The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Looking back it is apparent how hard Game of Thrones (the television show; the books have more than one main influence) wanted to be The Lord of the Rings. Both books series have epic battles set within an historic sweep in fantasy worlds that in different ways mirror our own. The difference is, the showrunners behind Game of Thrones only seemed to notice the battles in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, somehow thinking that this was the reason audiences showed up.
In a way, they were partially right. When The Fellowship of the Rings came out I was unsure that anyone who was not already familiar with The Lord of the Rings would even come to see it. I was relieved that Peter Jackson was filming the whole thing simultaneously, as I didn't want to see a quality film (which I had no doubt that he would deliver) just sitting there, for years, as one third of the story with no conclusion. It has been frustrating having the majority of The Song of Ice and Fire written and available with no idea when we will see the final books, and this was the truth long before anyone thought of adapting those as a series - it was pure luck that A Feast for Crows came out at the time I was finishing the first three books in that series. The reason for the frustration is not because of wanting to see weird creatures bash each other, but because (especially with the books) one becomes involved in the lives of these characters. If you have read the books then you know what happens to Frodo and Sam, but if not and there is no promise that when you see the movie on the big screen that you will ever get that investment back, why bother?
Happily, things went much different. The movies were the big event of the early 2000s, and they got people picking up the book itself. Middle Earth was always an ancient realm filled with lore and magic, sometimes surprisingly pagan given Tolkien's Christian beliefs, and not just steeped in flash and thunder. This is something that Peter Jackson understood, especially when bringing this trilogy to an end, and something that was sorely not understood by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who when faced with wrapping up a series that, at the time, had no ending from the original author, completely missed. The Song of Ice and Fire is much like The Lord of the Rings, in which we care about what will happen with everyone involved, and don't want to feel betrayed in the end, and that no amount of giant set pieces will ever make up for it.
It also doesn't help that when it comes to epic fantasy battles, it is doubtful that anything, in fantasy literature or on screen, will ever equal that of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
Before we get to that, however, we once again join Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) on their way to Mordor - that is, after we get a bit of Gollum's back story on how the ring corrupted him. Frodo himself is being dragged down by the weight of his burden, and Gollum is doing is best to drive a wedge between the two friends so that he can get the "Precious" back once again. Part of his plan is the way he plans on leading the pair into Mordor - through Cirith Ungol, a series of tunnels in which dwells a giant spider named Shelob.
On another front, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) learns from Saruman (Christopher Lee) that Sauron's forces are massing to attack Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Gandalf and Pippin (Billy Boyd) head to the city to warn its steward Denethor (John Noble) of the impending attack, but are met with indifference, leading Gandalf to prepare and lead the city's defense himself. This is no small feat, as the attack is being led by the Witch King of Angmar (Lawrence Makoare), the foremost of the Nazgul. Meanwhile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Theoden (Bernard Hill) rally the Rohirrim to come to Gondor's aid. While even the armies that Theoden can manage are far outnumbered by Sauron's forces, Aragorn, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) attempt to enlist an army of a different sort to aid them.
Like any good story does, this brings back everyone that was scattered at the end of Fellowship (everyone still alive, that is) through the coarse of two different battles, one before the city of Minas Tirith (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields) and another before the gates of Mordor itself. Unlike most movies of its type it forgoes ending things after the final battle and main climax has happened. While there is no "happily ever after," things are brought to a conclusion.
Keep in mind that this movie ran nearly three and a half hours in the theater. With everything that was cut out (and quite a bit was; the only way to really get the full narrative is to watch the extended versions) it runs almost an hour longer, and the final version released later on Blu-Ray adds another 9 minutes onto that. The other films in the series were significantly longer in their extended forms, but to get the full impact of The Return of the King, you have to be willing to invest over four and a half hours in one movie. In the end it is an investment that is quite worth the time, much more than it is with some movies barely hitting the 90-minute mark.
Since the movies were all filmed at the same time there's no real fatigue felt in the actors playing the characters, so everything that was great about them before is great here. The advantage is that at this point everything that has been said about them is proven to be true. There is a bit of foreshadowing in how Legolas will be ruined in the later trilogy of The Hobbit, but he still isn't made into an invincible super hero at this point. Jackson, though, should have known better, because the scene where Legolas does his little Super Mario movies on a crumbling bridge in The Battle of the Five Armies is one of the shoddiest bits of CGI ever filmed, and his slide down an oliphant's trunk in The Return of the King is one of the few times where it looks cheap this time around.
Largely, most of it holds up. The Two Towers began to expand the scope and reveal the odds that our heroes were truly facing, while The Return of the King shows them overcoming those odds. In that manner we are back to much of what impressed me in The Fellowship of the Rings, where scenes are often filmed as if they were paintings. Gandalf and Pippin's arrival in Minas Tirith is a beautiful example, with almost every scene being something one would want to hang on a wall and marvel at the bits of detail. It is also important that the mixture of practical and computer effects hold up when considering how important the central battle is to the story. In the end, we get more than we expect: hordes of goblins and orcs, flying Nazgul, mountain trolls and the Haradrim, making their appearance on giant pachyderms, all working on Sauron's side. The heroes, meanwhile, have the horse riders of the Rohirrim, the resolve of the defenders of Minas Tirith to literally hurl pieces of their own city at the enemy and, at one point, a literal army of the dead sweeping over the battlefield. It is truly one of the most awe-inspiring action sequences ever put on film.
It is an almost perfect film, marred here and there by effects that looked pretty bad when it came out (Gollum's demise being the worst). Still, those are forgiveable when matched with such scenes as the lighting of the signal fires and the final parting of ways for the remaining characters. Unfortunately, that last part seems to be where most people have the problem with the film, not realizing that they are an important part of the mythology from the books themselves. Just be thankful that Saruman was noticeably killed off; in the book, he makes his way back to the Shire, and after all the other work they have done, our Hobbit heroes end up having to save their friends and families. Like the scenes with Tom Bombadil, this benefits from having it trimmed, as even in the book it felt like one thing too many - something that Tolkien, as great a writer as he was, often was guilty of. Peter Jackson cutting this portion out, which had no bearing on the rest of the story, makes the final series of departures much more effective and, yes, it is needed to show them all in order to bring the Third Age of Middle Earth to a close.
We will shortly be at the two-decade point since The Fellowship of the Rings was released, and the influence of Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings continues to be felt throughout numerous movies and television shows, just as the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's books is felt throughout fantasy literature and role playing. In both case it is a formula that is easy to copy, but not easy to match in depth of character and emotion. Not even Jackson himself was able to equal what he put on screen when he returned to Middle Earth to present us his version of The Hobbit. No movie, or book, can ever reach perfection, but some can certainly come as near as possible.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Time: 263 minutes
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies
Director: Peter Jackson