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

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Best. Film. Ever.

(Best of 2003)

The words I keep coming back to, the ones that seem to fit this most astonishing of films best, are “terrible” and “awful.” The old-fashioned senses of the words are what I’m talking about: Peter Jackson has given us a grandly eloquent film that inspires more terror and more awe than anything I’ve seen in a long time. I can compare my reaction to it only with the moviegoing experiences of my childhood, when the hugeness, the all-encompassing-ness of movies in all ways — emotionally, viscerally, visually, aurally — first astounded me, when “Night on Bald Mountain” and Darth Vader’s stormtroopers horrified me to such a degree that I can still feel it.

Of course, I had worked myself up into such a fannish frenzy in anticipation of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that my reaction has little that’s rational in it. (I recently overheard a group of people at a screening of another film discussing how they’d found The Fellowship of the Ring so “boring” that they hadn’t bothered with The Two Towers and wouldn’t bother with The Return of the King, and I honestly cannot fathom how anyone could say such a thing.) It was with as much dread as it was delightful expectation that I approached The Return of the King: Once I saw it, it would be over forever. Maybe I should save it, like the last chocolate in the box, just to have something to look forward to? But no, I’ve always been the kind of person who could eat a whole box of Godiva in one sitting.

And then there’s this: Jackson has proved to us, with the first two films, that he knows what he’s doing, and that only by, like, throwing in some Ewoks at the Battle of Pelennor Fields could he screw this up, but there’s always just that little, tiny, nagging worry that the finale just isn’t going to measure up or satisfy entirely. Which would be even worse than it might otherwise have been, seeing as how amazing the first two films were.

But Return turns out to be a work of such vision and imagination that there were many moments during which I forgot to breathe — the impossibility of believing that I was actually seeing what I was seeing left me literally breathless. This is an immense film, as big as an entire world, filled with an abundance of hope to be found in the worst of circumstances. It is the same kind of leap above Fellowship and Towers as they are above the pedestrian filmmaking that clogs the multiplex. Even the most optimistic of fans cannot imagine what an extraordinary achievement this is for Jackson. The Lord of the Rings, now that it’s wrapping up with the masterpiece that this film is, may well be the transcendent cinematic experience of our time. The Return of the King on its own isn’t just the best film of the year — it may be the most fantastical film ever to be about, simply, what it means to be alive and in the world.

So, the whole nonrational thing: My eyes started leaking right away, right from the beginning, with the Ringbearer (Elijah Wood) mired in the worst place in Mordor he’s seen yet, with worse to come, and Sam’s worrying about having enough food for the journey home. “The journey home”? Poor, sweet, optimistic, determined Sam (Sean Astin), and here’s the beginning of that little trickle of hopeless hope that fills the film, and already I’m thinking about how I always sob like a baby every time I read about Frodo sailing off the to Grey Havens. I knew I was going to be a dreadful mess watching this film, but I’ve never sobbed so hard at the movies, ever.

Return so brilliantly combines the intimate and epic in the same moments that there’s nothing to do but cry at the perfection of it. When Gandalf (Ian McKellen) rides up the spiraling streets of Minas Tirith with Pippin (Billy Boyd), Jackson gives us the view from far overhead, and in the same breath we get a wonderful evocation of the world of Men that’s threatened and a glimpse of how small their hope of survival may be, residing in this one wizard and one hobbit. Later, when the signal fire above Minas Tirith is lit, a call to Rohan to send help at a desperate hour, Jackson accords us a sense of the enormity of this world as a string of signal fires stretched across an entire mountain range are lit in response — here we are crossing half a continent in moments… and it’s all down to Pippin, that one small hobbit, who lit the first fire against the orders of Denethor (John Noble), the insane steward of Gondor.

There’s Minas Morgul, springing to terrible life in the endless dark of Mordor, sending orcs on the march and launching screeching Nazgul (in a moment very reminiscent of “Night on Bald Mountain”), a horrible vision in itself… but there’s Frodo and Sam watching, and we are so with them in spirit that the agony of the moment is unbearable. There’s the Battle of Pelennor, so, well, awful and terrible and so relentless in pounding the armies of Men with evil upon evil that it makes Helm’s Deep look like a minor skirmish… and here’s Theoden (Bernard Hill), who’s faced it all fearlessly, now exhausted and watching with resignation as he sees his death coming right at him. Here’s Pippin, coming upon Merry’s (Dominic Monaghan) seemingly lifeless body on the battlefield, and it makes no sense for me to be sobbing so hard because I know Merry’s not dead, but we’re so with Pippin that all you think is not, “Oh, I know Merry’s alive because I’ve read the books a dozen times” but, “Oh no, Merry’s dead…”

Jackson’s vision would have been greatly diminished without his cast, who can also only be called brilliant to a one. But a few of them get their chance to stand out this time around. Billy Boyd, whose Pippin metamorphoses from a silly young boy into a hobbit-man; Sean Astin, in the performance of his life, imbuing his Sam with all sorts of qualities — bravery, strength — that Sam would deny he has; David Wenham, who, with nary a line of dialogue in one vital scene, shoulders on his Faramir a tremendous sense of responsibility mixed with despair.

I’ve had a couple weeks now of getting to tell all sorts of jealous fannish types that I’d already seen The Return of the King, and all of them want the same essential reassurance: What about Saruman being cut out — is that okay? No scouring of the Shire — does the film need it? The end, with the Ring and Frodo and Gollum — did Jackson do it right?

Be reassured: It’s all so right that you won’t be able to conceive how much righter it could be. You wanna see grown geeks cry? This is it.

[reader comments on this review]

Oscars Best Picture 2003

previous Best Picture:
2002: Chicago
next Best Picture:
2004: Million Dollar Baby

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments