Lord of the Rings blu ray marathon – Return of the King (2003)


The journey ends.

I’d started rewatching this great set of films with some intent of re-examining how I felt about the very last part. Of course I mean the overlong finalé, the multiple endings which turned a terrific, epic story into a less than impressive slog to an eventual finish. I honestly hoped that after all this time, I could deal with them, and the story to that point had been great fun, high fantasy cinema at its very best.

I rediscovered all the bits I loved. The fact that the first thing you see is a tiny worm wriggling in a dirty fist. The murderous Smeagol/Gollum being extra ‘tricksy’ and acting all affronted by Sam’s suspicions as he leads the two hobbits to the cave of huge spider, Shelob. The little sad song that Pippin sings as the doomed riders make a desperate charge. The big, one-eyed, twisted teddy-bear orc with the club-hand, that only grudginly steps aside at the last minute when a ten-ton boulder is hurled at his army. Those very, very cool flying lizard things that the Nazgul (Black Riders) take into battle, and the Witch King’s spikey helmet. Oversized, four-tusked elephants with armies on their backs. The translucent green, undead cursed army lurking beneath a mountain like a very cool Haunted Mansion ride. Everyone bows to the four hero-Hobbits at the very end. Good triumphs over evil. The big battle is over and Sauron’s gone, nuked after Gollum inadvertantly saved Middle Earth. All is good.

But what was bad? Well, the question of the Eagles needs to be addressed. Really. The youtube video below is a PERFECT summary of what was wrong with the ‘eagle rescue’ from the volcano, especially as in the film the eagles seem more than capable of taking on Sauron’s big cool flying lizards. Even a throwaway line would have helped.

Before we even got to there, the criminal exclusion of Christopher Lee’s Saruman continues to sting. He was THE big bad in the last two films. He was the identifiable face of evil compared to Sauron’s lidless, disembodied eye. This wizard would not have sat up in his tower, waiting for – what? What the hell does he do? Why is his seeing stone, the dangerous Palentir, dumped in the flood water? The cut scene is in the Special Edition expains this, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that, either. I know that in the book, he and the slimy Wormtongue take over the Shire and need kicking out. But here, they just use an overdubbed line where Gandalf mutters something about ‘he has no power, let’s take Merry and Pippin back down the road to Rohan’. Really?

So although there’s no time for a wizard duel, or whatever, we still have – too many endings. On this rewatch, it was clear that almost any of the endings would have done, except for the final one used. The best, I think, was still the very first – after Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and reunited with Arwen, the races of Middle Earth all bow respectfully to their very smallest allies, the Hobbits, and the picture fades smoothly to a map. This clicked it all nicely together. But it goes on.

Next there’s the return to the Shire, and Hobbiton, and the four pint-sized adventurers try to pick up their lives where they left off, and Sam gets with Rosie, the bar-keeping Hobbit. And Frodo writes his book, and the screen pulls away from him sitting at his desk, framed by the circular doorway. This would also have rounded the trilogy off in a satisfying way.

But apparently, Frodo (and Peter Jackson) thinks there’s “room for a little more”.

What follows is a very awkward, cheap looking and overlong scene about sending Frodo and Bilbo Baggins off to the Grey Havens with the last of the Earth-deserting Elves. Everyone whispers and talks very sadly and slowly. The slowness, particularly, and the awful aging makeup for Ian Holm’s ancient Bilbo, make me feel strongly that this part was never intended for the Theatrical version. It doesn’t seem to match its look, when everything that came before it felt so gnarled, true and ancient. Perhaps they were going for a very stylized, fairytale-esq final shot. It looks more like a cutting edge cut scene from a 1990s PC game. Also, the characters exchange odd looks, especially Galadriel, as if they’d all met up again after a long gap, and had run out of things to talk about in front of the green screen on-set.

Even when this scene ends, there’s yet another squeezed in – where Sam returns home to an idealised (Munchkin land-like) Hobbit hole. His wife and two cute Hobbit kids meet him. The film ultimately concludes on a lingering shot of his scrappily painted yellow door. The end. For real this time. By now, I’d nearly lost the will to live.

The adventure was amazing, the special effects transcendent, and most of it was well-acted and properly exuberant in its treatment of such a ‘precious’ book. Even if it occasionally suffered from chucking in a deus ex machina (undead green army, anyone?) it did match up and was always worth paying attention to. I only wish that Peter jackson had trusted the audience to be satisfied with a proper film ending, or at least the brief Epilogue ending at Bag End, and hadn’t forced in the less-impressive last fifteen minutes, which underwhelmed and irritated vast swathes of casual cinemagoers and huge fans alike.

I’m glad I went back to Middle Earth. I have very fond memories of going there with different people over the years, and it’s still a great ride and impossible to dislike. Blu Ray has kept those memories all the sharper, and when the blu ray Special Edition versions finally emerge (at a reasonable price, naturally) well, then I think I’ll be going there again.

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