There are few movie trilogies that manage to maintain, much less expand, the energy, relevance, and intensity of their original vision. The three Indiana Jones flicks came pretty close, though “Temple of Doom” seems pretty weak when bookended by “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Last Crusade.” The original Star Wars trilogy built a self-contained first act (or fourth act, if you are following Lucas’s eventual nine-part timeline), a brilliant follow-up with “The Empire Strikes Back,” and sort of fizzled with the anti-climactic “Return of the Jedi.” The Matrix got lost in its own convoluted post-modern mythology. The Star Trek franchise didn’t know when to quit. The James Bond franchise STILL doesn’t know when to quite. And Harry Potter? Time will tell.
But the Lord of the Rings trilogy – now there is a trilogy that works! Based on the grandfather of all contemporary fantasy fiction, J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterpiece of mythology masquerades as a morality tale, clearly delineating the boundaries between good and evil – and Good and Evil.
Kiwi director Peter Jackson took the time to develop each character, so there was no question about their motivations, strengths, and flaws. The plot moved at its own pace, beginning languidly and then building to crescendo throughout the three movies. The stakes are high – the very existence of civilization as we know it. And there are only two chances to avert disaster – slim and none.
The first two films, “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” set up the final confrontations – battles that are fought between armies, and battles that are fought between the flesh and the spirit. The fate of Middle-Earth rests on the ability of the diminutive hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to overcome the oppression and seduction of the One Ring, and cast it into the pit of Doom.
In contrast to the first two films, “Return of the King” has no need for further character development. We know the denizens of Middle Earth. We have roamed through the mines of Moriah with them, ridden across the plains of Rohan with them, fled from the Balrog, hidden from Nazgul, and fought orcs and Uruk-hai on the battlements at Helms Deep with them.
Thus “Return of the King” dispenses with subtlety and barrels headlong into action. The battles at Minas Tirith and Osgiliath make Helms Deep look like a picnic. And the battles Frodo and Sam face are no less intense for their smaller scale. Smeagol, no longer fighting to regain his lost self, is pure evil and Shelob is the scariest spider you ever hope to see.
As grand and glorious as the battles scenes are (and they are grand and glorious!), it is the internal conflicts that capture your heart, for they are the same battles we fight everyday – greed, envy, despair, depression, loss of confidence, courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the bonds of friendship, the grief of betrayal.
Aragorn, like a Middle Earth Moses, is raised by non-blood relatives, hidden until he is ready to learn of his true identity and the great responsibility that is his birthright, must assume the mantle of King. Frodo, a Christ-figure,has been wounded in his side. Bearing the ring of evil (the sin of the world), a burden that only he can carry, he trudges up Mount Doom (Golgotha) to cast it into the lake of fire and thus save mankind.
As in the first two films, “Return of the King” has some great quotes. Though nothing will ever be equal to Gandalf’s classic, “You shall not pass!” ROTK has “I am no man!” (you’ll understand when you hear it), “Become who you were born to be,” and Aragorn’s rousing Henry V-esque speech, “I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails; when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But not this day. This day we fight!” Tell me you can sit in your chair and not cheer. It’s definitely time to go kick some goblin backside!
No, ROTK is not a perfect film. Ian Holmes’ Bilbo Baggins, Liv Tyler’s Arwen, and the amazing Hugo Weaving’s Elrond are seen only briefly. The Eye of Sauron is no where near as scary as it probably would be in real life. And Christopher Lee’s Saruman, the face of evil in the world, is absent altogether. But in the context of the trilogy as a whole, “Return of the King” is a hard film to beat.
Also credit director Peter Jackson with taking his time wrapping the story up. Some critics have taken Jackson to task for having multiple endings, but each vignette is necessary to tie up all the loose ends. If you are a film junkie like me, you’ll want to stay through the ending credits. The Annie Lennox song is heart rending, and the pencil illustrations are breathtaking.
One word of caution – this is a long film, over three hours. There is no intermission and no good place for a bathroom break. Do NOT buy that super-sized drink before the show. You will regret it.
Written by freelance writer Mike Parker (BookPage, CCM, HomeLife, Lifeway.com, ChristianActivities.com).
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