SPOILER ALERT: This is the final installment of The Lord of the Rings franchise. As such, there will be plot points in this movie that will be spoilers for, not only this installment, but the entire franchise. If that doesn't bother you, feel free to read this post. This is certainly one of my all-time favorite movies! However, if you have more than three hours to spare and would like to see the movie without having anything spoiled, I encourage you to watch it before reading.
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in elementary school. I remember being completely enthralled by it. For a few years as I transitioned from high school to college, I read through the series each year. It is quite simply a series that I hold extremely dear.
Tolkien was obviously a great writer. But it was the great care he took to create full worlds and workable languages that deserves the highest credit. This was his life's work, and he embued it with passion and love.
It is a testament to the work of Peter Jackson that I think the same can be said of his work as director of this movie. He took painstaking care to create a cinematic world worthy of Tolkien's literary one. The minatures used to bring massive cities and structures to life on screen or the copious amounts of prosthetics and costumes used to visualize orcs and hobbits are just a few of the ways Jackson showed how much he cared about this story.
At its most basic, that's what The Lord of the Rings is - a great story. It follows in the line of the great epic journeys before it - The Odyssey, King Arthur, and many others. King Arthur is of specific importance here, as Tolkien said that he set out to create an English mythology. The Lord of the Rings is epic in scope. It is grand. The movies surely follow that blueprint. But what they also got right - what happens to be my favorite aspect of this story - is the importance of the "small" things in life. Friends. Family. Home. Those are the things we fight for. And we will go to great lengths to secure them.
The Return of the King begins by giving us a flashback to a time long before the events of even the first film - The Fellowship of the Ring. It shows how the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) came to be in his current form. He is a key figure in this story, and a stroke of genius in how Tolkien created his character is the fact that he isn't all that different from the hobbits. His beginning was much like theirs. We see how he came to find The Ring and how he lost it to Bilbo (Ian Holm). We follow his storyline all the way up until the present moment - when he is guiding Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to Mordor to destroy The Ring. Mordor, The Land of Shadow. It is there that they most go, to the worst place in all of Middle-Earth, to destroy The Ring. It is the only place where this tool of the Dark Lord Sauron (Sala Baker) can finally be unmade. The two hobbits need a guide, and Gollum has experience on these dark paths.
We then move to the storyline that is proceeding simultaneously to the journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is leading the charge of the last defense of Middle Earth against the growing forces of Sauron. In the previous installment of the trilogy, The Two Towers, this group had helped Rohan defeat the forces of the fallen wizard, Saruman (Christopher Lee - only appears in the extended edition of this film). Now, Sauron's army poses an even greater threat - total destruction of all they hold dear.
Gandalf is joined by a familiar group to viewers of the first two films - Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). We first see them in this film as they are attending to the ruins of Isengard, Saruman's former stronghold. In the midst of the wreckage, they find a palantir - an ancient seeing stone of a bygone era. It allows the wielder to view what is happening through one of the other stones. At night, Pippin cannot help himself. He looks in the stone, not considering who may be on the other end. In the stone he sees war, and great armies. He finally sees The Eye - the manifestation of Sauron's evil. Pippin goes through great strain, but his foolishness brings a silver lining. Sauron now thinks Pippin is the halfling that has been foretold to bring about his ruin. He gives no thought to Frodo and Sam, who are now nearing his border. Gandalf takes Pippin with him to Minas Tirith in the realm of Gondor- the place where the people of Middle Earth will make their final stand. He leaves the others behind to convince King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) to come to Gondor's aid. Theoden hesitates at first, but then we are given one of the many great sequences of this movie - the lighting of the beacons. This ancient sign was a way for Gondor and Rohan to communicate in times of need. Jackson handles the epic scope of the shots beautifully. It is an extremely memorable scene. By the time the final beacon is lit, King Theoden has no choice. Rohan will answer.
Meanwhile, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have made their way to Minas Morgul - the stronghold of the Witch-King of Angmar (Lawrence Makoare). He is Sauron's greatest servant, and they watch in horror from a craggy outcropping as he leads his massive army towards the coming battle. What power do such small individuals have in the face of such massive movements of power? It is one point of many where the hobbits' task seems hopeless. Nevertheless, they continue. They are spurred forward by an inner drive. Love of their friends, yes. They certainly want to keep the promise they made to so many. But I think it is something else that pushes them forward in the darkness. Thoughts of grass, trees, and a cold brew at the local inn. The Shire, their home. That is what they think of in the toughest moments. They go forward, because there is no going back unless they finish their task.
Tolkien fought in World War I. Many wonder whether or not The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the bravery of men in both World Wars in the face of evil. Tolkien repeatedly denied that his most famous work was an allegory. I'll side with him. But I do think he was telling a story true to his experience. I can't imagine that he could have written anything that didn't contain some of what he learned or experienced in the trenches of war. Had they not succeeded in their mission, they would not have had a home to go back to, either.
Back in Rohan, Aragorn is helping Theoden gather his forces. He is then given a message by a mysterious hooded figure. We come to find out that this figure is none other than Lord Elrond - an Elven-King and one of the greatest powers in Middle Earth. He has come to tell Aragorn that the Lady Arwen is dying. She, as Elrond's daughter and an elvish maiden, had the choice to leave the mortal world and join the elves of old across the Sundering Seas in the land of Aman. It is a place of immortality, where the elves go for their eternal rest. But Arwen chose a mortal life, because of her love for Aragorn. Arwen will live forever, but will be doomed to "fade" as the power of the elves dwindles. Her choice means that, at some point she will outlive Aragorn and be left only with her grief. Yet she chooses that over leaving Middle Earth and Aragorn to their fate.
There is still hope, however, and it rests on the shoulders of Aragorn. He, we discover, is the man foretold of in an ancient prophecy. Even if you've never read the books or watched the movies, you've probably heard these lines in pop culture or seen them on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.
Aragorn is the key. He is the reason for the title of this movie. It is he who will reclaim the throne of Gondor that has been dormant for many long years. It is he who will bring peace to Middle Earth and to the free peoples who inhabit its many lands. And it is he who will marry Arwen and live out their long years together. But none of it will happen if Sauron wins. And it is clear that they do not have the strength to match him in force. Aragorn will face him nonetheless, and after his meeting with Elrond, he is armed with a formidable weapon.
Isildur, a great King of Gondor, had been the one to cut The Ring from Sauron's hand. He did so with the shards of Narsil, his father's sword. Those shards were passed down through the ages by the descendants of Isildur. They had come to Aragron, and the blade was now made anew. It was called Anduril - The Flame of the West. With it came what small hope they could muster.
There was also another prophecy that involved Aragorn. Isildur had called for aid from neighboring peoples in an ancient battle. One group had promised aid, but in the time of need they did not come. Isildur cursed them, saying that only his heir could call them forth from their ghostly prison in the hills of Dunharrow. The time had come.
Aragorn took Gimli and Legolas and walked The Paths of The Dead, leaving the army of Rohan to prepare for battle. This is another memorable scene, both for its masterful use of dread and tension and for another epic sequence when the Dead Army is revealed.
The pieces are now moving. Sauron is gathering his army in Mordor as Frodo, Sam, and Gollum come ever nearer to their goal. Gandalf and Pippin are in Minas Tirith, preparing for battle. Merry is doing the same in Rohan with King Theoden and his forces. And Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are seeking reinforcements from an ancient pact.
After passing Minas Morgul, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum face a steep staircase carved into the mountains. It is a path that very few know. Gollum has travelled it before, so he knows what lurks high above in the shadowy peaks. The hobbits know nothing of this land. They know their guide is treacherous, but they have no choice. He knows the way. To them, that can be both helpful and dangerous.
Tolkien, and consequently Jackson, do a masterful job of showcasing the psychological effects of obsession. That is a key to this story. Gollum wielded The Ring for many years. Once you have been a Ringbearer, it never loses its grip on your mind. That is especially true if you have worn it often, as Gollum did. Frodo has been told not to wear it by Gandalf and others. Instead, it hangs from a chain around his neck. Gollum sees it daily, and it gnaws at his mind. He is a pitiful creature. He knows that to help these hobbits is the good and right thing. But he desires The Ring. He would go to great lengths to get it back.
Let me take this opportunity to say that, at this point, the movie takes a fairly major diversion from the way these events take place in the books. However, when watching these films, you have to keep in mind how detailed and intricate Tolkien's original stories were. It would simply be impossible to adapt them word-for-word to the screen. Jackson's job was to recreate the story for the screen in a way that preserved the essence of Tolkien's narrative. If you watch these movies looking for every diversion from the book, you will quickly become sidetracked and miss the point of the entire work altogether.
At the top of the stair, they meet the ancient giant spider, Shelob. This account actually takes place in The Two Towers book. The more egregious diversion, in my opinion, is that Jackson separates Frodo and Sam before they meet Shelob due to infighting caused by Gollum. That never happens in the book. Frodo and Sam are separated, but it is due to the labryinth of Shelob's lair. Please hear me, I'm not talking out of both sides of my mouth here. Jackson needs to be given full range to make creative decisions in the pursuit of adapting Tolkien's work. Having said that, I do disagree with his decision to separate Frodo and Sam in this way. I think he is trying to show how fully The Ring has corrupted Frodo's mind. However, in Tolkien's version, I don't think The Ring ever corrupted Frodo so much as to make him forget home and his beloved Sam. In spite of that, I don't think Jackson's decision takes much away from his work on this film at all. It simply is fodder for nerdy debate. :)
I don't like spiders, but I've never been all that scared by this representation of Shelob. Maybe it's because I know there aren't any spiders out there that are actually the size of a house. Still, I wonder if I would act with the same valor as Sam does here. He comes to Frodo's aid, even after his friend has rejected him. He simply cannot leave Frodo to face Mordor alone. Thank goodness. Had he not made that decision, hope truly might have been lost.
They narrowly escape Shelob as well as a desperate attack from Gollum. But Frodo is pierced by Shelob's stinger and left in a webby cocoon. Sam finds Frodo and assumes him to be dead. He then hears orcs coming down the road. In a moment of decision, he takes The Ring from Frodo and hides. As he overhears the orcs talking over Frodo's body, he becomes horrified. Frodo is still alive, and they take him to their tower to torture him.
By this time, the armies of Mordor have reached the outskirts of Gondor. The leader of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble), has foolishly sent his son, Faramir (David Wenham), to face them. Denethor loved his other son, Boromir (Sean Bean - appears only in the extended edition of this film), far more. But Boromir died in the trilogy's first installment. Now Denethor is left to fume in his tower. For he too holds a palantir and has seen the force of Mordor. Faramir returns near death, and the people of the city begin to lose hope. Gandalf assumes control of the city as Denethor begins to fall into madness.
The armies reach the gates of Minas Tirith, and their number is beyond comprehesion. A legion of orcs and other creatures faces the lonely city. No word has come from Rohan. Night falls, and hope falls with it.
After an initial defense, orcs break down the gates of the city. They pour in by the hundreds, killing as they go. Trolls and hideous beasts destroy all in their path. At the same time, Denethor prepares a pyre on which he and his son will burn like the heathen kings of old. The city is lost.
But then, a new sound comes on the wind.
It is the horn of Rohan, and they have come only just in time. Theoden musters his riders on the hills overlooking the Pelennor Fields and The White City. Here is a great scene of epic proportions. The music starts faintly and grows to a rousing chorus. The actors play as if the world is at hand. And the choreography of what we are seeing is nothing short of symphonic. It is epic. It is grand. It is the Ride of the Rohirrim and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Mark it down with any epic scene in cinema history. To watch it is to be pulled into the story and experience it as if it were real. The Rohirrim swarm down upon the hoards of Mordor. The horses tear through the army, and hope is rekindled.
There are many more epic scenes in this lengthy battle. There are the mumakil - large elephants that look like mountains on the horizon. There is the epic entrance of Aragorn and his prophesied army of ghosts. But none other showcases the power of Tolkien and Jackson's work here than the fight between Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Merry, and The Witch-King of Angmar.
Eowyn is Theoden's niece. As is the custom of Rohan, she was not supposed to ride to battle. She was supposed to stay back and help care for the kingdom in Theoden's absence. Merry was also given the same command. They thought him too small for battle. Nevertheless, they both rode to battle. In the midst of the chaotic fight, they end up making as big an impact as any.
The Witch-King of Angmar bears down on Theoden upon his black, winged monster. But before the beast can consume her king, Eowyn steps in its path. The Witch-King scoffs at such a feeble attempt. But she stands her ground where many others would have cowered in fear. She hews off the large head of the beast with her sword. She then faces the Witch-King alone, as he reminds her of the prophecy that no man can kill him.
Yet, she is not entirely alone. Merry was thrown from his horse, but he awakes to see the Witch-King moving towards Eowyn. In his own act of bravery, Merry musters himself and stabs his tiny blade right into the leg of the Witch-King. He is hobbled, and Eowyn takes her chance. She removes her mask and utters one of the movie's more famous lines as she stabs her sword straight into the nothingness amid his helmet.
I remember the cheers and sounds of jubliation that went up in the theater when that line was uttered. It remains one of my more memorable theater-going experiences.
The people of Middle Earth win the battle beyond all hope. Gandalf saves Faramir from the pyre of Denethor, but Denethor meets a bitter end. Even after their glorious success, all of them must once again face their own bitter fate. Mordor's power has only been slightly weakened. Their own was nearly spent. They cannot win this fight through sheer force. They must choose another way.
They choose to create a diversion to give a greater chance to their only remaining hope - the hobbits carrying The Ring. The remaining armies of Middle Earth march on the Gates of Mordor to draw out Sauron's army and give Frodo and Sam a clear path. Had they known the perilous point of the hobbit's journey, they may have fallen completely into despair.
Frodo had been taken captive by orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam had come to the tower to retrieve him. Thanks to the diversion of Aragorn and company, the tower is mostly empty. Sam fights off a few orcs until he reaches the highest tower. He rescues Frodo, and they escape to the endless wasteland of Mordor.
Again, thanks to the armies of Middle Earth, it is greatly deserted. But Sauron now senses something amiss. His Eye is endlessly searching the Plains of Gorgoroth. Just as he is nearing the hobbits who are so close to their goal, the armies reach the Gate, and his Eye is distracted. Frodo and Sam make their way up the slope of Mount Doom, the only place where The Ring can be destroyed.
At the Gates of Mordor miles away, the remaining band of free fighters makes their final stand. Aragorn leads them in a valiant display of courage. He fully reveals himself to the Eye of Sauron as Isildur's heir. They fight against the endless hoards of Mordor as they cling to the final strands of hope. Their hope is in Frodo and Sam.
Thus we come to the movie's poignant final scenes. As Frodo and Sam are nearing the Crack of Doom where they can destroy The Ring, Gollum returns. They thought he had fallen in the heights of Cirith Ungol. But he had only been set back on his quest to retrieve The Ring. Now, as they neared its destruction, Gollum would at least have his say on how The Ring's fate would be decided. They struggle on the slope before Frodo breaks away and runs into the Crack of Doom. There, above the fumes and fires, Frodo stands with The Ring outstretched. All evil in Middle Earth will perish if he can only drop it.
But The Ring is despicably treacherous to its keeper.
Frodo cannot willingly discard it. So few in the history of The Ring have been able to. Instead, he puts The Ring on his finger, claiming it as his own. Instantly, Sauron is aware, as he always senses when someone else has put on The Ring. The Nazgul - his servants on winged steeds - wheel in the sky and speed off for Mount Doom. All hangs in the balance.
But Gollum knows The Ring better than most. Even though Frodo is invisible from putting on The Ring, Gollum follows his footprints and jumps on top of him at the edge of the fiery precipice. He bites the finger off Frodo's hand and takes back The Ring. Even as he stands admiring his precious trinket, he steps too far. Frodo, in his anger, pushes him over the edge. Gollum falls to his death, and The Ring collapses into fire and ash.
As Frodo hangs from the edge, all evil in Middle Earth fades away. Sauron is no more. His servants run and flee. The mission is complete. And yet, there are still two hobbits far from home.
Sam, in a beautiful scene of friendship at its strongest, pulls Frodo up by his bloodied hand. As Mount Doom erupts in a fiery blaze, they wait for the end of the world. They did their job. Though they did it to save their homeland, they would never see it again. As they prepare for death, they talk about their home. The screen fades to black.
Some have noted that this movie seems to "end" at multiple times. Look, it is a long movie. But that is what happens when you have such an intricate world to portray. I honestly do not think this movie could be edited down much more than the theatrical cut already has been. Yes, I may love the material more than most. But I think everyone can find poignancy and entertainment in this story.
No, the movie does not end there. Frodo awakes in Minas Tirith with Gandalf, Aragorn, and the entire crew. Gandalf had used the help of the Great Eagles to save Frodo and Sam from the fires of Mount Doom. Now they are safe. Finally, Sam walks in. They've done it. They saved the world, and now they can go home.
But what happens after you save the world? Who helps restore all that has been lost? That is why the movie is called The Return of the King and not The Journey of the Hobbits. The hobbits are the ones who finally complete the mission, and they are given the honor they deserve before the entire city of Minas Tirith. But it is Aragorn, the new King of Gondor, who will rule the new Middle Earth. He is crowned as King, and Middle Earth is at peace.
But some wounds cannot be mended. Some of the players in this story have experienced too much pain. As the hobbits travel back home, it is clear that there is no longer a home for Frodo. At least, not one in Middle Earth. He becomes one of the few non-elves to be taken across the sea to Elvenhome. We get another beautiful scene as he, Gandalf, and Bilbo take one of the final ships to leave the shores of Middle Earth. The movie ends as Sam returns home, with his wife and children, to a hobbit hole in the Shire.
What is a story so epic all about? It is a beautiful piece of cinema. It portrays some of the most epic scenes in my memory. It is a fantastic work on a massively large scale.
And yet, as I said before, I feel its beauty is in the small moments. Like a scene amid the Battle of Minas Tirith where Gandalf and Pippin are sitting on a battlement. Pippin tells Gandalf that he didn't think life would end this way. Gandalf then says lines that are nearly word-for-word from a section of The Fellowship of the Ring that I think are some of the most beautiful in all of Tolkien's writing.
Home is worthwhile. Even in our darkest moments, we find peace from thinking of home. Home can mean many things. It can be our physical home, it can be our family or a childhood friend, or it can be a distant memory that always brings a smile. It can even be a deeply-held belief that we hold more dearly than anything else. Small moments and small things are important. Because a little garden on a green hill can spur on the toppling of a regime. And those among us who we think to be small and unimportant can shape the fortunes of all.
Note on content: This movie does contain violence and some thrilling or scary situations. But there is no sexual content or nudity, and there is no language. It was rated PG-13, and should be appropriate for most teenagers. But the battle scenes do display quite a bit of fantasy gore and violence. You should also be aware that it is a very long film - over three hours. Having said that, it is without a doubt one of my favorite films, and I highly recommend it.