"Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (New Line), 200 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Peter Jackson; Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Elijah Wood: Frodo Baggins
Viggo Mortensen: Aragorn
Sean Astin: Sam Gamgee
Ian McKellen: Gandalf
John Rhys-Davies: Gimli
Orlando Bloom: Legolas
In the center of Oxford you will find a public house called the Eagle and Child. Known affectionately to locals as the "Bird and Baby," the pub was frequented by the Inklings, an informal literary group made up of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, among others. A plaque by the bar memorializes the group, which assembled from 1939 until 1962: "These men met here to drink beer, and to discuss, among other things, the books they were writing." And what books! Lewis's encouragement there kept Tolkien going through the years it took to complete The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, in turn, had urged on Lewis as he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, which Lewis finished comparatively quickly.
Whereas Lewis' work is more allegorical, Tolkien wrote a mytha legend that embodies broad principles without close correspondence between the fictional characters and actual phenomena. Some construed the Rings trilogy as an allegory for Nazi Germany (Saruman is Hitler, the Orcs are Nazi minions), but Tolkien's work is more transcendent: it embodies themes of heroism, faith, power, and the nature of evil. Film critic Roger Ebert doesn't seem to appreciate the timelessness of The Lord of the Rings: he complained that the films lack immediacy, although he concedes the series' genius and ranks it accordingly. National Review's Rich Lowry argues, on the contrary, the film is "shockingly relevant."
It is difficult to find anyone in the "Return of the King" (indeed the entire trilogy) who is miscast. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin, of "Rudy" fame) seem born for their roles. One of the best performances may be overlooked, though it is Oscar-worthy. Smeagol, a.k.a. Gollum (Andy Serkis), opens the third film and renders another compelling, digitally enhanced performance. The special-effects work put into the making of Gollum will undoubtedly be studied for years.
At the beginning of the third film, director Peter Jackson takes us back to Smeagol's discovery of, and corruption by, the One Ring. Some may think this scene out of place and misinterpret it as Jackson's unwillingness to part with superfluous footage. Not so. Jackson reminds the audience what the films are about: the corrupting, self-destructive influence of power in the hands of men (or half-men, as the case may be).
By contrast, Frodo's companion, Sam, grows by degrees to heroic proportions through his commonplace goodness. Prominent in the entire Trilogy, but especially so in the third of the series, is the Hobbit humility that seems the state of character essential to dispense with the life-sapping, nihilistic power of the ring. As Frodo, in his role as Middle Earth's Suffering Servant, is damaged by living so close to the evil he is commissioned to destroy, Sam is solid as a rock. This, sometimes in spite of Frodo. Even though Sam himself must carry the ring a short while, his fortitude flows from his common integrity and simple sincerity, a trait that is underscored at the end of the film by his marriage to Rosie and by the "little Sams" running in and out of round hobbit doors. To be sure, it is Sam's reminiscing about the bucolic virtues of Shire life that encourages Frodo to persist in his exhausting ascent to the heart of Mount Doom as the growing spiritual weight of the ring makes every step excruciating. The pathos of the scene is enhanced by Jackson's artistic lighting that bestows a warmth to the Hobbits' friendship though they struggle across the ugly treeless terrain of Mordor, a landscape which, according to Lewis, was inspired by Tolkien's experience in the European wastelands of World War I.
Frodo can never return to the normal life he enjoyed before his dark pilgrimage. This doesn't make the movie a tragedy, but it does bring more realism to a fantasy than most contemporary "realistic" movies provide. Proximity to evil leaves its mark, even if it is in the interest of a noble cause. Indeed, Tolkien thought evil a force to be resisted mostly by innocence, not by studying the strategies of darkness. He was disturbed by Lewis's Screwtape Letters precisely because he thought Lewis spent more time than was prudent researching the strategy of evil. Lewis himself later admitted that writing the book almost ruined him.
Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), descendant of the lost line of the ancient kings of men, fulfills his calling in the film as leader of Gondor. But just as in the previous two films, he doesn't simply inherit the crownhe must earn it by proving his courage. His rallying speech to his outmatched army before the gates of Mordor reminds one of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.
Understanding the influence of Tolkien's Catholic Christianity is critical to a full appreciation of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien explained that while Catholic principles were somewhere in the background of the book, he became more conscious of them in each successive draft. Indeed, Tolkien leaves playful clues to the major themes in his myth: "Orc," for example, is Anglo-Saxon for "demon." The waybread (lembas), the bread of the elves, is evocative of the Eucharist, which in turn reminds one of man's need for spiritual sustenance ("Man shall not live by bread alone"). In The Return of the King, therefore, when Gollum sabotages the bread supply, he also commits an act of sacrilege, thereby sealing his doom. Tolkien himself acknowledged that Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett), the chaste elvish denizen of the forest haven of Lothlórien, embodies Marian virtues as she provides a source of strength, guidance, and inspiration for the various members of the Fellowship.
In general, however, Tolkien avoided such obvious analogizing. His myth-making was such that he wished instead to create (to "sub-create" in the context of God's creation) a world in which the fundamental themes of this life might find a parallel existence in Middle Earth; and, after time in that alternate reality, we might grow wiser and more virtuous in the "real" world. On this he differed from his friend C.S. Lewis, whose fiction Tolkien often thought too didactic. Accordingly, it is best to say that Tolkien's creation of Galadriel was inspired by his own devotion to Mary so that in creating Galadriel he would naturally imbue her with the qualities of his own heroine. In so doing, he illustrates the universal quality of wise maternal care.
Are there weaknesses in the "The Return of the King"? Legolas's (Orlando Bloom) spectacle with the giant elephant in the colossal battle before the walled city of Minas Tirith is a bit over-the-top. Bloom reportedly practiced acrobatics in the hope of a chance to perform some Spiderman-like feat. The scene barely comes off as it is too ambitious even for computer manipulated footage. The battle itself, though, is breathtaking and the computer generated city itself is stunning. Jackson is bolder in this film by placing halflings side by side with men, and in a couple of instances, things appear slightly disjointed. In general, though, Jackson's integration of camera trickery and unaltered footage is seamless, here as well as in the first two films.
Tolkien's grandson, Simon, found it the weakest of the three movies, but for him that seems to mean just not quite as powerful. The film "ends" several times and were there one more "ending," one would lose patience. But in this Jackson is faithful to his source; in any case, if the viewer understands that he is watching the ending of a trilogy and not just one movie, the many "endings" one finds at the conclusion of "The Return of the King" seem in proper proportion.
Over dinner recently, a friend argued that the movie lacked suspense, that it is too predictable. But a myth is enduring, not for its surprises, but for its profundity. A myth is for all time and the challenge is in its artful retelling. To be sure, Tolkien wanted to supply his own race, the British people, with a mythology because he thought the Arthurian legends uninspiring. Of course, if you don't care for old fashioned virtues like loyalty, fortitude, and selfless-ness, you won't like the film at all, and I suspect that a few of the critics who find the film "overblown" are unwilling to grant manliness and heroism such a grand stage.
The "Rings" Trilogy is indeed great literature, and as such it is too rich to be understood in one reading; Jackson's screen adaptation is daunting as well. For that reason, the reader and viewer alike need teachers and guides. Two sources worth considering for starters are Sanctifying Myth by Bradley J. Birzer (ISI Books, 2003) and Secret Fire by Stratford Caldecott of Oxford (Dartmon, Longman, & Todd, 2003). Caldecott's title is taken from Gandalf's declaration at the Bridge of Khazad-dum that he serves the "Secret Fire." The first of the two books is the more comprehensive, while the second is more elegant. Both are well worth the price.
Tolkien saw military duty in World War I in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. He watched the devastation of World War II with horror and he was especially alarmed at the rise of communism. A unique study is just out that explains the impact that Tolkien's service as a signals officer in the First World War had on his imagination in composing The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien and the Great War (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), John Garth explains that John Ronald, as he was then known, lost most of his friends in bloody campaigns like the Battle of the Somme. The "Rings" trilogy became his way of carrying on the good fight, but on a mythic battlefield. He hoped that his trilogy might be an inspiration to a civilization in peril.
That's how some of the actors understand the films, as well. John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli the dwarf (and is actually over six-feet tall), explained in an interview, "I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged. And if they do not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization." Rhys-Davies believes the virtues of Western Civilization far outweigh its vices. "True democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian-Western experience," he told reporters. "If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world." Rhys-Davies wryly notes that what he says may be political suicide in Hollywood, but until some way of life superior to Western civilization is found, "g--dammit, I am for dead white male culture!" Jackson's faithful and masterful adaptation of one of the greatest books of all time proves that dead white men still have something to say.
Will the movie reap Oscars? Hard to say, given the politics of the Academy that too often trumps merit. A key to Peter Jackson's success is his expertise with special effects that are brought to the service of a magnificent talebut the effects are not ends in themselves. If Jackson does not at least win an Oscar for directing, it will be nothing short of a criminal omission. Bringing the trilogy to the screen cost over $300 million. In an age of cinematic extravagance, "The Lord of the Rings" was worth every penny. That's especially true if the Trilogy contributes to Tolkien's real dreamthe preservation of our way of life.