The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003's conclusion to the film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's multi-volume fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, is not an original one, nor a clever and insightful one, nor a bold one. My primary objection is that it's too motherfucking long, and in particular that it takes an irredeemably long time to end. And that is a criticism that has been leveled at the film since pretty much the second that it premiered. So it's probably lazy of me to bring it up, but it looms so large in my feelings about the movie - and, I gather, in very nearly everybody else's, good or bad - that it would be disingenuous to put it off.
It's all part of the same weird adaptation fandango that left The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers covering only something like two-thirds of the book whose title it shared (and changing the meaning of that title, into the bargain), for it leaves us with quite a lot of leftover Two Towers material to fit in - the first actual Return of the King scene takes place 32 minutes into the 201-minute theatrical cut, and the remainders of The Two Towers don't wrap up until well beyond the half-way mark - and thus quite a bit less space for The Return of the King, even with its running time inflated from the already-generous preceding films. That was still not enough space for the last 40-odd pages of the book, and at some point the decision was made - I assume the details are somewhere in the hours and hours of making-of material available on the fancy DVD sets - to cut out an entire chapter, "The Scouring of the Shire". And that had all sorts of ramifications that we'll get to, but one of the nastiest ones was structural - see, the thing that bothers a lot of people about the way the movie Return of the King ends, that it's what feels like several hours of wrapping-up and goodbyes and fervently homoerotic slow-motion pillow fights, that was already in the book, and cannot be blamed on anybody but Tolkien. The difference being, Tolkien broke up what takes, onscreen, just 22 minutes - though they are an unbelievably ill-paced 22 minutes, with three separate fades-to-black and a garish amount of slow-motion, and a general lingering feeling that even makes the regular-speed material feel slow; it is, altogether, the most frustratingly-edited sequence in the entire trilogy - with a big action sequence, so even if there's a lot of talky denouement, it leads up to something. The movie doesn't; the ending just spools out, listlessly, and that is the structural problem I meant. And the hell of it is, there's really nothing you can do about it: if Jackson had cut the very final sequence, the Tolkien faithful would have burned him alive, and pretty much every frame of that 22 minutes is absolutely required to get us from A to B. It's boring as hell, but irreplaceable.
Having dealt with that, let's skip all the way back to the beginning: when last we left everybody, hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) were being escorted into the evil land of Mordor by untrustworthy mutant Gollum (motion-captured Andy Serkis), heading to destroy the evil ring that Frodo bore; human king-in-exile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and resurrected wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) had just helped King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of the rural kingdom of Rohan turn back an evil army; B-list hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) had been present at, but largely uninvolved in, the destruction of the industrial hellhole ruled by evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee, who only appears... but let's wait for that). The new film shuffles up the characters a bit: now Pippin and Gandalf travel to the great fortress city of Minas Tirith, to force craven steward Denethor (John Noble) to rally his army to make one last stand against evil, Merry joins Theoden's army as they travel, much more slowly, to Minas Tirith for that battle; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas prepare an alternate plan to reach the same battle; Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are unchanged. That gets us to the midway point, at any rate, and the midway point of The Return of the King is already further in than a great many narratively dense feature-length movies.
I find it fascinating that this movie won (as part of its record-tying eleven-statue haul) the series' first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, because it has the weakest script. Now with four subplots to keep in mind, for a very large portion of its running time, Jackson, Fran Walsh, & Philippa Boyens are obliged to spend an inordinate amount of time shifting focus, and while it succeeds on the bare level of keeping up with the story, the success is wholly mechanical: there's no real logic involved, no rhyming of moments or telling overlaps. It's all functional storytelling, and that, in and of itself, is more than a little bit impressive: there's a mad amount of story happening, and keeping it all straight could drive a weaker person insane. But it is only functional storytelling. And there are issues all throughout with scenes that feel rushed, particularly in the Frodo/Sam plot: Sam's infiltration of the enemy stronghold of Minas Morgul - the original second tower in The Two Towers - is a highlight of the print Lord of the Rings, but gets pushed through so quickly here that you'd think somebody was embarrassed of it. Even worse are the omissions: having, by the time that this film was in post-production, found that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was an amazing success that permitted him all sorts of liberties, particularly in the case of releasing extended DVD editions of the movies, Jackson abused the power thus granted to him by cutting out important material, material that would almost certainly never have been taken out otherwise. Most famously, I refer of course to the matter of Saruman: both in Tolkien and Jackson's iterations of the story, the backstabbing wizard was made the primary "tangible" villain of the story, what with the dark lord Sauron being almost entirely offstage and deliberately nebulous. Ignoring the fact that what Tolkien did with the character is not remotely like what the filmmakers did, the fact still remains that he's a major element of the plot; and in the theatrical cut, he's dismissed in a couple of lines and a ghastly shot that makes it really, really clear that they're making a point of not showing you what's going on.
Weakest script or not, the film does, admittedly, have a lot going on in its favor: the spectacle is ramped up here more than in the preceding two movies combined, and the design and execution of Minas Tirith in particular is the very reason we go to fantasy movies: I do not hesitate in declaring it my favorite location in the whole series. There's one absolutely tremendous action setpiece, in which Sauron's armies lay siege to the walls of Minas Tirith, with the aid of a huge, deliciously baroque iron battering ram and a whole mess of catapults (resulting in a POV shot of a large piece of mortar flying out of one such implement that I'd have happily seen cut out, but then, all three of the movies have a projectile POV, and it would, I gather, have been upsetting to skip one now). Frodo's encounter with a giant spider is, bar none, the finest giant insect sequence* in all of cinema. Also in the spider sequence, and in a haunted mountain pass, Jackson gets to show off his skills with horror style like nowhere else in this franchise. In fact, perhaps because they were largely shot in sequence and thus he'd had the most practice by this point, I think that The Return of the King is overall the best-directed of the three movies: Jackson and Andrew Lesnie still have an addiction to spinning the camera up and around and all over that is spastic more than it's cinematic, but there are not so many sweeping helicopter shots as in The Two Towers, nor the profound and consistent mismanagement of tone of The Fellowship of the Ring: here, unlike that moment, when things need to be scaled back to a human size (or half-human, as needed), Jackson knows how to do that; a haunting moment where Pippin sings a hobbit lament, cross-cut with battle, is a little on-the-nose but only in the very best tradition of populist blockbuster cinema, and it's maybe the most sensitive and emotionally true scene in the trilogy.
But for every moment that goes right, something goes equally wrong. Minas Tirith is an impeachable triumph of design? Yes, but Minas Morgul is a gaudy joke of protoplasmic greens, my least favorite location in the series just as certainly as its sister-tower is my favorite. The initial siege of Minas Tirith is almost as good as the stunning Helm's Deep battle in The Two Towers, but then the much larger and more ambitious Battle of the Pelennor Fields comes along and it's kind of terrible: rampant with obvious CGI in the form of ridiculous large elephants (Tolkien, in imagining the beasts, presumably was not as influenced by the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back as Jackson), and desperately bad quips by our heroes, and the low point of the whole franchise, when Legolas abruptly becomes an obvious animated effect and kills one of the big animals; though it's edited better than the fights in Fellowship, so we have to give Jamie Selkirk (third movie, third editor) that much credit. For every improved performance - Boyd and Monaghan, given more to do, are so much more alert, complex, and alive in their characterisations that they're virtually unrecognisable; McKellen's Gandalf was never better, mixing dry humor, impatience, fear, anger, strength, etc. etc. - there's one that's in a tailspin - Astin, never the strongest member of the cast, cannot handle the heavy emotional lifting he has to do in this part, Wood swoops from greatness to giggle-inducing incompetence often in the course of a single scene, Mortensen straight-up isn't trying and his accent keeps sliding. Jackson's tighter direction isn't above a spectacular miscalculation like the Monty Python-esque sight of a flaming Denethor running off a cliff, in swooping wide shot. And the CGI, weirdly, is much worse here than in the previous films: the Pelennor Fields battle especially, though the video-game framing of much of the action doesn't help that out, while the attempt at a darkening sky looks like plastic, there are some painful shots involving lava near the end, and even Gollum, the pinnacle of the art form when he was introduced in The Two Towers, is badly composited in two separate shots. Of course, there's plenty of truly awe-inspiring CGI as well: that's what makes the bad stuff stand out.
It's that way with the film as a whole: everything that made any of the films in the series exciting fantasy adventures is present and amplified, and the stakes are raised through the rafters; but the flaws, which were more at the level of niggling and nitpicking before, are just as amped up. The same weird balance of very good and very misguided would dominate Jackson's post-LOTR epic, King Kong, and at a remove of so many years, I actually find that my response to Return of the King is closer to that film than to the movies it's actually related to: there's so much that's amazing popcorn movie delight that I have to like it, but there is a lot going wrong.
Some closing thoughts on the extended edition: after all I said up top, it might seem like I'm in favor: after all, does it not button up the Saruman hole? And it also gives us much more, richer material with Faramir (David Wenham) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), giving those characters more of a presence and a reason to be - and boy, is it weird how badly Faramir, a fantastic character in the extended films, is treated by the theatrical cuts.
Not hardly! In fact, Return of the King is the only film in the trilogy that I think is unambiguously worse in its extended version: the Saruman scene is necessary, but it has been crudely edited in, the most galling insertion in any of the films. And that's ignoring how much of the extended material is so deeply unnecessary: five seconds of Gandalf having a coughing fit? Wow, thanks. Or the kind of tacky, gross Mouth of Sauron scene.
The net effect of all this is twofold: first, it makes a three-hour and twenty-one minute film reach the ungodly length of four hours and eleven minutes, and I mean fuck off. You have to cut it off somewhere, and surely four hours is that point - when a movie crosses four hours, it's probably doing it as a deliberate means of testing the audience and putting us in an abstracted mental state. And The Return of the King is many things, but Rivette ain't one of them.
Besides that, the sheer volume of tiny, generally insubstantial additions - of the three, this film has the most time added by little bits and pieces rather than full scenes - serves generally to completely mess with the pacing; the theatrical Return of the King doesn't fly by, but it flows. The extended edition clomps.
And last, begging your indulgence, some closing thoughts on something I have in general tried to shy away from: directly and judgmentally comparing the movies and the books. Jackson was doing his thing, I get that, it's fine, and they make for awfully fun adventure movies, and I am happy they were made. But I've loved Tolkien for a long time, and it's hard not to wonder about all the things the movies skipped on, to more or less deleterious effect. In 2001 and 2002, I sort of shrugged it off: aye, I would have enjoyed seeing Tom Bombadil, but it would have been poor drama; the shifts to The Two Towers were in its best interests as a screen story, and so on.
But it was with The Return of the King, and particularly its extended edition (which revealed not just what Jackson hadn't included, but what he never intended to include), that I realised just how much these films don't get Tolkien's point or themes, or morality, or anything. They are movies that read The Lord of the Rings and think, "what a sprawling adventure!" But that's not the book: the book is a Catholic anti-war screed written by an aging philologist and Old English fancier who had served in World War I and spent most of his time composing this novel under the nightmare of World War II. And sure, Tolkien himself denied that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory, but you'd have to be completely ignorant of the context or stunningly inattentive not to see any echoes of the wars of the 20th Century in the text (certainly, I'm not the first person to spot a trace of the notorious No Man's Lands of WWI's trench warfare in Tolkien's description of the barren, ash-covered Mordor).
At heart, The Lord of the Rings is about the temptation to violence, and resisting or not resisting that temptation; and it is about saving what is good and peaceful from what is crushing and destructive (the staunchly traditional Tolkien having a slightly patrician idea of what "peaceful" living consisted of, but no matter). In the case of the latter, we have the matter of the Scouring of the Shire; on one reading (the one I subscribe to), the point to which the entire plot is building from its very first line - a group of innocents goes and fights in the wars, and then returns to find that their beloved home has been corrupted, and then they must fight there, innocence being irrevocably conquered by experience. And the Scouring of the Shire, of course, isn't here - it's in the shitty 1980 Rankin/Bass cartoon The Return of the King, but it's not here.
And on experience replacing innocence, and the other theme of violence and morality: there's a thread that goes not just through The Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit as well, and it's conveniently flagged in multiple speeches. In the books, three hobbits become, for some period, the Ringbearer: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee. Every one of them feels some measure of pain for their contact with the ring; every one of them is given the chance to travel to the West, symbolically a place of healing and peace before dying (this is only implied as some indefinite future for Sam in the narrative, but spelled out in the appendices). Every one of them, and this is the biggie, the one that gets specified in writing, has the chance to give in to the ring's evil, and kill the craven Gollum, and every one of them chooses not to do so: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand", says Gandalf of Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring; "now that I see him, I do pity him", echoes Frodo in The Two Towers. "He could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched", we read of Sam in The Return of the King.
The not-very-secret is that Sam, and not Frodo, is our entry into The Lord of the Rings: he has the final word, is the last one standing, and in letters, Tolkien observed that it was Sam's "domestication" of the sprawling mythos, appreciating everything in a common, rustic way that was meant to be the reader's way to access the familiar, living world of the story, rather than the arch, inhumane setting of the unpublished, unpublishable Silmarillion material. We are not Frodo; we are Sam. Sam's moral journey ends up being the most interesting, because Sam is the one we encounter the story through - when, given the choice between a limited third person voice that favors Sam, or favors Frodo, Tolkien nearly always picks Sam. Thus it is that the third act of mercy towards Gollum is the one that "pays". It is also why, of all the scenes in the whole 1000+ pages in which someone is tempted by the ring and either acts on that temptation (and typically dies), or resists, the only one written at a level that feels, rather than announces itself in grand, cod-medieval language, is when, in Return of the King, Sam is tempted by visions of using the ring to become a great gardener. It's simple to the point of rustic comedy, except stripped of any of the exaggerated homeliness with which Sam is frequently written: it's the point in the book where Tolkien is not offering the ring to a character, but directly to the reader. It is, in a way, the moral center of the book; certainly, between this scene and Sam's subsquent mercy towards Gollum, the moral message of The Lord of the Rings is at its clearest and brightest and most moving.
And, just like the Scouring of the Shire, those two scenes are not found in either version of the movie.
Do any of these omissions make Jackson's The Lord of the Rings bad epic moviemaking? No, not hardly. But they make it bad Tolkien, and it's all the reason I need to be glad that the Tolkien estate is so unlikely to ever let Wingnut Films get at any of the author's Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales materials, because that would be a fucking atrocity.