Watching a young, Hobbit-like Smeagol (the amazing Andy Serkis) bait a hook on an idyllic pastoral pond in the first scenes of Peter Jackson’s brilliant Return of the King is instructive — embroiled in a delirious metafiction of Paradise Lost, viewers are preparing for the ultimate sucker’s ride. A three-hour-plus roller-coaster ride stuffed to the gills with extravagant visuals, breathtaking battles, and New Zealand’s peerless environments, but — fitting, considering Jackson’s character choice to kick off his much-anticipated film — a deceptive one to be sure.
After all, those familiar with Tolkien’s now-canonical narrative will understand from the outset that, even though it ends well for most involved, Return of the King is not about special effects, martial triumphs, and monarchial victories, but rather irreconcilable loss and defeat. More than anything, the famed professor’s fairy tale is about how one noble but draining quest can destroy anything resembling a normal life forever. For the entire world.
Tolkien knew this tragedy well, having spent months on a World War I battlefield before succumbing to trench fever and witnessing the death of all but one of his closest friends. He was unlucky enough to be involved in the Battle of the Somme, an artillery offensive — as well as a logistical failure — masterminded by Lt. General Sir Douglas Haig that cost the British 420,000 lives. And though he spent much of his postwar life railing against allegorical interpretations of his 1,000-page tome, it is impossible to separate Tolkien’s battlefield from his bible of fantasy literature.
The specter of Haig is dredged up — if not by Tolkien then at least by Jackson — in the form of Denethor (John Noble), the mad steward of Gondor who sends Faramir (David Wenham) back on a similarly suicidal attack of Osgiliath, from which his brave but underappreciated son had just barely returned with his life. Jackson packs that Quixotic mission with poignancy, cutting across several meaning-laden events — a horse-borne Faramir galloping and gritting his teeth in preparation for inevitable doom; Pippin’s (Billy Boyd) angelic rendition of “The Steward of Gondor”; the orcs at Osgiliath lying in wait (much like the Germans did in the Battle of the Somme); and most importantly, the feasting Denethor (in extreme close-up) suggestively shoving meat and grapes in his mouth, the juice of the latter running down his chin like blood. It’s a Caligula or Kronos moment, to be sure, the father eating his unwanted progeny; it’s also one of Jackson’s most powerful montages and comments on the interpersonal ravages of war.
Denethor’s ravenous appetite for destruction is somewhat anticipated by Smeagol’s aforementioned fishing expedition-turned-homicidal attack, and the two form a thematic bookend of sorts for much of Return of the King. Jackson obviously relished making the third film’s opening sequences, where Gollum’s backstory is introduced with the type of hushed malice found in everything from Jackson’s earlier Tolkien installments to his disturbing Heavenly Creatures; watching Gollum lose his innocence — and mind — to what Denthor’s favored but fallible son Boromir called “such a small thing” in Fellowship of the Ring is a harrowing experience. Jackson empties his bag of goodies here, giving Serkis a chance to show his real face and form, before tearing both apart and refashioning them in Gollum’s likeness; there is also a startling echo of Denethor’s cannibalistic feast as Jackson unleashes an extreme close-up of Gollum’s ruined mouth biting — in painstaking slow-motion — into a fish, before effecting that conflicted, devilish grin that is so familiar to viewers. Inverting the same time-lapse trickery — and thematic axis — that turned Theoden (Bernard Hill) from Saruman’s slave back into a king, Jackson’s last montage before the opening credits charts Smeagol’s final gruesome metamorphosis into Gollum, a creature so wracked with addiction and guilt that he comes to embody the film’s — and the novel’s — fixation on the annihilation of innocence.
Such solitary degradation resonates throughout Jackson’s narratives like the shrill cries of the Nazgul that fly overhead throughout the film. One can only imagine Tolkien, as he explained in his letters, hunkered down “in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” losing his mind and innocence (like Gollum, like Denethor, like Frodo) as his fever increases and the world falls to pieces around him. Several scenes in Return of the King can put you in his shoes, whether it’s the scarred Sam and Frodo lying exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom as flaming rocks (which look like missiles and artillery shells) crash into the battered landscape around them or Jackson’s vertiginous battle sequences on the Pelennor fields or at Mordor’s gates.
Jackson’s Return of the King, as all of Tolkien’s books, is filled with such metafictional exercises, where war-weary travelers try to close the chapters on their past travails by externalizing and transmitting those disturbing experiences into words and images. Early in the film, after watching Gollum engage himself in his postmodern dialogue/monologue in a reflecting pool (mirrors, surfaces, and reflecting sources are always a dead giveaway for the pomo set), Sam tries in vain to tell Frodo what the audience and every Tolkien fan already knows: “He’s a villain.” Where Fellowship of the Ring — the book and Jackson’s extended DVD — began with Bilbo committing his travels to paper (which share the same name in Tolkien’s fantasy world and in our “reality”), Return of the King ends with Frodo struggling at the same desk to relate his own horrific turmoil, rubbing, again and again, his Weathertop wound, because as he narrates, “some wounds don’t heal.”
Indeed, Return of the King proves one thing above all else, and that is the fact that there is simply too much narrative in Tolkien’s universe — and Jackson’s vision of it — to absorb in one sitting. It becomes nearly impossible to separate Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth from Middle Earth’s bottomless backstories, or Tolkien’s own battlefield tragedies from the Fellowship‘s similarly draining experiences, or Frodo and Gollum for that matter; the latter even form a whole of sorts during their final struggle on Mount Doom, Gollum climbing atop an invisible Frodo’s back like an incubus and even chewing off the finger that holds the One Ring. Starting his film with the ancient history of Smeagol’s fall from grace and ending it four years after Frodo’s somewhat Pyrrhic victory (one he still cannot reconcile), Jackson skims across hundreds of years of history, and that’s even before he steps outside of Tolkien’s mythography to entertain past and current sociopolitical and religious considerations.
So it is to Jackson’s credit that he not only provided moviegoers (especially those with no experience with Tolkien other than the odd point-and-snicker at the class geek) with eye-popping visual entertainment, inflated love stories, and much-needed comic relief (Tolkien’s last book has little of that, to be honest), but also that he remained fiercely loyal to highlighting Tolkien’s evocative confluences between myth and reality, narrative and history, allegory and applicability (as Tolkien was wont to call it), good and evil. As much as critics and fans want to believe that those last two are clearly demarcated in Lord of the Rings, the evidence for the opposite is overwhelming. How else to explain why Sauron, one of the most inherently malicious villains in English narrative history, is completely absent, marked only by that, an all-seeing Eye, which unleashes a gaze rather than submits to it? Sauron, like the Germans in WWII, is just a name or shape of the evil that resides within all of us. This, more than anything, is what Tolkien learned from war.
Which is a lesson we could still stand to learn, especially when someone like John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli, asserts in an interview that Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs cannot help but position his tome as a necessary defense of Western civilization against undue Eastern influence, such as militant Islam. I doubt Tolkien would agree with that, considering the privileged stature that those unconcerned with the lust for power and domination achieve in his books. Indeed, Return of the King seems primarily concerned with problematizing systems like “Western civilization,” “militant Islam,” or even monarchies themselves. As Tolkien explains in his letters, Tom Bombadil, one of the oldest and most powerful of Middle Earth’s myriad characters, exists far outside of Sauron’s war, mainly because he “is master in a peculiar way: he has no fear, and no desire of possession or domination at all. He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm. [He represents] the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature.”
Knowledge, not a privileged version of it, is the thing in Tolkien, and there is no one thing to know in The Lord of the Rings more important than the fact that everything is disappearing, and disappearing fast. Jackson’s final film in his peerless trilogy tenaciously latches onto this theme and never lets go: Frodo and Bilbo can’t go home again, and Sam, Pippin, and Merry cannot do the same unless they let go of their lost friends; Gandalf must leave Middle Earth, as must all of the Elves save Arwen, who must lose her immortality when all is said and done; Rivendell and Lothlorien are emptied forever of their magic; Aragorn must remain in the company of Men and exercise power but resist the urge for domination that it arouses; the list goes on. And this is before even delving into the strains of Paradise Lost that course through Tolkien’s own Return of the King. After all, almost half of Tolkien’s Return of the King remains after the One Ring is cast into Mount Doom; the rest of the book is left for the various goodbyes that everyone must say to each other, before fading into history and making way for the boring rule of mankind.
And it is there that we return to Peter Jackson, and his highly invested vision of Tolkien’s masterpiece. When the cinematic smoke dissipates and the bodies are cleared away from Pelennor and Mordor, Jackson is left with the unwieldy Hollywood task of putting a happy face on war and its indivisible remainders. In this, he cannot help but fail, mostly because although Tolkien leaves him a lot of wiggle room (six chapters worth), he ultimately requires that the New Zealand auteur break up the party for good and send everyone home crying, not such a popular thing these days in the malls and multiplexes. And so we run quickly through a hasty reunion at Frodo’s bedside, a hurried crowning of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and a truncated trip back to an evil-free Shire that ends with everyone crying on the shores of the Middle Earth. Rather than a blowout party at a Shire pub, the four Hobbits sit noiselessly, much as the confused Vietnam vets and their various friends do at the end of Michael Cimino’s similarly sprawling The Deer Hunter.
It’s a lose-lose situation for Jackson, trying to cram close to 150 pages of resolution into about 30 minutes worth of screen time — a conundrum that will probably be assuaged during the extended DVD, which will likely reinsert over an hour of footage — in hopes of satisfying the Tolkien faithful and family at the same time. And there are those who understand the weight of this literary legacy, how it can complicate attempts to bring such an enterprise to the silver screen, and there are those who just want their popcorn movie.
Jackson’s triumph is that he more or less scored on both counts. With Frodo-like perseverance and Aragorn-type leadership, the guy literally came out of nowhere to spend seven years reminding everyone why they see movies and how they can be successfully made without sacrificing both art and the intellect in the process. For that, it’s easy to forgive the ponderous moments (between Arwen and Elrond, visited at length in The Two Towers), the artistic liberties (almost all of Gimli’s wisecracking), the contemporary racial and sexual complexities (ye olde “All the bad guys have dark skin and all the women have nothing to do” arguments), and whatever else cynics and Chicago lovers can dream up. And even then, he passes with flying colors, because those issues? It’s Tolkien’s not Jackson’s job to solve them.
No, three-hour-plus lengths aside, Jackson’s epic Return of the King is just what the postmillennial doctor ordered — engrossing entertainment, cinematic invention, and a movie worth the outrageous amount of money it costs to see one these days. As with Tolkien’s books, we may never experience this kind of cinema storytelling again in our lifetime.
That is, until the next shoeless wonder from a corner of the world no one cares about raises up and reminds us just what the hell is worth fighting for in our short time on our own disappearing Earth.
This review originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Review and Popmatters.