The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – The Last Epic

On December 15, 1939, Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta. One of the highest grossing films in history, regardless of era, came into being that night. When I wrote about Gone with the Wind, I mentioned how the film was the first epic to grace the screen. It marked a change in the way that movies could be made. The film’s vivid colors, complicated story arc, and large, grandiose set and vision set it apart from other movies up to that point.

 

Throughout the history of Hollywood, and since Gone with the Wind, epics remained a core piece of the movie industry. I’ve already reviewed some movies that I would consider epics: Gandhi, Titanic, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, and Braveheart. I still have several to go, too, most notably Lawrence of Arabia, Forrest Gump, and Ben-Hur. What I find interesting though, is the string of epics that graced the stage at the end of Oscar night. There are many more films that have been nominated that could be considered epics, too.

 

And yet, epics, with their traditionally grand cinematography and sometimes heroic stories, seem to have subsided from the Academy stage. No doubt this is due to a shift in cinema, an emphasis on not only superhero movies for the mainstream, but also on art-house movies for the Hollywood “elite.” I won’t get into that; it’s an issue that is far too complicated for today.

 

Therefore, I think that this week’s movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is probably the final epic to win Best Picture. But, it’s might be the best, too. The Return of the King is the finale in director Peter Jackson’s utterly amazing The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first and second films in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were both nominated for Best Picture in their own rights. But, alas, they did not win, with Fellowship being bested by A Beautiful Mind and Two Towers losing to Chicago. In 2003, The Return of the King made up for past heartbreaks by not only winning Best Picture, but by winning every one of the ten other categories it was nominated for. It remains the largest award sweep in Oscar history.

All three of these movies were good enough to win Best Picture in their own right, but I don’t believe that the Academy got it wrong the first two times around. However, The Return of the King, is, quite simply, the best of the three and it’s not even close. The Return of the King is one of the greatest movies of all time.

 

For me, this movie provided a rare opportunity. It’s the only sequel to win Best Picture without the first movie winning. So, in the weeks leading up to it, I watched The Fellowship of the Right and The Two Towers with my girlfriend, Laci. She knows more about The Lord of the Rings franchise than anyone else I know. She loves them. If I say some unsavory things about this movie, come looking for me.

 

Now, for the rest of the movie.

Plot

The Return of the King picks up where the first two movies leave off: Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), along with the help of the sickly Gollum (Andy Serkis), try to deliver the “One Ring to Rule Them All” to Mt. Doom in Mordor, to destroy it before the Ring’s magic possesses them, and it’s keeper Sauron, finds it and uses it to bring oppression and tyranny upon Middle Earth.

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Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), together with King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill), venture to Minas Tirith (and later the Black Gate of Mordor) to defeat the armies of Sauron.

 

The Return of the King, is grandiose and complicated. So, too, are the stories told within its narrative. Not only does the movie look great, the story is as well. Each of the many major characters has their own battles that were building for the last two movies, and each of them overcomes them by the time the film is finished. The cast of characters is deep and expansive, spanning races and generations.

 

At the same time, though, the movie is intensely personal and intimate. Friendship, love, and death all play a part in this story. And, regardless of which race of Middle Earth being is experiencing them, these are all supremely human emotions for those of us on the other side of the screen. That’s what makes this movie so great and so powerful. Even though this takes place at a time and place that exists only within the pages of a book or screenplay, The Return of the King pulls at everyone of our heartstrings. 1.

 

Writing

This trilogy is based off an epic trilogy as well: The Lord of the Rings as written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The screenplay was written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson. The movie won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

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If you’ve ever read much fantasy work, this movie is written just like most fantasy novels. Using an older form of English, The Return of the King takes some time to get used to the cadance and the pacing. I watch all these movie with captions on so I don’t miss anything and it’s a good thing I did for this one. However, I don’t mind it. The Return of the King is set during a time of kings and swords and suits of armor. It helps get into the flow of it. 1.

 

Sound

Howard Shore composed the score for the entire trilogy. He won a Best Original Score for his efforts.

 

The score in The Return of the King is nothing short of incredible, moving, and, like the rest of the film, complex. It touches on all feelings of the spectrum and plays beneath nearly every shot. In my mind, the score is right up there with John Williams’ Star Wars scores as some of the greatest ever made. It’s truly iconic.

Also gracing the Academy stage  and winning for Best Original Song was “Into the West” by Annie Lennox, Fran Walsh, and Howard Shore. The movie also won Best Sound Mixing. 1

 

Set Design

The Return of the King took home three Oscars in this category: Best Makeup, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. All of them are awards certainly deserved.

 

Part of the allure, the look and feel of this movie, is the physical world it’s built in. Unlike other Best Picture winners that exist in a physical world: Kramer vs. Kramer and Annie Hall both take place in New York, Gone with the Wind in Georgia, The Return of the King takes place in Middle Earth. Where is Middle Earth exactly? Well, the answer is apparently New Zealand. Shooting almost entirely in New Zealand, Peter Jackson utilized the dramatic mountain landscape to bring Middle Earth to life. He literally had to build a world that doesn’t exist.

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Not only was the world at large grand, but so were the individual sets. That’s one of the areas where this film shines. The sets are immaculately detailed and immersive. It looks like you’d think a world would look like. It looks lived in, and that’s extremely important when building a world. 1.

 

Cinematography

Andrew Lesnie was the director of photography for this movie. While he was not nominated for Best Cinematography, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good. In fact, it was great.

 

First of all, like most other epics, the scenery exposed on the film was amazing. New Zealand, as revealed by these movies, is an incredibly beautiful country with intense mountain ranges. Jackson and Lesnie took advantage of this.

 

Second, each and every shot is beautiful, methodical, and carefully planned. There’s a lot of camera movement, but it all serves a purpose and adds chaos to the war.

Finally, this movie, with it’s cast of mythical creatures and monsters is heavy on the special effects. But it’s not too much. The film is full of creatures of all kinds, all of them imaginative and extraordinary. The Return of the King featured more special effects and CGI shots than the other two movies and this works. Today, all movies that we know of have some kind of computer-generated special effects, but for 2003, the CGI is quite impressive. The movie won the Oscar for Best Special Effects. Also, it’s odd to think that a 200-minute film was edited well, but it was, winning the Oscar for Best Editing too. 1.

 

Acting

Interestingly, The Return of the King has the most awards of any movie without a single acting nomination. I’m not sure why this is the case as each performance was incredible. It was quite hard to focus on two characters when I was brainstorming this piece, but I finally did it.

 

Elijah Wood plays Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit from The Shire in western Middle Earth. Hobbits, if you don’t know, are small and short beings that love to eat. By being the nephew of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) nobly volunteers the task of being the ring bearer when he discovers his uncle’s old ring.

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By this point in the trilogy, Frodo has long been the bearer of the powerfully dark Ring. As he ventures forth to Mordor, with his best friend Sam (Sean Astin) Frodo is tested in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine. Not only is the world dangerous, but Frodo must also contend with concealing a Ring that wants to be found and hordes and hordes of grotesques orcs and darkly magical creatures that will go to any length to get the ring back.

Frodo handles all of this along the way, sometimes beautifully and sometimes not. When push comes to shove and it’s time to destroy the Ring, Frodo literally can’t, having been entranced by the Ring’s powers and his own latent yet oddly powerful inner lust for power. He shows that the smallest of us can sometimes be the best of us, too. At times, he is too trusting, especially of Gollum, but in general, he has a good heart.

 

Frodo is nothing without his friends, though, particularly Sam who bails him out of hot water more than once. He uses the strength of friendship from Sam to make the next step, climb the next mountain, and cross the next river only to betray him in the end. Frodo is deeply flawed, yes, but also very relatable.

 

Equally as flawed is the mysterious and courageous Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). In The Fellowship of the Ring, we learn that he’s a ranger from “The North” with a complicated and checkered past. He’s also a descendent of Isildur, a long-passed king of Gondor. He is the one king of Gondor, a great and proud kingdom. Yet, he doesn’t want it.

 

Aragorn chooses to live among the people, living life as a Ranger and protector, an elf-friend and friend to Gandalf. He fears his destiny and he must come to terms with it. He discovers his leadership and his incredible talent for politics along the way, convincing Rohan to come to the aid of Gondor because it’s the morally right thing to do. He’s truly a global politician, not bound by the chains of isolationism.

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In the end, Aragorn accepts his fate, his destiny and becomes the King that Gondor not only needs but deserves. He has always been just and fair, but he needed help to find that within himself. 1.

 

Directing

Peter Jackson directed The Return of the King, and the movie gave him his only Best Director win. Jackson, a New Zealand director, is a lifelong The Lord of the Rings fan and, in short, his labor of love defined a whole generation of movies and shifted the direction of cinema.

 

I can write and write and write about this movie until smoke comes from the end of my pencil and my keys fall off this Mac. But one thing that I cannot overstate about The Return of the King is that this movie is truly an achievement in cinema, an altar upon not only fantasy movies, but all other future epics have been and will be judged.

First of all is the s logistics of the movie. Principle shooting for the movie took place over the course of 14 months from October 1999 to December 2000. Jackson decided to shoot all three movies in the trilogy at one time. Think about that: from 1999 until 2003 when the final movie was released, one single, complicated, and amazing project was the sole obsession of Peter Jackson for YEARS.

 

Second, The Return of the King and the great trilogy show us what cinema can be, and what it wasn’t before that or what it isn’t after it. The world is so large, so immersive, and so intimate that it’s truly a place within which we can get lost. Just by listening to my girlfriend and watching these movies multiple times tells me how incredibly complex the movie is. It’s almost an impossible movie to shoot.

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Before us, though we have such a grand and incredible movie that it’s easy to get lost in the whole thing and never find our way back. From the depths of the world of Middle Earth, we wash up on the shores of real human feelings and emotions throughout the movie. That’s what rises to the forefront. Real individuals, human or otherwise, experience the events of the movie. Fear, loss, love, fury, and death, are core human emotions and in The Return of the King we get the whole gambit. It’s not just the world that we love, but those that are in it. An epic can be that tender and intimate while also being incredible. This movie is powerful on each and every viewing.

 

Finally, the movie marks a transition in the Academy too. Ever since this ceremony, Best Picture nominees and winners have been primarily low-budget and low-revenue artsy movies, rather than blockbusters. The Return of the King is one of the highest-grossing movies ever and it marks the last time that the highest-grossing movie in a year also won Best Picture.

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In order to try to capitalize on the success of The Return of the King, studios started making bigger and bigger movies with more CGI and violence. The results are mixed. In a way, The Return of the King led us to the current trend of expensive but highly profitable superhero movies. It showed us that episodic movies could work and that people will turn out to see them.

 

While I’m not here to debate the values of superhero movies and their effects on Hollywood, I don’t think the connection is impossible to make. The Return of the King changed the game in world-building movies, yet it’s almost impossible to replicate its success. It’s not just good versus evil, but it’s all those things that I mentioned above, too. This is refreshing in a world with comic book heroes that, in reality and with few exceptions, do nothing to actually change the status quo of the world or help the oppressed and downtrodden. The events in The Return of the King not only prevent the world from succumbing to that fate where everyone is oppressed by horrible evils, but also go a long way in eliminating that evil from the world while deposing evil and incompetent leaders with better ones that are fair and just.

 

The Return of the King, thanks to Peter Jackson, is one of those movies that belongs in a super exclusive club of true greats in cinema. It’s right up there with Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather as the best movies ever made. The movie and its impact is one that will be studied by future film students through all the ages of man. 1.

Bonus Points

I can’t say that this movie is one of the best ever made and not give it a 10.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the 76th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 29, 2004 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic Riverand Seabiscuit for Best Picture. The award was presented by Steven Spielberg and accepted by Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh, producers. In total, The Return of the King was nominated for and won 11 Oscars. It is the largest sweep in Oscar history.

Other notable winners that night included Sean Penn winning Best Actor for his role in Mystic River, Charlize Theron won Best Actress for Monster, Tim Robbins won Best Supporting Actor for Mystic River, and Renée Zellweger won Best Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain. The ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal.

Next Week

We keep on rolling with 21st century movies with 2016’s Moonlight. After that, it’s In the Heat of the Night, Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Great Ziegfeld. 

10 Comments

  1. Look, I’m going to agree with you and say that LOTR is the best movie ever made. It’s my everything movie: sick, sad, happy, bored, rainy day, whatever movie. But calling it the LAST epic? I think Marvel and Infinity War is going to fight you on that one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! This was probably my mistake while writing. I was going for the last epic to win Best Picture. I agree with you about Marvel and IW. Although, I’d reason that the entire MCU is one giant epic that contains several of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed your review but haven’t seen this movie, or any of these movies. But my kids love these movies and Laci loves these movies, so I would like to take the time to watch them some time!

    Like

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