journey perilously into darkness to face a mortal terror while elsewhere forces are gathering against the armies of Mordor, soon to convene on the city of Minias Tirith. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) desires to unite the forces of mankind and distract the dark lord long enough to allow Frodo to slip past his defenses into the heart of the mountainside. In the meantime, Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) must finally face his destiny and take up the reforged sword of his ancestors. His promised bride, the immortal elven-maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler) forever forsakes the grace of her position, choosing instead to marry a mortal king and remain behind after her race has passed into the Undying Lands. But her fate is tied to that of Middle-earth.


Unless the dark lord is destroyed, she will perish. The two hobbit cousins Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd) are parted, promising to meet again when the battle is won. But unless Frodo can destroy the ring, all is lost. Though the film maintains a healthy pace throughout, the first half hour continues where the second left off, providing us with necessary elements to set up the final powerful two hours of battles, triumphs, sorrows, and eventual victory. This is by far the best film of the trilogy, though it's more fair to consider them one movie spliced into three parts for the audience's convenience. Naturally aspects of the book have been altered, shortened, or left out entirely. Tolkien fans will be disappointed to note there is no final confrontation with Saruman... in this version. The Extended Release next summer promises mighty additions. Those who have considered Arwen a mere opportunity to showcase Liv Tyler's beauty will eat their words as one of her scenes becomes the most profound and touching in the trilogy. Still we get the sense we've been robbed in some respects. Her sequence with her father is visibly truncated, important but still lacking further depth. This is truly an "actor's picture," in a respect far beyond the earlier films. Yes, there is battle on an epic scale. Yes, there is still CGI effects in almost every frame. But these all fall to the background in the light of grand performances. 


Ian McKellen has never been so profound and powerful as Gandalf. We were robbed of the wizard's presence in the second film, having him only for a few precious sequences. Here he's once again returned to us in full glory. Elijah Wood maintains his empathetic role, turning heart-chilling in one of the film's pivotal climaxes. Billy Boyd was also remarkable this time around, but the film truly belongs to Sean Astin. Sam's gentle warmth, his unfettered strength, courage, and determination will bring cheer to the hearts and tears to the eyes of audiences everywhere. The cinematography in this film is also exquisite. Shots of battle, the beauty of a dying Rivendell, the final confrontation in Mount Doom. This is literally Peter Jackson's greatest achievement. The first two installments proved their brutality in the form of warfare, most notably forty minutes of fighting at Helm's Deep. The Battle of Pelennor Fields makes the plight of the Rohans look like child's play. The violence is intense but never overly graphic.


Orcs are beheaded, dispatched with blades, lances, axes, arrows, and explosions. The combat this time around involves mortals as well -- many are slain defending the city. Several main characters are mortally wounded. A female warrior graphically slays a fell beast and the Nazgl riding it. Two hobbits are stalked and attacked by an eight-legged adversary, resulting in some intense, frightening scenes. A creature plunges to its death after doing another harm. We see a severed finger numerous times, along with the blood-stained hand. Several orcs are knifed in the back in a rescue attempt. Severed heads are shot by orcs over the city walls. A man goes wild with grief, pours lantern oil over himself and another wounded man, and lights them both on fire. One is rescued; the other leaps off a cliff, his robes alight in flames. Horses and riders are taken out by the hundreds as Nazgl fly into their midst, sending hooves and heels tumbling over end. Oliphaunts trample people and horses, though the camera hurriedly shies away from gore in order to maintain the PG13 rating. Riders storm into a valley of orcs, trampling them underfoot. Numerous times the hobbits scuffle with Gollum, who slams them against rocks and bashes their heads with blunt objects. The strength of this combat is nothing more gruesome than we've observed before. Aragorn is required to walk through the Paths of the Dead, a haunted tomb inhabited by ghosts. This was in the book and transcribes well to the screen... but not without the director's classical horror-like atmosphere. Emancipated, ghostly forms fill the screen during a hair-raising traipse through the murky darkness.


This scene screams allegory and even some secular critics have made mention of the obvious Christian symbolism of this final installment. Aragorn calling upon the dead to acknowledge him as king. Sam carrying Frodo up the mountainside. The final reward for their toils. Even a sequence when Galadriel comes to Frodo in a visitation, encouraging him to keep going. Peter Jackson himself has described it as the most "biblical" of the trilogy. The parallels here are profound, obvious, and magnificent. Secular reviewers seemed to hold some surprise on this account, but Christian audiences have known all along. The Return of the King is epic excellence on a grand scale. This overshadows both prequels and brings the tale of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship to a satisfying and heart-wrenching end.