- a film review by Mike Johnson
Some things happen only once in a lifetime, and we should revel in such moments. So good has this movie trilogy proved, trust me, there will be no re-makes – not until a new medium be invented to warrant it.
I awaited the cinematic adaptation of The Return of the King with unimaginable excitement, safe in the knowledge that Peter Jackson would once again deliver the goods. But before I review this final installment in what might eventually be hailed as the greatest movie trilogy ever, I feel it prudent to ask why the films have, on the whole, received the approval Tolkien devotees? I think it is this: He (Jackson) did not even attempt to better that which is perfect. He let the book be his primary guide.
We all knew that Jackson was attempting to film the unfilmable, but so too did many of us secretly desire to see that which we had only imagined before take form, colour and movement. For we enthusiasts the story was already a part of us. The languages, the history, the sublime dialogue, and all the principles of companionship and honour are there in the book: the book is a perfect thing, and will remain so forever. But to be offered that extra visual dimension – the ‘blockbuster’ treatment?
Jackson appears to have embraced Tolkien’s ethic that there can be no substance without depth, and the best way to achieve such depth and reality on film, to imply the history and diversity of Middle Earth, is through imagery. And what better way to realize that imagery than by recruiting two giants of Tolkien illustration: John Howe and Alan Lee. These two, as devoted fans, were already on our side. Under their guidance Jackson’s team created a visual history for every race and sub-race (orcs included) that could not fail to suggest to filmgoers anything other than what they were seeing was real. I will not go into detail – you only need to watch the appendices that come with the extended Digital Versatile Disk’s to grasp the immensity of this effort – but the movies would have failed if the imagery had been substandard, if they had simply dipped into the ‘medieval’ props box. These films are a rich, visual feast on every level.
The Return of the King is quite simply a roller coast ride of emotions – even more so for us Tolkien enthusiasts. To us the places and characters of Middle Earth are as real and familiar as old friends. There was one point in the film where I simply overloaded, flooded with emotion (see the end of this review for a clue). There is no feeling I can liken to it. Suddenly before me, in the flesh, captured in one moment of movie history, was everything that Tolkien meant to me: the dream, the vision, the possibility that we (the human race) might one day, once and finally, unite, and banish evil from our lives forever. To see happen, there before my gaping eyes, unfolding in real time, that moment which I had only glimpsed before, was literally breathtaking. But, most pleasing of all, the quotations and speeches taken verbatim from the book shine forth like beacons of truth. And augmenting this is a soundtrack that is no less than an immense serving of soul food – but Jackson knows the importance of silence where silence is necessary.
However, despite the immediate ‘fix’ that celluloid provides, as with Frodo’s ultimate departure, I also viewed this final film with a hint of melancholy. We each had our own impression of Tolkien’s world; the faces and places appeared different to every reader. Orthanc was thinner and taller to some than others; Treebeard more ‘treeish’, depending on your reading of the text; Gollum could be green, grey, blue, pink or black. Each person’s interpretation of Middle Earth was a highly personal thing, a valued possession. But now, for many at least, these films have galvanized that imagery. I am concerned that Frodo will forever be Elijah Wood, that the Eye of Sauron will always dwell in its fiery straightjacketed state atop Barad-dur no longer as a purely metaphysical force, as was perhaps intended. A Balrog will forever have wings, and Legolas will forever be seen as some kind of elf/spiderman/surferdude hybrid. I loved these films; they are quite possibly the greatest movies ever made. But for some it may have tainted that intimate writer/reader relationship which made Tolkien the author of the century. I pray my reservations are unfounded.
The highlights of this film are too many to count. To name a few of my personal favourites: Gandalf and Shadowfax scaling the terraces of Minas Tirith, the arrival of Grond, Eowyn’s declaration to the Witch King, Sam and Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom, Aragorn singing after his coronation, and of course that moment of moments (see the end of this review). I did write a list a of ‘criticisms’ … but the film is made with such spirit, heart and sheer effort that it would be inappropriate to sully this review with such nit-picking.
It is quite simply the best film I have ever seen. Let’s not bicker about which aspects of the book have or have not been included, the changes to the plot, the exaggeration of some characters; film is an entirely different medium with entirely different demands. But Jackson and his team set out with one overriding purpose: to capture the ‘essence’ of Tolkien’s masterwork on film – and in this they have succeeded. It is not the special effects that make this film so exceptional, the artistry, or indeed the costumes, good as they are. What stands out head and shoulders above all other aspects is the passion and thrill of the performances. For this reason, the movie, like the book, will stay with us forever. Effects can be bettered, artwork improved, but performances of this stature can only ever be matched. Therefore, I feel certain that The Return of the King will find its rightful place amongst the greatest cinematic achievements, and will be cemented there forever.
I hope the Oscars will not, this time, fail to adequately acknowledge Peter Jackson’s masterly accomplishment – although, in my opinion, there are not enough trophies to adequately honour this movie. As with the books, the ‘experts’ may once again choose to spurn the true value of the human imagination, and the purest form of human creativity. Yet (as with the book) we the people, the simple folk for whom this stuff was intended, have voted with our numbers. Best Film, Director, Cinematography, Wardrobe, Sound, Makeup, Soundtrack, Special Effects, etc., should all be a formality. But there ought to be new category created for this film: Best Cast – for it is a tough job distinguishing between the main players. (Miranda Otto and Bernard Hill edge it fractionally for me). Everyone involved has poured their love into the making of this film, and we, my friends, are the beneficiaries. The Return of the King deserves to sweep the board at all award ceremonies and be elevated to the status of a classic.