R100 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

(2003, Horror/Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery, color)


Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett

Mattress King: Lord of Bargains.

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:

Mighty heroes and little hobbits save Middle Earth from Sauron’s evil hordes.


Finally, a Row of Faces(tm) poster that keeps its subjects busy.Summaries for the previous films are here and here. Read up now, because the movie doesn’t stop for backstory, and neither will I.

Return of the King mostly divides itself into War Plot and Horror Plot. Horror plot kicks us off as stalwart hobbit manservant Samwise (Sean Astin) assists his fading master Frodo (Elijah Wood) in their journey towards the blighted land of Mordor. Their goal: destroy the One Ring—the source of the Dark Lord Sauron’s power—in the fires of a volcano called Mount Doom. Their troglodytic guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) has been plotting to kill them and steal the Ring since the end of the last movie, and now he puts his plan in motion.

Step one is to alienate Frodo from Sam. Frodo’s already insane with paranoia due to the One Ring’s evil influence, so it doesn’t take much to convince him that Sam is plotting to against him. Halfway up the mountain pass to Mordor, Frodo sends his friend away. Step two ought to be easy: lead Frodo into a cave inhabited by the demon spider Shelob, who’ll suck the unfortunate hobbit dry and leave Gollum to pick the One Ring out of his remains. In practice, however, Frodo’s got a magic sword and a bit of bottled elvish starlight to keep the spider at bay. He stumbles out the other side of Shelob’s cave and fights off Gollum to proceed alone.

Shelob creeps out after him. The exhausted Frodo doesn’t see her until she’s already stung him from behind. Fortunately, Sam has followed. He recovers Frodo’s magic sword and bottle of starlight to wound and drive off the spider.

Poor little fly / Why does he cry?Orcs arrive from a nearby outpost. Forced to hide, Sam sees them find Frodo’s limp body and hears them declare that he’s not dead, only paralyzed. They take him back to their tower and strip him of his valuables, starting a fight to the death between two rival tribes over Frodo’s valuable chain mail shirt. Sam sneaks in and mops up the survivors to rescue his master. Frodo despairs at the loss of the Ring, but not to worry. Thinking Frodo was dead, Sam took it from his body right after defeating the spider. He gives it back and they press on, nervously picking their way towards the horde of orcs camped in the plains between them and Mount Doom.

Meanwhile the War Plot begins with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-exile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) meeting hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) among the ruins of a previous villain’s stronghold. Pippin finds an old palantir, a sort of blackened crystal ball that acts as a hotline to Sauron. Gandalf rescues him from its evil grip before Pippin can spill any secrets, but Pippin has learned a few secrets from the Dark Lord. Sauron is planning to attack the nearby fortress of Minas Tirith. Gandalf and Pippin rush to Minas Tirith while Aragorn and his allies in the nation of Rohan prepare to march their forces to assist.

The ruler of Minas Tirith is an insane old man named Denethor (John Noble), who refuses to prepare his troops for battle or signal Rohan for help. Under Gandalf’s direction, Pippin sneaks out to send the signal himself. Orc hordes attack from Mordor before Rohan can arrive so Gandalf takes command of the guard, leading a gradually losing battle while his forces retreat towards the keep at the top of the city. Just before the city can fall, the army of Rohan arrives. Despite being outnumbered, they drive the orcs away.

The greatest battle scene ever.The orcs are just the first wave, though. Next come the Haradrim on their mumakil (er, pseudo-Arabs on giant elephants). The riders of Rohan take heavy losses, but eventually start to drive these back as well. Then the Nazgul (i.e. killer super-ghosts) ride down on their fell beasts (dragon-ish things) to take out Rohan’s King Theoden (Bernard Hill). His niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) fights off the chief Nazgul while the third wave—several dozen pirate ships—arrive down at the river. Thankfully, the actual pirates got waylaid a few miles back by Aragorn, who used his royal lineage to cash in an ancestral favor with a mob of angry green ghosts. The undead sweep the battlefield, effectively annihilating the Mordor invaders.

Knowing he can’t win unless Frodo successfully destroys the One Ring, Aragorn gathers the remainder of his armies and marches to the gates of Mordor. Though doomed to be slaughtered by the vastly more numerous orcs, Aragorn’s armies have successfully drawn Sauron’s attention and armies away from Frodo and Sam, who use the opportunity to scramble up Mount Doom. At the platform over the volcano, the One Ring’s influence finally overcomes Frodo, who slips it on his finger and declares its power his. With Sam knocked out from behind, Gollum returns to sneak up on Frodo and bite off his ring finger. Free of the Ring’s influence at last, Frodo knocks Gollum, Ring and all, into the lava.

The Ring melts, destroying Sauron’s power and scattering his armies. This saves Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest, who send out eagles to pick Frodo and Sam off the slopes of the erupting Mount Doom. Everyone lives happily ever after, as evidenced by the last forty-five minutes of the film.


Minute seventeen of the forty-five minute happy ending.Return of the King ends like a Beethoven symphony: often, and at great length. I can see why they did it—though split into three, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is structured like a single film, nine to eleven hours in length depending on what cut you watch—so it makes sense to not hurry the denouement. It’s not especially exciting, though. I tolerate it thanks to the goodwill built up by the previous three hours, which represent some of the best epic fantasy filmmaking of contemporary cinema.

The fancy nomenclature and dire pronouncements are built in, but the script never really gets any better than “adequate”. The movie tells a primarily visual story anyway, and I do mean story. This is not the lush but ultimately purposeless eye-candy of some other, more recent films I could mention, but a series of images that carry the narrative forward in exhilarating and often inspiring ways. Consider the way Pippin lights the beacon in Minas Tirith, and the camera swoops through the mountains to follow as other beacons are lit in response. Or Shelob’s tunnel, filled with bones and webs and captured birds, and the long anticipation of the spider before it finally arrives. Or the siege and subsequent battle in front of Minas Tirith. It’s more than an hour long and most of the dialog is grunts, screams and sound effects, but it builds expertly from despair to hope to triumph, then defeat before coming back to triumph again. It’s my favorite battle scene from any kind of movie, rivaled only by the one we saw during the previous film.

With three and a half hours of riffs to choose from, it’s going to be hard to pick quotes, but I’m going to try and limit myself to three anyway. As Frodo and Sam continue to scale the mountains outside Mordor, Kevin says, “Meanwhile, we return to the mostly climbing and whining portion of the film,” while Mike mourns his inability to “flip past the Frodo parts.” When an orc declares the poisoned Frodo “not dead,” Bill says, “He’s pining for the fjords.” Though many, many comments reference Legolas’s effeminate appearance, my favorite comes when Mike refers to him as “Lady Guy-Guy.” Have I gotten to three yet? Aw, man. I haven’t even mentioned all the “fat Sam” jokes, or how they compare every last orc to Larry King, or... Okay I’ll stop. It’s a fantastic but inherently ridiculous fantasy movie with a commentary track that starts off slow, but kicks into high gear somewhere around the time Mike shouts, “Yooouuuu shall not sing!” while Gandalf watches Merry and Pippin belt out a boisterous hobbit drinking song... Okay, I’ll stop for real now.