Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Movie Review: “The Return of the King” (Jan-Feb 2004)

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by Dr. Leon Roby Blue

Before I review The Return of the King movie, a confession: I am a lover of J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth. I was first introduced to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) by my Latin teacher when I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve since read it at least a dozen times. I read it to my children when they were young; I read it at times when I needed a lift and in times when I needed to renew old friendships. I know Middle-earth. I know Gandalf and I’ve walked with Frodo. There is no way a movie could do justice to this rich tapestry of story and adventure. Such great literature just cannot be translated into a movie. Even so, I love these movies! And The Return of the King (ROTK), the third movie based on the book trilogy, is the crowning achievement to this wonderful moviemaking by director, Peter Jackson. One cannot review ROTK without referencing and in some sense reviewing the first two movies that are a part of this story: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

LOTR is the story of the third age of Middle-earth. Frodo is a hobbit that lives in the Shire, a part of Middle-earth. Through his uncle, Bilbo Baggins he comes into possession of a ring. As the story develops this is the One Ring which is the ring of power. With this ring Sauron, an evil wizard can control and conquer Middle-earth. This sets the tale of this epic story. Middle-earth is the home of hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, goblins, dragons, orcs, as well as men. A fellowship of Gandalf the wizard, along with men, an elf, a dwarf, and hobbits set out to destroy the One Ring and destroy the power of Sauron. Their paths divide as most of the fellowship set to organize and battle Sauron and his armies. The One Ring was forged in an ancient time at Mount Doom. In the midst of the gathering conflict, Frodo is given the task of returning the ring to Mount Doom which is the only place that it and it’s power can be destroyed. Mount Doom is in the middle of Mordor, Sauron’s stronghold. Can the armies of Sauron and the forces of evil be kept in check? Can Frodo and his faithful companion succeed in destroying the ring? Thus begins ROTK the final movie in this trilogy.

A review of ROTK is also not complete without referencing J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford don and author of LOTR books. He was an academic whose area of study was language and philology, which is comparative historical linguistics. He explored the idea of the origins of language, history and myth by writing pieces of an imagined place that came to be known as Middle-earth. His writings included the development of a written language as well as the stories of the various races of people and creatures of Middle-earth. He pulled these various writings initially into the book, The Hobbit and then LOTR, which is actually a single story written as six books but published as three volumes. In the 60s and 70s, these books were discovered by readers in the United States Tolkein was a Christian and a practicing Catholic. Many have tried to make LOTR into a Christian allegory, but Tolkien himself denied this. He intended for his writings to explore Christian themes but in the context of exploring the development of a people’s history, cultural and language backgrounds.

The rich detail and depth of character development is a major aspect of Tolkien’s writing. Many considered but despaired of attempting to bring LOTR to the movie screen. Finally a confluence of talent, technology and inspiration occurred around director Peter Jackson. He had long dreamed of accomplishing this task, and he now has succeeded. Still, it would not be good moviemaking to try and slavishly bring every detail of the story to the screen. Many of us have too often seen a favorite book ruined by efforts to transfer it to a movie that is capable of standing on its own. ROTK is a single movie but in a sense needs to be considered along with the three movies that constitute the LOTR trilogy. Each of the three movies are able to stand alone, but they are best knitted together as a single story. The most recent release ROTK is a crowning achievement in this effort.

ROTK the movie is the grand sweep of great events and battles but also the individual character development that draws us into the story. We truly care about Frodo and Sam as well as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin and Merry. The technological achievements and special effects are seamlessly integrated into the story. We are fully caught up into the story of Middle-earth as it stands on the brink of being overwhelmed by evil, we rally to the efforts to unite against Sauron and his evil forces, and despair with Frodo and Sam as they struggle, seemingly abandoned and alone. This is storytelling and moviemaking at its best.

Jackson faithfully pursues the major themes that Tolkien had woven through his story of Middle-earth. He has accurately identified and illustrated these in this movie. There is first the great theme of good versus evil. Evil is well-defined and palpable; it is found in the temptation to power, the lure of possessions and the failure to act when a choice arises. In Middle-earth there are different races of men as well as elves, dwarves and ents. They each have their concerns and priorities; They become united, however, in the common cause of defeating Sauron and his evil plan to conquer Middle-earth. United in a common cause, they accomplish what was impossible as individual groups. Evil inherently destroys that which is beautiful and this includes nature and its beauties. Sauron’s rise to power includes the devastation and destruction of nature and the world of beauty. The theme of hope and the loss of hope is present at every turn. During the film you have different characters talking about their hope or absence of hope. The persistence of hope even in the direst circumstances is critical. There is not only the importance of collective action there is the importance of the actions of the individual. The film highlights how one person, particularly one seemingly insignificant person can make a difference. This is mostly seen in Frodo’s quest but also in the valor of Eowyn.

Friendship and companionship are central themes to these movies. Friendship can transcend racial barriers as it does between Gimil the dwarf and Legolas the elf. It is found between the great and the small as between Gandalf the wizard and Frodo the hobbit. Friendship in its purest is seen between Sam and Frodo. They are both hobbits and Frodo is given the seemingly hopeless task of returning the “One Ring of Power” to Mount Doom to destroy it. Sam is a simple gardener that is completely dedicated to Frodo. He sticks with him no matter the cost. He knows that he cannot assume Frodo’s burden but he can be there and support him at all cost. As they struggle on the side of Mount Doom Sam says speaking of the burden of the ring on Frodo, “Come Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on Mr. Frodo. Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go and he’ll go.” Thus we see one of the true servant-heroes in this story.

If you are among the last ten or twelve people in this country that has not yet seen The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, then “up you get” and watch the DVDs. Watching ROTK will make a lot more sense if you do. But go see ROTK on the big screen. It is beautiful cinematography coupled with epic storytelling and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can get to. Be warned that this movie is not for young children. The creatures in this film and particularly the battle scenes are too graphic and realistic to be suitable for young children. This movie is so good you do not realize that you just spent three and a half hours watching it and that your super-sized, extra-large popcorn and drink ran out an hour ago. This is a great family movie (if the kids are old enough) and should provide many a discussion and retelling of favorite parts at the family table. Even better yet, get the books and read them. The Hobbit (which works as an introductory story to Middle-earth and hobbits) is an excellent book to read together even with younger kids.

Good art changes you in some way. It is as true of a great movie as it is of great literature. The LOTR is great literature. It causes you to look at your self and your journey through life. It causes you to look at your companions and friends and to treasure them. It causes you to look at your mission in life. This movie trilogy succeeds in the same way. You are given visual images to ponder and words to absorb. You are inspired to look beyond yourself but also to look at yourself and realize that no matter how small and insignificant you may feel that you can make a difference and play a significant role in the great story of life.

Lord of the Rings The Return of the KingDr. Leon Blue is a cardiologist in Searcy, Arkansas and a shepherd of Covenant Fellowship Church. His passions are the 3 R’s: reading, running, and relationships. He and his wife, Margaret, have two children and three grandchildren.

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