It’s been a crazy week, which is why I haven’t been able to post this until now despite rewatching Return of the King over a week ago.
Anyway, Return of the King’s accomplishments cannot be overstated. Upon its release, it was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Time magazine called it the best film of the year. Roger Ebert praised it highly, stating “Return of the King is such a crowning achievement, such a visionary use of all the tools of special effects, such a pure spectacle, that it can be enjoyed even by those who have not seen the first two films.” Empire voted it eighth on their 100 Greatest Movies of All Time in 2004 – they even abandoned their historic policy of only allowing movies at least 1 year old in order to do this.
It was also the second ever $1 billion movie in history, making it the second highest grossing movie of all-time upon its release (behind only Titanic). Last but not least, it tied the record for the most Academy Award wins with 11, out of its 11 nominations. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Original Song for “Into the West”, Best Sound Mixing and of course, Best Visual Effects (all three Lord of the Rings movies won that award). It also holds the record for the highest clean sweep at the Oscars. Titanic and Ben Hur (1959) are the other two movies to earn 11 Oscars. On that front, Return of the King is also the first fantasy film to win the Best Picture award. It also won numerous other awards from other ceremonies.
That’s not to say there weren’t criticism towards the movie. A number of critics did point out the movie’s long running time, especially its “multiple endings”. They even teased Return of the King at the Academy Awards for it, joking that it had 11 nominations, one for each ending.
I’ve talked a fair amount about this trilogy’s production in the last couple of posts, so let’s quickly talk about another aspect of this trilogy’s production. Despite having years to work on it, keeping up with the annual release for each movie became increasingly difficult as time went on. Although most of the Return of the King’s principal photography took place in 2000, part of the scene where Gollum convinced Frodo to send Sam away was filmed early in the shoot, due to bad weather affecting outdoor filming. Return of the King has the most extensive list of re-shoots for the trilogy, including King Théoden’s death after actor Bernard Hill was meant to wrap up. They redesigned the Witch King, after they decided his design was a bit too close to Sauron’s. They redesigned a number of Mordor orcs, after they felt the orcs appeared “pathetic” compared to the Uruk-hai.
There were even several shots filmed after the extensive reshoots. There were a couple live action shots of Riders for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and a reaction shot of Andy Serkis as Gollum realizing Frodo’s intention to destroy the ring, shot in director Peter Jackson’s house. There were even a few shots of skulls rolling over an avalanche of skulls filmed in March, 2004 for the extended edition, after the movie won its 11 Academy Awards. Jackson noted that it might be the first time a director had shot scenes for a film after winning an Oscar.
But that’s the level of dedication and passion that went into this trilogy.
Post production began in 2002. Weta Digital had already doubled their staff for the larger number of digital shots in The Two Towers over Fellowship of the Ring. Return of the King contained nearly double The Two Towers’ visual effects, with 1,488 digital shots. It’s not just the number of shots that made it a challenge though, because the scale is also noticeably bigger than The Two Towers. They needed to sort through 450 recorded motions of horses to put into their MASSIVE battle simulation program. They needed to deal with late additions to the film, including trolls busting through Minas Tirith’s front gate. They needed to completely redo Eomer taking down one of the mumakil that originally took 6 months to complete. They managed to redo the shot in two days. They also needed to redo some of Shelob’s scenes, after a Canadian company scanned the sculpture for 10 times the detail that Weta had previously been able to capture.
The editing was also a tough process. For example, Théoden leading the charge in Pelennor Fields had to be cut down from 150 minutes of footage to about 90 seconds on-screen. They had to deal with multiple storylines, like The Two Towers, so they focused on each storyline at a time before deciding where to intercut between them. At times, Return of the King even had 4 storylines going on at once, whereas The Two Towers only had 3 simultaneous storylines. The movie inherited several scenes from The Two Towers, including Saruman’s fate. However that also produced a structural problem, as the second film’s main villain would meet his fate at the beginning of the third movie. They eventually cut that from the theatrical cut, later including it in the extended edition.
That particular cut not only caused controversy among fans, but even caused a rift between Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Jackson. Thankfully they reconciled by the time that Lee agreed to appear in the Hobbit trilogy.
The editing became quite stressful by the end. They spent 3 weeks working on the last 45 minutes of the film, where they needed to somehow finish 3 reels. With the premier taking place on December 1, they only managed to finish the editing on November 12. That’s before the sound mixing is finished. The sound mixing team spent three months working non-stop, finishing on November 15th. At least according to the special features on the extended cut, they were literally blow-drying the film before they packed it up. Nobody had the time to watch the final edit in full, so they were all panicking a bit at the premier, hoping they did a good job. I think the general reception and the awards speak for how people felt about the final cut.
Since I joined the Lord of the Rings train late, this was the only one of the three films I saw in theaters, and I saw it twice. I was immensely satisfied upon my first viewing, and while I feel this is the least good of the three movies, I’m still very satisfied with this movie. It’s not as consistent of a film as the first two, but it’s loaded with glorious moments. It’s got the best individual moments of the trilogy, the brilliant acting across the board, and what might be the most epic sounding soundtrack in the history of fantasy films. The movie is emotional when it tries to be, it’s entertaining when it needs to be, and it gives us a satisfying conclusion all-round.
The Charge of the Rohirrim in particular was, in my opinion, until recently the most epic moment in cinematic history. I’d say it’s surpassed by the large battle in Avengers: Endgame.
While Return of the King has some of the best individual scenes in the trilogy, it’s also got the weakest moments. The lack of Saruman’s demise in the theatrical cut is a major problem, and although it was restored for the extended cut, it really shouldn’t have been relegated to that. I’m perfectly fine with the army of the dead being involved, as it’s a major turning point in Aragon’s quest to become king, but the visual effects behind the charging army of the dead really haven’t aged well. It looks like the green ghosts are merely floating into the orc armies and not actually hitting them. It’s just off-putting compared to how brilliant the special effects are in the rest of the trilogy.
It is in the books, which is why I’m perfectly fine with it, but there are a number of people who find that part of the movie off-putting. This movie also goes a bit too far with turning Gimli into a mostly comedic character, whereas he was treated with more respect in the first two. At times he seems a bit bumbling in this movie, more so in the extended cut. I’ll expand on that later.
There was also a bit of controversy surrounding the way Denathor was portrayed. Denathor is the Steward of Gondor, played by Jon Noble. There’s no denying that Noble does a brilliant job with the role he’s given, chewing scenery like its breakfast, but he’s portrayed as much further gone than he is in the books. He’s sunk so deep into despair that he’s got no hope, refusing to even light the beacons to call for Rohan’s aid. In the books, he’s already called for Gondor’s aid before Gandalf even arrives. He’s still in a state of despair, and it gets worse after Faramir is injured, but he’s not so far gone that Gandalf needs to forcefully take over. The book version is far more believable for someone who hasn’t straight up been thrown off of the throne just yet.
Some of the moments in the movie’s long ending are also too cheesy for their own good, most notably the scene where everyone’s in a glowing white room after Frodo wakes up, and the fellowship kind of stands there, smiling. It’s a nice scene, but there are less cheesy ways to portray a reunion than slow motion laughing in a glowing white room.
The extended cut contains the same kinds of strengths and weaknesses. Some of the additions are brilliant. There’s a tense scene in Mordor where Sam and Frodo are somehow caught in the army of Orcs marching towards the gate, and they show some intelligence in the way they escape. Faramir gets a great speech in the extended cut that really adds to his redemption after the mistake he made in The Two Towers. Although it ruins one of the twists later on, the added scene of the army of the dead attacking the ships is quite possibly the funniest scene in the trilogy. It also adds the Mouth of Sauron, which is a major scene in the books but missing in the theatrical cut. Last but not least, there’s a lot of additional action in the extended cut, which helps quicken the pace in a movie that’s over 50 minutes longer in the extended cut, thus over 4 hours long. A lot of that additional action is well choreographed as well, and other bits add to the tension of the Battle of Minis Tirith.
On the downside, there’s a seemingly pointless scene of Eowyn and Merry talking about their motivations when the Rohan army is on the way to Minis Tirith. She’s not wearing her helmet off in this scene, as if she won’t be recognized somehow. By this point, you already get their motivations. It’s just a silly addition that probably should have been left out. There’s a drinking game between Legolas and Gimli that, while funny, just adds to Gimli being treated as little more than comedic relief in this movie. Another embarrassing moment for Gimli include him being far more terrified in the Paths of the Dead than the other two, and that’s also worsened in the extended cut. Don’t get me wrong, these moments are amusing, but they do a disservice to a character portrayed as brave and competent in the first two movies.
But overall, there’s a good reason why Return of the King is regarded among the greatest and most influential fantasy films ever made. It’s an epic conclusion to a brilliant trilogy, the likes of which we might not see again for a long time. If you somehow haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings movies, I would generally recommend the extended cut for the first two movies. However, it’s probably better to see the theatrical cut of Return of the King first, before you watch the extended cut. This trilogy changed the movie industry, and it also changed my perspective on fiction in general.
I haven’t decided yet what I’m doing for movie posts next month. I might do a month for movies based on true stories, which I thought of doing last year, but never got around to. Or I might continue my long-delayed DreamWorks project and look at 3 or 4 more movies there. But I also plan on beta reading a fellow blogger’s book over the next month, and hopefully read another book, while editing a book of my own, so I won’t do anything too ambitious. Also I haven’t found much time for reading novels in the last year, but I hope to get back into them soon. If I do, I’m strongly considering re-reading the books, as I haven’t read through them since high school.