“We’ve come to it at last, the great battle of our time.” —Gandalf
The Return of the King, the climactic chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, draws to a close the events of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Gollum continues leading Frodo and Sam toward Mordor. But he has no intention of letting the hobbits destroy his “precious” by casting the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The emaciated, desperate and devious creature plants seeds of doubt in Frodo’s mind about Sam’s loyalty (which remains unwavering). That allows Gollum to lure Frodo, alone, into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob. With Sam alienated and Frodo dead, the ring would be Gollum’s for the taking.
Concurrently, the armies of men begin marshaling their forces to defend Gondor’s seven-level city of kings, Minas Tirith. Soaring more than 700 feet above its main gate, and fortified with numerous walls and battlements, Minas Tirith would seem impregnable. However, the dark forces massing against it are formidable. Orcs. Haradrim. Easterlings. Nazgul. Huge trolls that tote battering rams and wield massive maces. Rampaging, elephant-like giants called Mumakil.
There’s no king to defend Gondor from within. Denethor (father of Boromir and Faramir) is the city’s steward, but pride, grief and an unsound mind have rendered him ineffective at protecting his people. Only Gandalf and Aragorn (the one, true king) can lead the ragtag armies of Middle-earth in what could be their last stand against Sauron. Among the human armies that ride to Gondor’s aid is Rohan, led by King Theoden. Hidden among their ranks, the lady Eowyn and an impassioned hobbit seize the chance to fight for all they love and believe in. The troops are vastly outnumbered. To even the score, Aragorn hopes to collect on a centuries-old debt and enlist a legion of cursed undead to fight on their side. Little does Aragorn know that his true love, the elf princess Arwen, has foregone immortal bliss in the Gray Havens in favor of a mortal life with him. But she grows weak. Only the defeat of Sauron will restore her health and secure their royal future. That, of course, is up to Sam and Frodo. Can they survive Gollum’s nefarious schemes? And if so, can the armies of man buy them the time they need to fulfill their calling and drive a stake into the heart of evil?
[Warning: Spoilers Throughout] All of the themes set forth in the first two films are rounded out and resolved. Among them are friendship, providence, the distinction between good and evil, prejudice, stewardship of the land, heroism, temptation and addiction, personal sacrifice, fulfilling one’s calling, the wages of sin, servant-leadership and more.
Specifically, we see the steely resolve of Sam as he urges Frodo on toward Mordor (in their darkest moment, he picks up an exhausted Frodo and tells his burdened master, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”). He is a shining example of incorruptible loyalty and perseverance. He makes sure Frodo is fed even at his own expense and gives him the last of his water. He bravely stares down Shelob, a giant spider who has Frodo on her menu. And he enters a den of Orcs to rescue his captured friend.
As Arwen struggles with her decision to follow her people to the Gray Havens, the decisive moment isn’t a romantic pang, but a maternal one. She glimpses the son she will never have if she chooses self-preservation over mortality (while perhaps unintentional, it struck me as a strong pro-life image of a mother making a huge personal sacrifice for her yet-to-be-born child). She says, “If I leave him now, I will regret it forever.” Her father, Elrond, decides that he cannot change his daughter’s mind about forfeiting immortality for this mortal coil, and symbolically gives her his blessing by arming Aragorn with the reforged sword of Isildur. Elrond then delivers the sword in person and tells a reluctant Aragorn to fulfill his calling and inherit the throne (“Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be. … Give hope to men”). Aragorn quietly trots off on a dangerous mission, only to have Legolas and Gimli insist on accompanying him.
Elsewhere, Gimli lobbies for killing Saruman, but Gandalf shows mercy. In the wake of Helm’s Deep, King Theoden models humility by telling Eowyn that Aragorn is actually the one who deserves credit for rallying their people to victory. Stung by Gondor’s no-show at the battle, Theoden asks, “Why should we ride to the aid of those who did not come to ours?,” yet he acquiesces and boldly lends support when the moment arrives. Sensitive to Denethor’s grief over his son Boromir’s death, Pippin offers his life in service to the steward—a life for a life since Boromir died rescuing him from Orcs. Denethor is a tragic leader of Shakespearan proportions who refuses to relinquish his throne to the reigning king and pays a terrible price for his pride. His surviving son, Faramir, provides a sad study of a man’s desperate need for his father’s approval—and a father’s need to love all of his children equally and unconditionally.
Realizing that Denethor thinks Faramir is dead and plans to burn him alive, Pippin races to save him. Armies rally to fight evil. Even “weaker vessels” Eowyn and Merry lobby for a chance to fight. While they’re not taken seriously by the warrior males of the group, both play critical roles in turning the battle. During the chaos of war, selfless heroics are common. Among them is Eowyn’s defiant protection of a wounded Theoden when the intimidating Witch King threatens to finish him off. To draw the eye of Sauron and buy Frodo and Sam time to destroy the ring, Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, Legolas, Merry and many others march to certain death at the Black Gate. Good triumphs, though just as in real life, there are costs involved and casualties endured. The bittersweet ending ponders questions such as, once you’ve been forever changed by life’s trials, “how do you pick up the threads of an old life?” Marriage and family are noble rewards for at least two characters.
Gandalf and Pippin talk about death and the afterlife in a way that invites comparison to the Christian understanding of heaven. When their battle seems lost, Pippin says, “I never thought it would end like this,” to which Gandalf replies, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. There’s another path we all must take. The gray rain curtain of this world rolls back, and it will change to the silver clouds, and then you see it. … White shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” It comforts Pippin to know that there is more beyond this life. The elves depart for the Gray Havens, a heavenly resting place that will also be shared by Bilbo and Frodo.
Although Tolkien insists that his stories are not allegorical, it’s easy to see his Christian views at work. However, there’s a spiritually disturbing scene in which Aragorn recruits an army of the dead to fight on the side of good. Their cowardice and a curse by Isildur has kept them stranded between the world of the living and eternal bliss—a Purgatory of sorts—and only Aragorn can release them from their torment. A seeing stone transmits supernatural power.
Once again, the fact that Gandalf is called a “good wizard” should give Christians pause, but in the greater context of the tale, he is more warrior than sorcerer. He is also accountable to a higher power, as evidenced in his statements: “My work here is finished,” “Now come the days of the king. May they be blessed,” and “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the king!”
Aragorn embraces and kisses his fiancée.
Middle Ages military violence is frequent and, for a PG-13, very intense. Orcs invade the garrison at Osgiliath, killing many men. Arrows. Axes. Swords. Lots of hack-and-slash, hand-to-hand combat. A wounded soldier is brutally finished off by the lead Orc who buries a spear in the man’s chest. The evil army proceeds to catapult the severed heads of its victims over the wall at Minas Tirith to demoralize the troops there. Viewers should buckle up for what follows. The intense battle at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers blew audiences away. Yet compared to the warfare in this movie, Peter Jackson says Helm’s Deep was “just a skirmish.” He’s right. Instead of 10,000 attacking Uruk-hai, the fighting at Pelennor Fields features more than 250,000 combatants and some of the wildest action ever put to film. Lots of casualties.
Winged serpents mow down mounted soldiers. They swoop in, pick up others in their immense claws and drop them from great heights onto rooftops. Giant elephant-like creatures crush enemies beneath their feet or sweep them aside violently with their tusks. Huge catapults and battering rams take out people as well as the city walls. Massive trolls swing their maces, sending men flying. Trying to enumerate the instances of violence would be as pointless as counting the 12,500,000 links of chain mail used to make the actors’ armor look so authentic (that’s the actual figure, though we weren’t the ones counting). Let it suffice to say that war is indeed hell, and the interaction is brutal.
Away from the battlefield, Gandalf knocks out the crazed Denethor and takes control of Gondor’s army. Gollum and Sam wrestle violently. Frodo and Gollum fight over the ring, whacking each other with rocks. Sam and Frodo are confronted by a very hungry, very large spider sure to haunt the nightmares of arachnophobes (bodies of her victims are scattered around her lair). Shelob stabs Frodo with a poisonous stinger. Orcs fight one another to the death over token treasures. Sam stabs an Orc in the back as the sword’s blue-glowing blade juts out of its chest. In a flashback, Smeagol fights with, then strangles his cousin Deagol when lust for the ring overtakes him. Not in his right mind, Denethor plots to take his own life, then plummets to his death after being set ablaze. Gollum bites off one of Frodo’s fingers during a scuffle (it’s pretty bloody), then falls to a fiery fate.
After the fall of Isengard, Merry and Pippin are found smoking pipes. Gimli also smokes. When those two hobbits are separated, Merry gives his kindred spirit the last of the leaf as a sacrificial gesture of friendship, adding, “You smoke too much, Pippin.” King Theoden leads a toast honoring Rohan’s “victorious dead.” The hobbits drink ale at a pub where other patrons smoke.
Some viewers will cringe at creepy, grotesque shots in the first 10 minutes showing Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum.
At a time when Hollywood frequently emphasizes special effects in an attempt to cover for a film’s shortcomings, this saga has spared no expense or creative impulse to perfectly recreate not only Tolkien’s world of fantasy, but the heart and soul of his characters, as well. The bizarre CGI creatures, detailed set pieces and breathtaking action sequences—just try to avoid marveling at the beasts of war or the beautiful, sweeping shots of the multi-layered city of Minas Tirith—are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. They exist to create a deeper, richer canvas for a timeless, extremely human and surprisingly intimate tale.
During a recent interview, director Peter Jackson told Plugged In, “With Lord of the Rings, we had very strong themes that Tolkien created. I generally don’t make movies for messages; I just make movies for entertainment. Hitchcock’s quote is my favorite: ‘Some people’s films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.’ But fortunately, with Lord of the Rings, I guess we had a slice of Tolkien’s life that we were able to use to strengthen the movie. … We made a decision at the beginning that we weren’t going to introduce any new themes of our own into Lord of the Rings. We were just going to make a film about what Tolkien was passionate about. We didn’t try to put any of our own baggage on these films.” That’s why they’ve held together under the enormous scrutiny of the Tolkien faithful.
Even so, Jackson clearly had his own vision for Return of the King. His decisions to leave several scenes on the cutting room floor (Saruman’s demise and the Houses of Healing interactions are slated to appear in the extended DVD) and never even film the Scouring of the Shire may rankle purists, but this visual storyteller knows what he’s doing. The ebb and flow of tension throughout the movie’s three-plus hours is spellbinding—if rarely upbeat. The expression, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” applies here. Viewers unfamiliar with the novels and how the third act unfolds may be surprised to find Return of the King not just violent, but extremely grim. They may also feel as though the ending is belabored by multiple denouements, though fans of the novels will delight in the true-to-Tolkien closure brought to various individuals’ stories.
Before a single ticket was torn, Return of the King had captured Best Picture honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, and was already being trumpeted as an Oscar favorite. [Online Editor’s Note: In February 2004 it made a clean sweep at the Academy Awards ceremony, capturing 11 statuettes, including Best Picture.] A stunning climax to a seven-year journey for Jackson. In 1996, he embarked on a daunting trek to film one of the most beloved fantasy trilogies of all time. No one thought it possible, let alone by a director without a single mainstream blockbuster to his credit. But like a humble, unassuming hobbit, “his will was set and only death would break it.” Best of all, Jackson and his team managed to preserve Tolkien’s distinctly Christian worldview.