The Lord of the Rings (III):
The Return of the King

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Based on The Return of the King,
third of three volumes of the novel
The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Director: Peter Jackson

  • Sean Astin — Samwise "Sam" Gamgee
  • Cate Blanchett — Galadriel
  • Orlando Bloom — Legolas
  • Billy Boyd — Peregrin "Pippin" Took
  • Bernard Hill — Theoden
  • Ian Holm — Bilbo Baggins
  • Christopher Lee — Saruman
  • Ian McKellen — Gandalf
  • Dominic Monaghan — Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck
  • Viggo Mortensen — Aragorn / Strider
  • John Noble — Denethor
  • Miranda Otto — Eowyn
  • John Rhys-Davies — Gimli; Treebeard (voice)
  • Andy Serkis — Gollum / Smeagol
  • Liv Tyler — Arwen
  • Karl Urban — Eomer
  • Hugo Weaving — Elrond
  • David Wenham — Faramir
  • Elijah Wood — Frodo Baggins
  • etc

New Line Cinema: 2003

201 minutes (original release)
250 minutes (extended release)
January 2004

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.


With this film, Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings is complete and can be seen and judged as a whole. And it proves to be an impressively satisfying re-creation. The Two Towers wasn't entirely satisfactory, but The Return of the King seems to have gotten back on track. The result isn't perfect, but both this final film and the entire trilogy are far better than Tolkien fans had any reason to hope for when New Line Studios first announced this project.

Some of the unsatisfactory parts come from the sheer scale of what Jackson is attempting. He had to fit the events of a thick book, plus a few chapters from the preceding book, into the narrower compass of a film. Even with nearly twice the screen time of a typical film, he ended up rushing things. The climactic movement of the story, from Frodo's captivity and the battle of the Pelennor Fields to the final confrontation with Sauron, seems to rush by in moments, with none of the long weary march across Mordor or the nervewracking wait for Sauron's next assault on the West.

At the same time, Jackson links these two movements together in such a way that the relation between them is vividly real. The viewer sees exactly how the forces of the West are engaged in a war of disinformation and covert operations against a stronger foe. This is all in the book, but Jackson brings it into focus. In fact, in general, Jackson is excellent at using crosscuts and parallel narratives to show all the events of the story as a single action.

And the nature of that action is war. That's one of the most radical things about this film: it shows the willingness to go to war as a virtue. At a key point in the film, Faramir, the surviving son of the Steward of Gondor, leads a cavalry force out from the capital of Gondor, Minas Tirith, in a desperate attempt to retake the fortress city of Osgiliath, lately captured by Mordor. The women of Minas Tirith, one by one, throw flowers under their horses' hooves — not cheering, or expecting victory, but honoring the courage of their defenders. This kind of sentiment has become unpopular, and deservedly so, after a succession of bad and stupid wars, including the Great War in which Tolkien fought. But Jackson repeatedly makes the point that willingness to defend oneself is a virtue, however often abused, and however regrettable the need to do so may be. In today's intellectual and cultural climate, it's an oddly exotic experience to see a film that explicitly celebrates patriotism in the old Roman sense of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

That was Tolkien's point as well, of course, despite his own losses during the Great War, when, as he wrote, all but one of his closest friends died. A case can be made that the ultimate theme of The Lord of the Rings is elegiac. Its central figures of fantasy, the elves, are above all living embodiments of memory, immortal and unfading; and the greatest grief of their departure is the fading of that memory. Instead there remain mortal witnesses and their books. And at the end of the story, Bilbo and Frodo's departure takes them into the realm of the elves, the realm of undying memory, leaving their friends to go on living without them. The basic soundness of Jackson's judgment shows best in his keeping this seemingly undramatic sequence for his conclusion.

In getting there, he left out or skipped over a lot of details. We may hope that an Extended Version on DVD will fill some of these in, as happened with the first two installments; among other things, the story of Eowyn cries out for full resolution, both for its own sake and as a way to dramatize Aragorn's kingship through his power to heal. But the essentials are there, and Jackson's judgment as to what was essential and what was not has averaged good enough to show that he was the right director for these films.


© 2004 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Winter 2003-2004
Libertarian Futurist Society

W.H. Stoddard reviews Peter Jackson's films
of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. The Two Towers
  3. The Return of the King

More by William H. Stoddard

The Lord of the Rings
films' official site

J.R.R. Tolkien at Troynovant


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