The Return of the King, review by Greg Wright
Symphonic. I can find no better single word to describe the design, execution, and impact of The Return of the King.
Conventional wisdom dictates that movie scripts be designed and function in much the same way as a short story; another apt comparison would be the musical form of the overture.
And just as most stories are short in comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, so are most movies mere overtures in comparison to Peter Jackson’s unprecedented cinematic achievement. A running time of three-plus hours certainly allows a design reminiscent of a symphony’s multiple, distinct movements—even, as in this case, the many “false” endings for which symphonies are often criticized.
Other classic films of the past, of course, have also felt symphonic—Amadeus, Apocalypse Now!, Lawrence of Arabia, even Saving Private Ryan. What distinguishes Jackson’s magnum opus, however, is that the tempo of his cinematic symphony’s final movement is largo—very slow. Proportionately, Jackson spends nearly as much time on his denouement—the “wrapping up” of the story—as does Tolkien. And Jackson’s daring pace, perfectly in harmony with the spirit of Tolkien, pays off in a terribly satisfying and haunting experience.
It’s well that audiences have a chance to catch their collective breath. Sequences of The Return of the King stack up as some of the most visceral entertainment ever conceived—too intense, I would imagine, even for many teenagers. The sequence in the Morgul Vale, for instance, had me literally cowering in my seat, even as Frodo himself cowered from the cry of the Witch King. I would never have anticipated that the Black Breath could be so effectively evoked through film.
And the battle of the Pelennor fully conveys the scale and horrific cost of genocidal conflict. I was convinced that this truly was a battle to determine the fate of men—a “war to end all wars.” The elephant-like Mumakil may have been overdone, and purists—like myself—will chafe at Jackson’s treatment of the Black Ships; but the stand which Eowyn takes at her fallen King’s side, facing down the Witch King of Angmar astride his winged steed, is a moment that makes Jackson’s rocky road to Minas Tirith worth whatever anguish it might have brought.
Still, Jackson knows that the heart of this story is not cities, dark riders, or vast armies. It’s the hobbits, and the struggles they face in playing their own small parts in the War of the Ring.
Early on, Frodo and Sam discuss their dwindling food supplies—which Jackson craftily utilizes to illustrate how the Ring’s power can cause Frodo to doubt even his trusty gardener—and Sam still anticipates “the journey home.” Similarly, Merry and Pippin look forward to the day they can relax “back at the Green Dragon after a hard day’s work.”
So it’s a shock to Sam and Frodo—and dismaying to the audience—when they realize they aren’t going to need food for the return trip. It’s saddening, when Pippin and Merry are separated, to hear Pippin ask, “We’ll see each other soon, won’t we? Won’t we?” Merry can only reply, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And honestly, because Jackson has been brave enough to tweak plot points ever since the hobbits left the Shire, we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen, either.
So we are left to work through the hobbits’ despair with them, feeling, like Pippin, that “we have no song for great halls and evil times.” All we have is what Gandalf calls “a fool’s hope,” as dire times drive men to fell deeds. “Go now,” one character says as the darkness surrounds him, “and die in what way seems best to you.”
But in keeping with Tolkien’s vision—with his belief that his art could “rekindle an old light” in the darkness of this world’s anguish—the foolishness of hope triumphs over the despair at the ends of pragmatic wisdom. Frodo may well poignantly ask, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life?” And he may justifiably debunk the subtitle of Bilbo’s story: “There and Back Again.” But that’s still not the end of the tale.
“The ships have come to carry you home,” Annie Lennox sings over the closing credits. How will we feel when that day comes for ourselves? Will we feel, like Peter Jackson expressed in interviews, that our story has ultimately been depressing—that whatever triumph we have experienced is but a temporary respite from the “long defeat”?
Or, as screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh alternately anticipate, will we find freedom and release?
As they worked on the final phase of this film, Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh watched a young man be taken from this world by cancer. Was that the end of his story? Tolkien believed in a life after death, a “place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed.” So do Boyens and Walsh, in a way. “The journey doesn’t end here,” their Gandalf says, using Tolkien’s words. Death is “just another path, one that we all must take. As the gray rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and turns to silver glass, then you’ll see it. White shores; and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
And a languid conclusion to a satisfying symphony.
Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).
The Return of the King is available to stream at Amazon.
Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!