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

“My friends… you bow to no one.”

Going into The Return of the King, what more can be said about a now concluded trilogy that has proven to be a gold standard of storytelling in grand spectacular fashion. Its undeniable the achievement Peter Jackson accomplishes when getting through the final chapter in the 3rd age of Middle Earth, but even more so is the everlasting effect these films carry beyond the test of time. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy isn’t just Jackson’s accomplishment, it’s the strenuous effort of all involved in front and behind the camera – bringing the imagination of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works to life. All departments from cinematography, music, costume, visual and practical effects to sound design and ADR, this is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

In front of the camera, The Return of the King continues to bring a true ensemble cast in full force. And with a theatrical runtime of 200 minutes, and an extended runtime of 263 minutes, every character gets their due. Shooting the high fantasy epic back-to-back-to-back adds a comfortability when one of the many main characters makes an appearance or gives a lengthy awe-inspiring monologue. The Two Towers saw the “Fellowship” split up and isolated from one another while shifting focus from the 4 halfling Hobbits to a Dwarf, an Elf and a man who would be the rightful heir to Gondor.

Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens find the perfect balance between the “Fellowship” of the Ring plus many more characters that add a significant presence to the overall narrative in the grand finale.

I have lost count of how many times I was prepared to ride into battle based on a speech from any singular character. Completely captivating, the scope, spectacle and landscape of Middle Earth is breathtaking. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is top notch capturing the beauty of New Zealand, making it a destination to visit for any person, a fan of the films or not.

At least for my sake, I prefer the extended editions of the Middle Earth saga – Jackson adds as much as humanly possible to these versions, while the theatrical versions are cut to not make the experience excruciatingly painful to sit through. Roughly 12 hours of the works of Tolkien, what more could any fantasy / sci-fi fan ask for? Not much aside from a 1:1 adaptation, but what is finished and delivered is a fine-tuned machine, pumping on all cylinders.

Nominated for 11 academy awards, The Return of the King deservedly swept every single category, cementing itself as the greatest trilogy of all time. With Jackson’s steady hands guiding this film to the finish line, the 3 genre films have become the center of popular culture becoming mainstream for the casual fan to enjoy while the hardcore fan can sink their teeth into the mythology and lore.

Opening the film is a flashback, some centuries ago, before the events of Tolkien’s first novel The Hobbit or There and Back Again of Sméagol / Gollum (Andy Serkis) and his cousin Déagol (Thomas Robins) as the two discover the ring that begins the course of corruption inside Sméagol that would go on to possess Sméagol and turn in into a shell of his former Hobbit self. Flash forward to present day and Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise the Brave (Sean Astin) are nearing Mordor to destroy the ring at Mount Doom with Gollum’s wicked guidance. Elsewhere, in Isengard, Galdalf the White (Ian McKellen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and King Théoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) reunite with Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) after Sauramon’s (Christopher Lee) defeat and the battle of Helm’s Deep is won.

Culminating in a final crescendo to stop Sauron and his forces of orcs and goblin hybrids, The Return of the King’s climax happens with an epic scaled battle at Minas Tirith. A war to end all wars. Let alone the beauty of this sprawling, finely crafted city, the design stays in-line with the verisimilitude of the world. The battle that takes place is conducted and shot like a symphony – a battle full of carnage that has its highs and lows for both sides that I can watch over and over on an endless loop for hours and never once get tired or bored of it. The true strength of this trilogy has been the balance of between the grandiose action sequences with thousands of characters on screen at once, battling for survival or control of Middle Earth to the more intimate moments full of melancholy and melodrama.

While Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn can make their case for the best characters in the trilogy and they certainly are in the conversation, the most valuable character in Jackson’s films is Samwise. Of all the themes established, loyalty, bravery and friendship hold the most weight as Sam accompanies Frodo ensuring his safety. Samwise represents the best in humanity, despite having his character questioned and made to look like a liar and a thief, Sam never once loses sight of his friendship with Frodo. Sean Astin transcends the character, bearing his soul, giving hope to the the hopeless.

What’s perhaps most admirable about this trilogy but The Return of the King is the message of inclusivity. Merry and Pippin have no business on the battlefield but it’s their continued resilience in the face of adversity that proves everyone wrong around them. Underestimating a Hobbit, especially these Hobbits is unwise.

Thanks to their efforts, the war to save Middle Earth is made possible. “My friends… you bow to no one” Aragorn, the King says to the 4 unlikely heroes while all of Gondor bows to them. Full of emotion, the journey to that point will leave no eye nor cheek dry. A journey that many wouldn’t think to take – full of doubt, hardship, and regret but full of memories of newly formed bonds and friendship.

The one criticism I hold with these films is the length. I also get fully invested with the extended editions so its more like a nitpick than an actual criticism. Overly long and full of exploding detail in every frame, Jackson let’s scenes drag out that could have been cut down to keep a tighter film. Of course, travel times are heavily exaggerated for the sake of the film but that’s one aspect we can ignore.

Aside from the length, which is a journey in and of itself, I can’t find much to dislike – The Return of the King is a wonderful film boasted by the main cast and carried through by the supporting ensemble. No two orcs are the same, the miniatures boldly stand out among the lush environments and the detail is magnificent. Howard Shore’s score is a war cry, every note will resonate and get the blood pumping full of adrenaline. It may not be perfect in everyone’s eyes but it’s a triumph in every way imaginable and would make Tolkien proud.

Screenplay By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Music By: Howard Shore

Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, Sean Bean

Where to Watch: HBO Max

Release Date: December 17, 2003

Running Time: 3 Hours 30 Minutes (Theatrical), 4 Hours 23 Minutes (Extended)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

Based On: The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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