For the past three years, WETA Digital employee Ignacio Peña has revisited each section of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (FOTR; TTT). Now completing his journey to Mount Doom, he assesses Return of the King’s vibrancy, the sheer transformative power of the film’s quieter character moments, and a fantasy story’s absolutes in contrast with the grays of the real world.
Stay with me for just a moment here.
In my later years of high school and early part of university, I considered myself to be a deeply religious young man. I went to mass every Sunday and was actively involved in the church’s youth ministry group, which in reality was a group that existed to give the youth of the church a place to foster friendships and nurture some semblance of innocence and stability as we all continued to grow and wrestle with the changing realities we faced entering the real world. I somehow managed to convince the powers-that-be to allow the youth ministry group to attend midnight showings of The Lord of the Rings, followed by a sleepover in the main youth hall on church grounds, and for three years, a group of us did just that. I think that for the wider group of youngsters, it was certainly fun to go out with their friends to a movie and stay up through the night. There was perhaps a slightly smaller group within whose cinematic worldview transformed watching these movies. There was a desperate desire cemented in me for some great struggle of absolutes to exist in my life. In retrospect, I think my religious journey ten years ago wasn’t something that developed out of fear of some eternal spiritual death, or some great desire to be loved perpetually by a cosmic force that guided my every move on an ever-present monorail of fate. What I hoped to find was affirmation that the world functioned on an idea of absolutes that were worth struggling to preserve. Anyone who’s read Tolkien’s books or watched Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings perhaps know what it is to be swept up in this desire. I wanted the world to be divided into very clear terms of good and evil, of what must be done and what must never be allowed, and all struggles for the ideal of what is right and just to be acted not for personal gain or a sense of spiritual “salvation,” but because the world would simply be a better place for it. But while such stark contrasts exist in the tale of Rings, it is also fantasy, and I know now that a world with such absolutes isn’t more than fantasy as well.
But as I watch Return of the King and its companion films again and again, it’s more apparent to me the gray areas that truly give this story a vibrancy that I can’t believe I didn’t see that first time I watched late one night in 2003. Sure, I want beyond hope for Frodo never to give in to the Ring’s power, for the armies of Gondor to prevail against unassailable odds, but these films truly live and breath in Frodo’s mistrust of his closest friend, in Denethor’s growing madness over the failing of his line, of Faramir’s doubts of his own self worth. I will readily admit that at times Return of the King may be imperfect in its execution, but in its characters’ desperation and struggles, it truly is a masterpiece.
It’s hard for me to think back on my first viewing and recall how I felt when I first experienced the film, yet its opening scene still stands out. It was a shock to see Andy Serkis’ true face, and then absolutely exhilarating to know that I truly had no idea what this film would have in store for me. What ensued in those opening minutes left me hollow, and on a level, terrified. That scene still gives me chills. It goes beyond being about Gollum’s inception. For two films we had followed an adventure without truly getting a sense of what was at stake. But in one instant, we viciously witness the true power the Ring has – it turns one hobbit to murder his own brother without a second thought. Suddenly the Ring’s corruption becomes the film’s most ever-present danger, and Frodo and Sam are the ones who bear the greatest risk.
As someone who had read the books, the film’s greatest mystery to me was just how this tale would visually unfold. When I read a book, the images my head conjures are very abstract. I get a sense of the world, but my brain doesn’t paint a literal picture. The way language is used is the more vivid image to me. The rhythm of words on a page gives texture to that imagery. I had a sense of what to expect, but not really. Not to the extent that this film came to life. Minas Tirith is described as the White City, but to see it moving was a thing of beauty, and not because it was pristine, but because of its shadows and grime that dirtied the aged kingdom of men.
And as exciting as it was for me to finally see what the Battle of the Pelennor Fields would look like, the true joy of Return of the King was discovering the quieter moments that still give me a rush of emotion, even today, even after numerous viewings. For me, the greatest line of dialogue in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is delivered by Faramir in Return of the King, as he leaves Minas Tirith to certain death, an order of madness at the behest of his father; and to Gandalf’s plea to ignore this order, Faramir replies, “Where does my allegiance lie if not here?” There’s sadness and resignation in his voice that fate has led him to this day, but admiration also that his death may somehow, hopelessly, bring some salvation to his home. Or is it that there is no shred of hope in him? Is he just given up entirely because he doesn’t have his father’s favor, and death on the fields of his home with a sword in hand is better than living forever in the shadow of his fallen brother? I still can’t quite make up my mind on this, but I love that ten years on, there’s still a scene that makes me question and wonder.
Shortly thereafter, once Pippin has sung his song to Denethor at his hall, there is a wonderful shot of Gandalf sitting in the shadow of an alley in Minas Tirth, alone, staring at nothing in particular and perhaps empty at the foolishness of man. This shot only just stood out to me now during this latest viewing, and has now won me over as one of the most beautiful shots of the movie. It is so wonderful to see such a powerful being, an Istari, a spirit of the Valar, so overcome with disbelief that he needs to be alone at such a dark moment. As a final chapter of such a sweeping saga, it conveys an impending finality that I think most visual series have trouble ever achieving.
I did, however, mention that this movie is imperfect in its execution, and I think that is most apparent in this movie than in its predecessors. I forgive the list of things that look dodgy because of its sheer scope, but the rough edges are truly rough. Greatest of these are the ghost army. The aesthetic is briefly seen in The Two Towers when Frodo falls into the marshes, but Peter Jackson reverts to what I can only describe as a “Frighteners”-level sense of design for the Dead Men of Dunharrow. I don’t want to go so far as to say it looks cheap, but I don’t think it fits well with the overall look of the film, and it’s always a point of distraction for me. But more than just their visual look, the whole scene just plays very strangely, and even more so in the extended edition, where it’s almost unbearable to watch.
Along similar lines of goofiness is the confounding decision to somehow tie Arwen’s life to the fate of the Ring. Even when I first saw it, it seemed like that decision was just the screenwriters poking us in the arm going “Hey, remember Arwen?” It wasn’t just unnecessary. It was outright silly.
Above these specific musings on the film a decade on, I could write pages and pages of each moment that I still cherish, but I will only briefly acknowledge them, such as Merry and Pippin’s separation as a result of Pippin’s interaction with the Palantir; or Gandalf riding out to save the remaining defenders of Osgiliath from the pursuing Nazgul (which I should note is still the most beautiful and surreal depiction of magic in any film to date); or the moment when it only takes a few words from Frodo to break Sam’s heart when he is told to go home; or of Eowyn’s insanely stupid and yet immeasurably brave act of facing the Witch-king of Angmar alone; or the disturbing and inspired depiction of the Mouth of Sauron treating with Aragorn at the Black Gates (and honestly, there was simply NO need to cut this scene from the theatrical edition); or of Saruman’s indignation of being prisoner of his own tower before succumbing to his own death (speaking of scenes which had NO business being cut from the theatrical edition); or of Rosy Cotton dancing. “She had ribbons in her hair.” Even as I think of Sam saying these words, of the regret that he never told her of his love as he lay on the mountain, I’m filled with emotion.
And that is the strangest thing about this long tale of the One Ring. Everyone cheers Frodo’s name as Orthanc crumbles, but I have always felt this was truly Sam’s story. In the end, despite Frodo’s resilience to the Ring’s power, Frodo failed. He would have fallen in line with a great many others before him, and it is truly Sam’s friendship and heroism that saves Frodo, and everyone else in Middle-earth. I’ve had this discussion with friends before, and I can see the argument for both sides, as some strongly argue that it is still ultimately Frodo’s tale, and not Sam’s. Although I suppose they’re complementary, which is why it’s so easy to argue one over the other, but I always find it’s a fun discussion to have.
I have one more thought that comes to mind that has come to the forefront for me in the last few years. Frodo returns to Bag End, and he asks the question, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? […] There is no going back.” I’ve obviously not fought in a terrible war or have sacrificed my whole being for one single purpose, but I think this feeling Frodo expresses is something that resonates with a lot of people who have left their home, and it’s something that has become more apparent to me as I have now lived away from my own family for years. When I first saw Return of the King, they were words that I accepted as part of Frodo’s journey, specifically. Now that I have grown older, gone home a few times and felt like a stranger in a place I should feel familiar to, I understand a glimpse of what this sentiment truly means. I can’t imagine I’m the only who feels this when coming to the end of this tale.
I said earlier that I feel Return of the King is a masterpiece; I would like to say that I do not feel it is Peter Jackson’s masterpiece. It is no secret to my colleagues at work of my passion for these films, and at times when there is a chance we may meet Peter for a review, someone may joke about whether or not I will be able to control my enthusiasm. I smile and say something along the lines of “I’m not completely socially inept” or something like that. However, after my experience of having worked on three Hobbit movies, I feel that in the case of Rings, Peter Jackson may have been “the Ring-bearer”, the one whose name will always be remembered for carrying the Ring to Mt. Doom. But just like Frodo, Jackson would have failed without all those involved in telling this tale, and not just his writing companions, Phil and Fran, but every actor and actress, every sculptor and set dresser, every cameraman and production person, every modeler, animator, and compositor. This is a masterpiece on behalf of every single one of them, and for those who asked in jest if I was going to lose my shit when I met Peter Jackson for the first time, they don’t realize that I had already secretly lost my shit when I had met them first.