Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie
Producer: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh
by Jon Cvack
After finishing the books and the series for a second complete time (along with watching Game of Thrones crash and burn), I’m more confident in saying that Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest stories ever created. As mentioned in my thoughts on The Two Towers (2002) and while watching the Fellowship of the Ring's BTS features, they mentioned how J.R.R. Tolkien never intended to create an allegorical story about WWII; going so far as to say how much he resented the device. And yet it’s impossible not to see the parallels with World War II: about an alliance of nations from across the country, uniting to battle an existential threat.
In college, much of what we learned was ideological analysis; that is, studying the ways in which film expressed a particular zeitgeist. The most fascinating to assess are often horror films, ranging from Dracula and the growing pre-war xenophobia, or Saw and its gore porn reflection of a post-9/11 world. It’s not to say that these filmmakers deliberately created film to capture the underlying fears of a country so much as that they showed the types of stories that audiences wanted to see. I’m sure there were other fantasies written in the 1950s and up through the end of the 20th century which contained similar ideas, but few had spoken to the international spirit so heavily. The power of any great story is to transcend a moment in time, universalizing its characters and ideas in which the story can extend throughout history, from as wide as the world to as specific as the individual. All Axis and Allie comparisons aside, it is about the willingness of even the most seemingly insignificant forms of humanity to push themselves as far as possible; serving as much as an underdog story as the Grand Hero’s Journey action/adventure tale. Tolkien poured the vast majority of his creative life into creating Middle Earth, and I imagine, for something so vivid, that to belittle its scope by simply calling it an allegory it was no wonder why Tolkien might be offended. While it’s core is has the comparison, it expands beyond a singular moment in time and into a story that I think will achieve the timelessness of Shakespeare.
The film begins differently than the books, having saved The Two Towers’ Shelob’s lair and instead opening on the history between Smeagol and Deagol as they’re fishing in a boat, when Deagol catches a fish that pulls him into the lake and drags him underwater where he finds the ring. Smeagol’s envy and desire are instantaneous and he kills Deagol. The film then turns to Isengard, where the Ents have destroyed the fortress, with Merry and Pippin enjoying the spoils while Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli return. Unfortunately, this first twenty minutes or so fell victim to the same problem seen in the other films, in which some of the digital effects have failed to aged; specifically when Gandalf and Saruman battle it out (which is all the more infuriating given that this was changed from the book). While the same ratio of about 25% of the VFX in this film need a significant remastering, I was even more blown away by how much holds up and continues to compete with the computer generated craft I see in most effects-heavy films stories today. Jackson is masterful at the sweeping vistas, combining practical sets with VFX, creating movement down to the tiniest detail.
Merry and Pippin are later separated once again, with Merry pledging his allegiance to Theoden while Pippin pledges his to Denethor of Minas Tirith, who proves to be an even more dishonorable man than his son Boromir. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli recruit the help of Theoden to assist Denethor knowing that Sauron’s army is about to attack Middle Earth’s last stronghold. Eldron meets Aragorn, explaining that Arwen is now dying, after refusing to leave middle earth for the Undying Lands where she could finally recover. Eldron provides him with Isildur's’ sword Andúril, allowing him to regain his rightful position as King of Gondor. Knowing that that even with Theoden’s reinforcements they are short by tens of thousands of troops, he decides to risk his life and head down the dangerous Paths of the Dead in order to recruit the Army of the Dead, which is somehow connected to the Rohan Dynasty in which thousands of ghosts knights are forced to remain undead unless greeted by the heir of Gondor (being Aragorn).
It’s here that you have to admire the story’s depth, as the mixture of plot, character, history, and myth all combine into a story so rich that I think it’d take me at least a couple more times to fully grasp its intricacies; never regressing into irrelevant tangents, but rather incorporating them altogether. I’d recommend going through Wikipedia, starting at the synopsis and clicking all of the names, places, and creatures which will take you down some of the most incredible wormholes.. Looking up the Rohan history alone took me through an elaborate 500 year history, demanding a study of the map of Middle Earth in order to piece it all together.
Like any epic story, it’s the images alone which burn into your mind - of Denethor’s inability to see beyond his own failure, willing to kill both himself and his remaining son as a result; of Éowyn riding into battle with her father, who dies in battle; of Sam and Frodo journeying through Mordor, with the ring growing increasingly heavy, if not impossible to carry; and of course Gollum biting off Frodo’s finger as he refuses to throw it away in the fires of Mount Doom, proving how integral Sam was to the entire journey.
As fantastical as they all are, Tolkien and Jackson’s greatest ability is garnering our empathy and compassion, in which we look past Frodo’s corruption, inches away from allowing the destruction of Middle Earth, along with making us feel for Gollum’s jealousy, willing to sacrifice his own life for the relatively worthless object that he covets. I even feel for the vile Denethor, wondering how I’d react if having lost a son and all signs pointed to a complete destruction of the people I was supposed to protect.
I’ll always harbor bitterness for Jackson leaving out The Scorching of the Shire, as it played even better the second I read the chapter. It offered such an unnerving moment, maintaining the slightest degree of cynicism, as though Tolkien was telling us to forever beware of letting our compassion get the best of us by letting evil go free or unchecked. I suppose it works without it, focusing on the larger issue of returning home after such significant change. In some ways it hits even harder, as for anyone who has moved away from home could attest. Eventually it just doesn’t feel the same, making you wonder where you could ever end up that would actually feel like home again. In many ways it’s the saddest part of the story, as for all Frodo sacrificed he could never return home again. It’s here that I think the connection to WWII is most apparent, as I consider the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who saw and did things that would never allow them to find peace; which the world at the time could never understand.
I’m not confident that within my lifetime the world could avoid another war. While I’m fortunate to have avoided my own involvement up to this point, I do fear for future children if the time ever comes. In that case, Lord of the Rings provides some comfort; as a tale that will remain forever relevant; serving as both a harbinger and a model for what to do should it ever arrive.
BELOW: Not as good as Helm's Deep, but pretty good
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