Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen
2003 saw Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy come to a resounding and overwhelming end with ‘The Return of the King’. The two films previously, had completely realigned what I would expect from film in general, so I was eagerly anticipating the final instalment. Many things were said in the build up to the release, where some of the cast were saying that this film was on another level to the previous two; a ridiculous comment considering how I felt about the predecessors.
The final instalment sees Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) reach Mordor in their quest to destroy the Ring, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and co reach Minas Tirith for, as Gandalf puts it, “the great battle of our time”.
I loved each of the first two movies more than any other that I had seen, and I still feel that way now. But there is one exception; ‘The Return of the King’ was and is a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a word so often used and so rarely justified (The Hateful Eight, for instance) but the film has earned this prestigious title because of the sheer artistry, unparalleled cinematic experience and profound emotions at its core. No film has moved me like ‘The Return of the King’ has, and I doubt I ever will be so affected by any film in the future.
Other films released in the wake of this behemoth were mere pretenders to Jackson’s Lord of cinematic history. For instance, ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ was akin to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, borrowing many aspects in its battle sequences, and yet had neither the heart nor the immersion of Jackson’s film. ‘The Return of the King’ transcends the world of film. For me, it’s a work of art comparable to the works of Monet, Mozart and Shakespeare, and I do not write those words lightly. Jackson’s movie stands as a test to what can be achieved in filmmaking and really raises an important question; why don’t all filmmakers aspire to the same level of achievement?
The battle sequences really are a wonder of our time; the only other film comparable to the scale and success of the battle sequences is its predecessor, ‘The Two Towers’. The battle scenes are constructed with beautiful choreography, ground-breaking visual effects and more importantly, enough substance to evoke more than just exhilaration. The way the Nazgul fly through the clouds, the goosebump-inducing moment when the Riders of Rohan appear over the hill as the sun beams down majestically, the sheer brutality and intensity of the fight scenes; they all contribute to a sequence that is unmatched in terms of jaw-dropping awe.
But there is more to the film than the battle scenes. What really makes the film work is the powerful story of friendship that has blossomed between the whole Fellowship, in particular, Frodo and Sam. The performances of all the cast reach their peak in this movie and what a time for that to happen. Viggo Mortensen and Sir Ian McKellen continue their exceptional work with both their characters, and of course Elijah Wood really comes into his own in this picture. Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum also continues to impress, as the fate of the Ring and its bearer is decided. But for me, it is Sean Astin who steals the film away from every other player on screen. He evokes friendship, loyalty and above all, courage, in a nuanced performance. The character’s innocence is perfectly conveyed; he is both world weary from his experiences to this point, but his love for his dear friend Frodo outweighs any trauma he may have experienced. In many ways Sam is the character that personifies what a Hobbit really is; innocent, loyal, and courageous.
The climactic scene which cuts between Aragorn and his army marching on the doors to the Black Gate, and Frodo and Sam literally crawling up the Mountain of Fire is my favourite sequence in any movie. You could take this eight minute sequence and use it to really show what these films are about; huge CGI blockbuster window-dressing with an art house core. When Sam carries Frodo (and the Ring) up the mountain, despite complete exhaustion, it moves me to uncontrollable tears. It is a moment of pure cinema; beautiful imagery and overwhelming sounds coming together in perfect harmony. It is the sum of the films’ parts; the heart of the film beating before our very eyes.
Of course, as I’ve aged I do notice some small, yet noticeable cracks in the picture. Despite my rating below, I would never profess to this being a perfect film, objectively speaking. The scenes involving the undead army makes the middle act sag a little, and of course the multiple endings which the film is now famous for, could have done with some more precise editing. But these are minor quibbles that have taken me well over a decade to see; such is the power of this movie.
I traditionally watch this film every winter, just as the leaves start to fall. Much like the leaves falling from their respective trees, every year I am blown away. This is the single greatest film in the history of cinema and I will not, for one minute, apologise for that bold statement. You can talk about why a film is great until you are blue in the face; it could be the cinematography, the score and the performances. Sometimes it is simply because of the way it makes you feel. I fell in love with films as a result of ‘The Return of the King’ and for that Peter Jackson, I thank you eternally.