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You bow to no one
on October 12, 2007
Few movie experiences have been as sublime or heartrending as the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which began with the forming of a Fellowship and grew with the battle against the Two Towers.
And in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," Peter Jackson brings JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy to its powerful, heartbreaking close. While the ending is notoriously gradual to unfold -- not surprising in a story this long and complicated -- it's a glorious experience that can only end in beauty, sorrow and the ultimate battle between good and evil.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are still following the treacherous Gollum (Andy Serkis) on the path to Mordor, with Frodo unaware that Gollum is sowing suspicion between the two best friends. By the time he realizes his mistake, he's been dragged into the lair of Shelob, a monstrous spider, and then abducted by orcs who want the Ring he carries. Determined to find his friend, Sam heads into an orc citadel to get Frodo back.
Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) takes Pippin (Billy Boyd) with him to Minas Tirith, after the hobbit has a close encounter with Sauron through a palantir. Not only is the city under siege, but the Steward Denethor is slowly going insane, even sending his one remaining son, Faramir (David Wenham), on a suicide mission to reclaim a dead city. With Minas Tirith crumbling, Aragorn's (Viggo Mortensen) only hope may to be summon an army of the dead, who will only obey the King of Gondor. But even the joined forces of Gondor and Rohan will not be enough to stop Sauron unless Frodo destroys the Ring -- and with his mind being worn away by its evil, he might not be able to.
The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movie experiences. There has never been anything quite like it in movie history, and there probably never will be again. It seems somehow fitting that the book that every other fantasy has to measure up to, has now become a sweeping cinematic triumph that actually stays halfway loyal to the books. Good things come to fans who wait, I guess.
Peter Jackson manages to craft a genuine sense that this is an epic story -- the scope of the story grows even larger when Gandalf and Pippin ride to Minas Tirith, especially when we see the sweeping grandeur of the signal fires. And of course, he sweeps through a series of increasingly explosive battle scenes (involving oliphaunts, Black Riders and glow-in-the-dark ghosts). Each action scene a shattering ride, and there's no guarantee that all the beloved characters will make it out alive. Some of them don't.
But if Jackson manages the epic battles well, he does an even better job with the gentler, quieter moments. The action slows down, and the characters take a moment to support and comfort each other. They cry, they hug, they think about home -- such as Gandalf comforting the frightened Pippin with a description of the afterlife. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens throw themselves into the semi-formal language of Tolkien's world, resculpting Tolkien's words into equally rich movie dialogue.
Elijah Wood gives an unparalleled performance as Frodo Baggins. Frodo's gradual deterioration is wrenching to watch, and the climactic scene at Mount Doom displays just what the Ring can do to even the pure-hearted hobbit. Sean Astin follows up with his powerful performance as Sam, who is increasingly the "strong" unbowed hobbit, rather than the follower ("I can't carry it for you... but I can carry you!"). The final scenes between these two outstanding actors are beautiful and understated.
But all the supporting cast also give powerful performances -- Boyd and Dominic Monaghan put their characters through some intense growing pains, as both younger hobbits are forced to deal with the horrors of war. Ian McKellen balances action with grandfatherly wisdom, and Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto as the despairing Eowyn and David Wenham as the noble, kindly Faramir all give amazing performances. And of course, the titular king is Mortensen's Aragorn, now faced with the ultimate challenges -- and possibly the ultimate sacrifices -- that will decide whether he falls or triumphs over Sauron.
Perhaps the most striking thing about "Return of the King" is the final fourth of the film. While the "multiple endings" may annoy some viewers, it seems somehow right to gently let go of these characters rather than have a sudden, splashy finale. And whether they have a happy or sad ending, Jackson never lets us forget that they all made sacrifices to battle Sauron.
"Return of the King" brings the epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy to a close, and cements Jackson's reputation as a master filmmaker. With the outstanding cast, beautiful scripting and amazing direction, this is a fitting capstone to the trilogy.