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Today marks the anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – or, in other words, the best of the three films in the trilogy franchise.
Now, before you start whispering manically as you stroke your precious director’s cut DVD Blu-ray copies of The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, let me show my working.
Here’s a tasty little recap to whet your whistle and sharpen your axe as we delve into Middle Earth:
Let’s start with the brass tacks, shall we? Globally, The Return of the King is one of the highest grossing films in cinema history and made more than a pretty Dwarf-hoard.
The film won 11 Academy Awards at the 2004 Oscar ceremony including Best Picture, sharing the world record for most academy awards received with Ben-Hur and Titanic.
It made history and became the first fantasy film to win Best Picture, ever. Even in hindsight, it’s safe to say the Golden gongs – enough to make Smaug salivate – are deserved.
All the films in the franchise have aged incredibly well in comparison to other CGI-based fantasy epics, which may or may not also feature Hobbits, released since.
Indeed, Fellowship and Two Towers earned four and two Academy Awards, respectively – primarily in the visual effects and sound departments.
Rightly so; Howard Shore’s Concerning Hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring is the icing on the soundtrack cake of music which pushes forward the emotional narrative of the trilogy superbly, and the animation used to humanise the creature Gollum in The Two Towers was just one example of how the CGI only improved as the trilogy progressed.
Here’s where it all began:
Admittedly, you cannot have either without the other. Let’s start from the beginning, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the epic exposition from Galadriel.
Fans of Fellowship – myself included – have argued nothing beats the uniting of the nine at The Council of Elrond in Rivendale to agree to help Frodo in his mission.
I raise you the moment Aragon, King of Men, tells the four Hobbits they bow to no man, the faces of new friends smiling at the memory of those lost along the way. Powerful stuff.
Here, I’ll concede, all films – the Fellowship is no exception – are better for the presence of Liv Tyler on a horse and Sean Bean, especially when his character’s inevitable death is quite so epic.
But, three arrows, a Balrog, and a few Ring Wraiths aside, the action in Fellowship simply doesn’t deliver the gut-wrenching fear and anticipation of, say the charge of the Rohirrim or the fight between Frodo and Gollum at the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King.
As though at the Doors of Durin, we viewers greet Fellowship like a friend and dutifully watch the comparatively mild peril with the memories of the Shire, childlike innocence and our heroes’ protectors close-by right up until the closing credits.
…Which brings us onto The Two Towers:
The Two Towers – appraised as the best of the trilogy according to Rotten Tomatoes – has its cinematic merits. The then Grey Wizard’s lofty escape does immediately spring, like Gandalf himself, to mind as the mark of a moodier, more daring movie spectacle.
But for all its welcome deep dive into the darkness of a Middle Earth in turmoil, the charm is somewhat lost with the separation of the Fellowship and the action somewhat diminished purely because The Two Towers serves mainly to push forward the trilogy narrative.
Amazingly, Jackson manages to avoid the usual Middle Chapter Syndrome synonymous with second instalments – smashing through them to create a great film in its own right.
But the narrative just doesn’t have the momentum of The Return of the King. ‘What about the breaching of Helms Deep?’, I hear you ask. Incredible cinema, I agree, and by no means the only jaw-dropping moment in the film.
However, it is definitely the main highlight and you do have to wait around a bit to get there, after quite a lot of ambling about slowly (especially in comparison with the entertaining rollercoaster ride that is The Return of the King).
Astounding though the scenes in Fangorn Forest are, there is a hell of a lot of walking. While Treebeard and the other Ents weren’t in any rush to get to the finish line, sometimes us easily-bored mere mortals can have too much of a good journey.
But, as Gimli says, faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.
So, despite the slowing of pace in The Two Towers, fans like me happily and eagerly followed the plot – which got stronger and stronger with each instalment – hungry for the catharsis a middle movie could never give.
Thus, to the beauty of The Return of the King, which goes deeper than Khazad-dûm, beyond the mechanisms of movie-making.
The film’s worth cannot be measured by the awards of Men – even though Jackson could just let the gongs do the talking as it still holds the record for highest Oscar sweep.
The Return of the King was the first fantasy film to receive the nod from the Academy at least in part because of its unprecedented ability to evoke an unbridled emotional reaction from audiences.
For me, this very relentlessness is the reason I shied away from re-watching The Return of the King, and thus have been so contrarily against recognising its brilliance for over a decade.
As a LOTR fan who until recently would’ve happily cast The Return of the King into Mount Doom declaring it the worst of the franchise, I am familiar with the criticisms of the third and final film.
After falling in love with the impassioned companionship of Fellowship and revelling in the continued courage of the characters in Two Towers, to say goodbye in The Return of the King was almost too much to bear.
So, a 15-year-old me left the cinema after many tears shed – especially after Samwise Gamgee recalls Rosie Cotton’s dancing as the lava rises on the slopes of Mount Doom – and the DVD remained on the shelf, until a recent LOTR marathon ensued when the whole trilogy came to Netflix.
Upon watching this time round, I came to realise The Return of the King achieves the impossible: It continues the action-packed momentum for those who have followed these everyday heroes on the longest journey in cinematic history and manages to execute the emotional pay-off which leaves us, not exhausted, but enraptured.
As the character arcs of those fictional beings we had come to cherish over an unprecedented 10-hour spectacle drew to a close, it was Return of the King which really showcased both the increasing maturity of Jackson’s storytelling and the characters themselves.
From Shirefolk to brave, pure-hearted warriors; from Stryder cowering in corners to the King who finds his purpose to lead the Army of the Dead; from the scruffy Gandalf the Grey to the saviour of Middle Earth; from a daughter and sister defined by men to the sword-maiden who slayed the Witch-king at The Battle of the Pelennor Fields; from an Elvish enemy in Legolas to a devoted Dwarf friend in Gimli; the characterisations throughout the final instalment are equal parts well-played, well-written and well-received.
With a little space and hindsight, I was able to better take in the age-rating boundary-pushing mature themes: The lives lost, the grief, the bravery, the battles won, the courage, the characters’ knowledge nothing would ever be the same, and the final bittersweet moments of catharsis in which fans also realise the trilogy is complete.
How does the phrase go again? First, the worst (according to numerous online polls in the case of LOTR); second, the best (likewise); third, the one with the hairy chest (but not according to the IMDb MetaScore, which ranks The Return of the King number one).
By that measure, hairy chest and grisly battle-bloodied teeth bared, The Return of the King cemented companionships started in Fellowship, took up the gauntlet thrown down by enemies in Two Towers and fights on to exceed expectations by winning battles deemed impossible in the blistering finale.
Yes, The Return of the King is long – and don’t get me started on the six fade to black endings or the omission of The Scouring of the Shire. So, on technicalities, it might not be the most artful or masterful rendering of the trilogy.
But it was Tolkein himself who wrote:
It is not the strength of the body, but the strength of the spirit.
And the spirit of The Return of the King is unbridled from the moment Merry and Pippin reunite with the Fellowship at Isengard to the Fool of a Took’s lighting of the Beacons and beyond.
From battles between father and son – I’m looking at you Denethor II, you tyrant – to reunions between old friends; from warring species fighting mythical beasts side by side, and Legolas destroying that Oliphant, it has it all, as well as the most fearsome commander of the trilogy in Gothmog.
And that’s just the Siege of Gondor.
That says nothing of Jackson’s gothic stylings throughout the film. Between decapitated heads, the pure paranoid addiction to the One Ring which nearly breaks the companionship between Frodo and Sam, and the encounter with the eight-legged Shelob, which I can still only watch from behind a pillow, it’s safe to say this is a scary film.
But, it’s also beautiful, often. I raise you the glowing gold memory-scape scenes narrating the whole story of Smeagol and the One Ring, up until his downfall, which audiences can now grieve for in its tragedy.
Jackson renders the poignant moments perfectly, never letting from outweigh substance, but allowing the two to compliment each other.
For example, the beauty of the Grey Havens or the Elven Ringbearers never outshines the sadness of Frodo’s departure to the Undying Lands.
Likewise, the exquisite costumes of Aragorn and Arwen on their wedding day is nothing compared to the powerful emotional outpouring embodied by the crowds, their smiles now reflecting a hope for harmony and peace.
And what of the flickering glances between friends over final pints between the four brave young Hobbits, as Sam asks Rosie Cotton out at the Green Dragon before the merry band’s story draws to a close?
Pints and The Feels aside, the important moralising nature of the tale reaches its climax with The Return of the King, too, at The Black Gate.
Here, Aragorn gives the realms of Man a chance for retribution – after a trilogy of pretty weak behaviour and bleak outcomes.
Self-serving though it may be, I defy any member of Mankind watching to not be pretty chuffed and inspired by their willpower to do what is right at the pivotal moment – and their enjoyment of the just desserts for this incomparable spectacle of human bravery.
On that note, it’s your time to do the right thing. It is this day:
This titan of film, king among cinema, deserves its rightful crown, once and for all.
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