movie film review | chris tookey

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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  Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.10 /10
Frodo: Elijah Wood , Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Full Cast >

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson . Based on the book by: J.R.R. Tolkien

Released: 2003
Origin: New Zealand/ US
Colour: C
Length: 201

Disappointing. Anti-climactic. Bungled. Overblown. These are just some of the adjectives I shall not be using to describe the third part of The Lord of the Rings. How about amazing, stupendous, jaw-dropping and overwhelming? For this is wonderfully imaginative cinema on the grandest possible scale, fabulously inspired but never restricted by Tolkien's original vision.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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There are sights here unparalleled. If ever you questioned director Peter Jackson's ability to improve upon the battle for Helm's Deep, shame on you. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is on such a colossal scale and so excitingly shot that it blows away every war scene ever filmed. If Gollum was the special effects achievement of The Two Towers, here it's the enormous war-elephants of Mordor, which have such mass and presence that it's impossible to believe they're merely special effects.

The integration of digital effects with live action is shattering: one sequence alone, where Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) demonstrates how to bring down one of these super-elephants, would be worth the price of admission in itself (and it's topped by one of the film's best jokes). But then so would the cavalry charge of the Rohirrim. And Aragorn's arrival with unusual reinforcements. And Sam and Frodo's fight with the giant spider Shelob.

One eternally memorable aspect of the series is the way Jackson has been inspired by Tolkien's masterly descriptions of landscape. The scene where Pippin lights a warning fire in Gondor, and answering beacons stretch across Middle Earth to Rohan, is breathtaking, as are the coming of the eagles and Aragorn's encounter with the mountain dead… I could go on, but you get the idea.

The quality of the action and visuals alone would make this a shoo-in for Best Picture and Best Director at next year's Oscars. But I hope some recognition is given to the cast as a whole, who - without exception - turn in immaculate performances under very difficult circumstances, often acting opposite creatures that most of them saw only on the movie's first night in New Zealand.

They are helped by the fact that there are more emotional scenes in this than in the other two films put together. Sean Astin as Sam and Elijah Wood as Frodo are outstanding as the balance of power shifts between them, but every leading character has his or her moment; and it's good to see the way the hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin develop from amusing comic relief into moving, rounded characters.

Any criticisms I have are very minor. It's a pity that Denethor, Boromir's father and the lord of Minas Tirith, has been simplified so much from the book; he could have done with a touch more faded nobility - instead he's an out-and-out villain. I would have liked to see Faramir's love for Eowyn made a little clearer. And Tolkien might have winced at the way Sam becomes very nearly a conventional Hollywood action hero towards the end - though the sequences where he does are among the biggest crowd-pleasers in the film.

At three hours 21 minutes, the film feels (paradoxically) a little rushed. There's more that could, and doubtless will, appear on the DVD extended version, including the come-uppance of Saruman, who is summarily dismissed at the start of the movie without appearing.

But I can't remember a shorter-seeming epic. The number of tear-jerking false endings suggests that Peter Jackson is reluctant to say goodbye to these characters. And you will be too.

In some ways, Jackson proves himself in The Return of the King to be an even better storyteller than Tolkien. Through clever intercutting, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens make the chronology of the final showdown and Sam and Frodo's journey to Mount Doom much more transparent and thrilling than it is in the book.

And though some of the dialogue is a bit plonky - there is inevitably an awful lot of plot explaining to do - there's also plenty of heart and passion, and a refreshing use of humour. John Rhys-Davies as the belligerent dwarf Gimli has several funny lines which weren't in the original novel; and the film is all the better for having a little light and shade.

So The Lord of the Rings has come to the most triumphant possible conclusion. The Return of the King deserves to overtake Titanic as the most commercially successful movie of all time. For its scale, imagination and passion, this is, without doubt, the greatest cinematic trilogy ever - far surpassing its nearest competitors, The Godfather and the first three Star Wars.

The Lord of the Rings is a major cultural landmark, a masterpiece that will inspire future generations of filmmakers, and it will be watched with admiration for as long as cinema exists.

In Defence of Tolkien.

Three days after I saw this movie, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was - as expected - hailed as Britain's favourite novel by 750,000 viewers of BBC2, echoing the 1996 poll of 26,000 readers by Waterstone's bookstore, which crowned The Lord of the Rings "book of the century." Meanwhile, the third film from the book - The Return of the King - opened worldwide to near-universal acclaim.

Tolkien's detractors must have been appalled.

Tolkien has always enraged the literati. In 1956, the foremost modernist American critic of his generation, Edmund Wilson, wrote a hatchet-job called "Ooh! Those awful orcs!" in which he called the book "juvenile trash" and predicted that it would have little impact on his side of the Atlantic. How wrong he was.

In 1961 the British Marxist Philip Toynbee wrote confidently in The Observer that Tolkien's works had "passed into a merciful oblivion." Oops. More recently, that eternal stroppy teenager Germaine Greer has castigated a love of the book as prima facie evidence of being emotionally retarded. Leftist fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has derided The Lord of the Rings as "Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic"; and the Marxist fantasy writer, China Mieville, has dismissed his more successful forerunner as "rural, petty bourgeois, conservative, anti-modernist, misanthropically Christian and anti-intellectual".

John Yatt in the Guardian of December 2, 2002 warned readers of that newspaper against exposing themselves to Tolkien's dangerous, politically incorrect ideology: "Strip away the archaic turns of phrase and you find a set of basic assumptions that are frankly unacceptable in 21st-century Britain."

So The Lord of the Rings has succeeded in uniting in condemnation modernists, post-modernists, Feminists, Marxists and the pompously politically correct. Tolkien would be very proud.

The success of Tolkien's books drives literati crazy because it shows that popular taste resolutely, bloody-mindedly defies central planning and totalitarian diktats: the literati do not control, and have no right to control, what literature is.

Another reason why Professor Tolkien incenses those who regard themselves as the intelligentsia is that he was middle class and happy to be so. An Oxford academic with simple, homely tastes, he was completely uninterested in class alienation, and his hobbits represent a happy combination of the English middle and working classes.

Virtually alone of his literary generation, Tolkien saw no need to disguise himself as anything but bourgeois. He did not try to reinvent himself as working-class, non-English, or a beleaguered intellectual suffering exile within his own country. His best-loved book is a celebration of "small" people protecting the ordinary but beautiful aspects of family and home. As he once famously remarked, "I am, in fact, a hobbit".

Tolkien had no ambition to be avant-garde - indeed, he is cheerfully reactionary in harking back to unfashionable myths and legends that he himself adored. Tolkien completely rejected the Modernist movement which has long been unquestioned orthodoxy among the literati. His priorities and themes were never those of the literary establishment. Plot, or story-telling, is the most compelling element in LOTR.

Modernist novelists like to dwell on inner feelings and pick over minutiae, usually in a depressed and depressing way. But authors such as Tolkien and Mervyn Peake (writer of that other epic fantasy, the Gormenghast trilogy) had witnessed the greatest horrors of the twentieth century - Tolkien at the Somme, Peake at the concentration camps. Both turned to fantasy as a way of dealing with their encounters with evil.

Tolkien bravely tackled the big themes of the twentieth century that the modernists couldn't handle: the trauma of war and genocide, the impact of industry on the environment, the burgeoning power but hidden fragility of totalitarianism. Most of his book was written during the rise of Nazi Germany and Stalinist expansionism; it is no accident that it chronicles the war against a Dark Lord whose mission is the domination of Middle-earth.

Moreover, Tolkien had no truck with modern miserabilism. The ultimate, empowering message of his greatest work is that one person, however insignificant, can make a difference.

There is a sense in which the true hero of The Lord of The Rings is not Frodo, Aragorn or Gandalf, but Sam Gamgee, a low-life, comic, subsidiary character who finds himself gradually elevated to an importance he could never have anticipated (and Tolkien probably didn't, either). He emerges as the unassuming moral centre of the book and films.

It is significant that, towards the end of The Two Towers, Jackson gives Sam the speech which encapsulates the Tolkien ethic, about the need to find and defend the good in the world, which incidentally is echoed in Richard Curtis's opening lines of Love Actually, another huge hit that annoys modernist critics.

Tolkien's characters are also a good deal more complex than is usually acknowledged. They are not divided between Good and Bad, for underlying everything is a striking sense of how every one of us is corruptible.

The psychological disintegration of Frodo from brave little hobbit to deranged sociopath is movingly conveyed by Elijah Wood, in a performance that has been greatly undervalued. One masterstroke of Peter Jackson's co-writer Fran Walsh was to dramatise the schizophrenic nature of Smeagol/ Gollum, who emerges from the trilogy as one of literature's most imaginative and unique creations.

Nor is Tolkien guilty of warmongering. He does make a case for war as a regrettable but moral response to evil. King Theoden's change from weakling to warrior produces some of the most stirring moments in Peter Jackson's trilogy. And Aragorn's transition from alienated, disinterested outsider to involved, responsible leader is another major theme.

Yet no one could possibly come away from book or film without realizing that Tolkien does not idealise war. Tolkien fought at the Somme in 1916. "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its oppression," he once wrote. "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

Deep within his writing runs a profound sense of sadness at the losses, sacrifices and waste of war. In the wizard Gandalf's argument that the powerful but corrupting Ring be destroyed, rather than used as a weapon against Sauron, there is an unmistakable parallel with the scourge of nuclear weapons.

Tolkien's sympathies are clearly with the peace-loving hobbits and their pipe-weed, the horse-culture of the Rohirrim, the poetic beauty of the elves. It is only when these are threatened that Tolkien, like Gandalf, urges the need for self-defence.

Jackson has been fortunate that after September 11th fighting back against senselessly malign evil has become part of the spirit of our times. Several lines of dialogue in all three films have strong relevance to our current circumstances, but all have come directly from Tolkien; Jackson and his co-writers have not had to write them in to give the book contemporary relevance.

A few humourless feminists have condemned the book as prejudiced against women. In one such essay, hilariously entitled "No Sex, Please, We're Hobbits: The Construction of Female Sexuality in The Lord of the Rings," an English teacher - one Brenda Partridge - blames Tolkien's allegedly chauvinistic view of women on the "Norse and Christian mythologies in which he was immersed".

No matter that Eowyn is one of the most memorable "strong women" in the whole of English literature, or that the elf-queen Galadriel is portrayed as someone powerful enough to be a Sauron or Saruman.

There is no getting away from the fact that the main protagonists are male; but as Peter Jackson and his two female co-writers have discovered through a judicious raiding of the appendices, the love story between Aragorn and Arwen is an extremely touching romance that contains within it more than a hint of sexuality.

Tolkien was not, of course, a sexy writer, any more than Dickens was. For both, copulation was best left undescribed. You may surmise that Sam Gamgee has sexual feelings for Rosie, the Shire barmaid with whom he eventually has thirteen children. But you won't find Tolkien describing what Sam and Rosie got up to in the bedroom. This admittedly puts Tolkien outside the mainstream of twentieth-century novelists, but I for one find his aproach rather refreshing.

Tolkien was undoubtedly a reactionary in his deep hostility towards industrial progress. He gave up driving in 1939 after seeing what road building had done to his beloved English countryside, and even in the Seventies he never owned a television set or a washing machine. He famously sent a cheque to pay his taxes and wrote on the back, "Not a penny for Concorde".

It is no accident that the dodgiest hobbit in the Shire is Sandeman the miller, for any reliance on machinery made a person suspect in Tolkien's eyes. So yes, he was eccentric; but in order to write a work so profoundly out-of-touch with literary convention and so likely to provoke derision from Tolkien's academic colleagues demanded a very large degree of eccentricity.

Ironically, Tolkien's love of trees and the natural environment, once considered oddball, has become a major political force. And Tolkien's disgust at humans who commit crimes against nature - such as the wizard Saruman's experiments in genetic engineering that produce the Uruk-Hai - seems all the more relevant in an age of human-genome research, cloning, and biotechnology.

The belief that Tolkien is racist relies on far too simplistic a reading of Tolkien's text. True, there is no such thing in his work as a "good orc" or an "ignoble elf", but dwarves are a mixed bunch, and one of Tolkien's themes is of racial tolerance, as the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas overcome their racial conditioning to become fast friends.

Tolkien was anything but a racist. In his letters, he decries Apartheid in his birthplace of South Africa. He denounced the anti-semitism of his German publishers when they tried to find out if he was Aryan. And when someone wrote to ask whether his last name was Jewish, he replied that he "should consider it an honor if it were."

The Lord of the Rings celebrates racial diversity, not racial supremacy; and so did Tolkien, who was in his letters as critical of American globalization as he was of Soviet Communism.

Tolkien was not so much on the bigoted Right as a convinced anti-authoritarian. In 1943 he wrote to his son Christopher, "My political beliefs lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)." Unlike most intellectuals of his generation, he regarded socialism and statism as unworkable and inhuman.

Tolkien's marvellous central image is the Ring itself. It represents that ultimate power which is so tempting but must be resisted at all costs. For the ring, like power, appeals to those who want to do good; but then they start to cut corners, believe that the end justifies the means, and start to allow their belief in their cause to override their moral sense and humanity.

Why Tolkien won at the Oscars.

When it competed at the 2004 Academy Awards, The Lord of the Rings became no run-of-the-mill Oscar-winner. Not only was this the first fantasy film ever to win Best Picture, it won 11 Academy Awards – which puts it alongside only two other films, Ben Hur and Titanic.

Hardly anyone would claim that these are the three greatest film of all time, but a comparison of them does reveal the qualities that win over the Academy.

First of all, a movie needs masculine sex appeal. One of the most striking aspects of Ben-Hur, considering its devoutly religious content as a pseudo-Biblical epic, is the number of times Charlton Heston is given an excuse to bare his chest. Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio the teen heart-throb of the late 90s. Lord of the Rings has done much the same for Orlando Bloom (as the elf Legolas), though women of a certain age usually prefer Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn).

Secondly, the film needs to be bum-numbingly long. If your film doesn’t clock in at over three hours, forget it. Titanic was three hours 14 minutes, Ben-Hur 25 minutes longer. The Return of the King was either three hours 20 or nine hours 17, if like me you believe that the Academy was voting this year for the whole trilogy.

There must also be colossal action set pieces. William Wyler’s Roman epic is still worth watching today for the massive sea battle, the Triumphal procession and, of course, the most exciting chariot-race ever staged.

For much of its length, James Cameron’s Titanic is like a ridiculously lavish episode of The Love Boat directed by Cecil B. DeMille. But once the liner hits the iceberg, the digital special effects come into their own; and the scene where the boat tips on end and passengers fall from the stern looks as stunning now as it did eight years ago.

Lord of the Rings is easily the biggest of the lot. The Battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields blow away every war scene ever filmed; and these are only two of a dozen set pieces in the trilogy that would have been beyond the scope of cinema until the last five years.

An Oscar-sweeping movie also has to cost. Both Ben-Hur and Titanic were the most expensive films of their day, and represented agonising financial risks. The Tolkien trilogy was more expensive than both those movies put together. Extreme costliness may not be enough to guarantee Oscars – Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate and Waterworld were almost as extravagant in their day and failed to impress the electorate - but it helps to grab the attention, as does box-office success.

Americans see the movies not just as an art but as an industry, and they really, really like money. Very few unprofitable films are nominated for Best Picture; and even though The Lord of the Rings cost upwards of 300 million dollars it is bound to make at least ten times that, which will render it the most commercially successful movie investment decision of all time.

On a less cynical note, let’s not forget that all produced strong leading performances. Charlton Heston won Best Actor for his performance of quiet dignity as a persecuted Jew in the time of Christ. Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart were Oscar-nominated for playing the rebellious upper-class heroine in Titanic. The quality of the ensemble acting in The Lord of the Rings has, in my judgment, never been equalled.

That brings us to the other vital ingredient for mega-success at the Oscars: the movie must be hated by a sizeable number of critics. The most respected American reviewer of the 1950s, Dwight Macdonald, loathed every minute of Wyler’s epic. "I found Ben-Hur bloody in every way - bloody bloody and bloody boring,” he wrote. “Here is a film that tries to debauch whatever taste, feeling or simple common sense Hollywood and television have left us."

The late Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard was just one of many critics who attacked Titanic for its anachronisms and simple-mindedness: "Scene after scene contains some glaring social gaffe or historical faux pas,” he snorted.

The first part of The Lord of the Rings was trashed by Walker as "utterly, utterly, uninvolving”. The second episode was condemned by the Guardian as “nerdish nonsense”, and by the Daily Telegraph as “like being trapped in a nerd's bedroom.” Even the third episode was dismissed by America’s best-known critic, Roger Ebert, as “a work for adolescents (of all ages).” If a movie isn’t sneered at by the critics, it just doesn’t have that all-important, common touch.

Which is the best of the three winners? The only one that I believe will still be regarded as a classic in 25 years time is The Lord of the Rings. Its unique achievement is that it tackles huge themes that “realistic” dramas haven’t been able to handle: the trauma of war and genocide, the impact of industry on the environment, the frightening power but hidden fragility of totalitarianism.

The spectacle of well-intentioned people "eaten up inside" by devotion to abstract ideals has become so familiar - and, in the case of modern would-be Saurons, so terrifying - that Tolkien's central, poetic idea of the wraithing-process, whereby humans lose their humanity through desire for power, emerges as not fantastical at all. And there is something universal and timeless about his message of optimism that one person, however insignificant, can make a difference.

Key to Symbols