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

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Director: Peter Jackson

Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Let justice be done upon him!


Each film in The Lord of the Rings series was an Academy Award winner, however Return of the King won all eleven Academy Awards for which it was nominated (joining only two other films in history to win eleven Academy Awards: Ben-Hur and Titanic). Return of the King is a beautiful end to an incredible cinematic journey. It is a visually stunning film (apparently the scenes of Minas Tirath in Gondor were reused from the Helm’s Deep sequences in The Two Towers). The score is another perfect soundtrack composed by Howard Shore. The cast is the same returning troupe from The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. The cinematography is extraordinary as is the CGI and other special effects -which do not appear to have aged lo these twenty years since the film’s release! It is difficult to put into words a film that is so massively epic in scale because Return of the King encapsulates such a wealth of cinematic splendor: war and conquest, visionary imagined landscapes, complex characters (at least with regard to the protagonists), tenderness and gripping emotional drama, a resounding conclusion to the trilogy, and a legendary ending that never seems to fully conclude.

Below, I offer a terse summary of the story though it is by no means sufficient:

Return of the King is the triumphant conclusion to the greatest modern cinematic epic. The movie opens with a flashback to Smeagol’s discovery of the ring (he brutally kills his compatriot, Deagol, and takes the ring). Driven mad by its power, Gollum then retreats into the mountains for centuries where the ring poisons his mind until Bilbo takes the ring in The Hobbit. Meanwhile, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli reunite with Merry and Pippin. They all travel to Gondor where Sauron plans to attack the last stronghold of the race of men. However, in Gondor, they discover a jaded and frivolous steward on the throne: Denethor (father of Farimir and Borimir). Much to the relief of the audience, he kills himself. Nevertheless, the group musters forces to fight against Sauron, especially the kingdom of the dead who reside in the mountains. Aragorn promises to free them from their age-old oath to Gondor/Isildur. The army of the dead overwhelm Sauron’s forces and win the day, so Aragorn leads the legions of Gondor the Black Gate to fight Sauron as a distraction while Sam and Frodo destroy the ring.

Turning to the other chief plotline, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum witness the “witch-king” (the leader of the Nazgul ringwraiths) as he leads a massive contingent out of Mordor to attack the men of Gondor. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum climb a massive series of stairs that lead around the gates of Mordor. One of the fascinating aspects of Return of the King is how character-driven the film is -the burden of bearing the ring leads Frodo to pity Gollum and turn on Sam, yet Sam remains a true friend and ally to Frodo. Despite being betrayed by Gollum in Shelob’s lair, Sam rescues Frodo from a band of orcs, and they proceed together disguised as orcs to Mount Doom. The ring is dramatically destroyed along with Gollum who cannot resist the ring’s allure.

“My friends. You bow to no one.”

In the end, the fellowship is reunited. Aragorn is married to Arwen and he becomes the the King of Gondor (hence, the ‘return of the king’). The hobbits return to the Shire where Sam marries Rosie. Years pass, and Frodo writes his story before deciding to depart for the blessed isles on a ship with his aging father, Bilbo. The film ends with the same words as the novel as Sam returns to the Shire: “Well, I’m back.”

As a post script, there was also a trilogy released that based on The Hobbit (the film studio stretched the film series into an unnecessary trilogy in a transparent cash grab). The series was originally slated to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, rather than Peter Jackson (who filed a lawsuit against New Line Cinema for payments on merchandise and video games and so on). The studio was also in the midst of a lawsuit with the Tolkien Estate which was settled outside of court, and there were other troubles which caused delays in pre-production. Del Toro dropped away from the project after nearly two years due to delays and other issues. Peter Jackson was once again appointed to direct the series but the timeline was tight and the filming became a haphazard hodgepodge of unplanned scenes. The Hobbit series is nothing short of poor. It relies heavily on CGI-created scenes because minimal production was prepared. It lacks the enthusiasm and passion of the caliber found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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