The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The film opens bluntly, without credits: An extreme closeup of a wiggly worm being put on a fishing hook; two hobbits are in a boat, fishing on a pond in the shire. One of them hooks a big fish, is pulled into the water, and on the bottom of the lake, as his fish gets away, he finds a golden ring. His fishing friend is Smeagol, who fights him for the ring and kills him. And no, this is not just a ring, but THE ring, the one he murdered for, the one that will drive him mad and change him from Smeagol the hobbit into Gollum the infinitely sad creature of evil. This flashback is all director Peter Jackson gives us by way of explication; what's the point, he asks, of watching Part 3 if we haven't already seen parts 1 and 2?
We have, of course, and with this majestic film - the best of the trilogy - he brings the whole story together. Frodo and Sam are nearing Mount Doom, led by the duplicitous Gollum; Sauron is unleashing his dread armies of orcs and monstrous animals to destroy all humans; Gandalf is struggling to hold his forces together, Aragorn is finding the strength to lead the good people, Pippin and Merry are confronting a world more powerful than they, the princess Eowyn becomes a battlefield hero when she disguises herself as a man. Jackson cuts back and forth from one story strand to another in overlapping steps, picking each one up, carrying it farther, then leaving it to go to the next. The three main strands come closer and closer together, until they meet in a great sigh as the tension is released. It's a simple technique, used since the earliest days of film, but it's exactly what's needed for an old-fashioned story like this.
Jackson has made his story the point of the film; his actors are on screen when needed, but not otherwise. He does not linger anywhere, he does not play up either romance or individual heroism; there are few flattering shots of his stars, the one exception being some overly loving moments of Elijah Wood, as Frodo, looking dreamy. Otherwise the plot drives everything.
The series has improved from film to film, and there is an interesting reason for it. In Book I Jackson - and Tolkien - crammed both an enormous amount of explication and a number of repetitious battles into the plot. There was Bilbo and his story, plus Gandalf, the Ranger, Frodo, Galadriel, and on and on. Once the procession got under way, at each stop we had to be introduced to someone new, along with their back story. Each running battle seemed as though the last set had been redressed, the lighting changed, and the extras and computer-generated figures given new outfits. But always the outcome was the same.
Part II - in the book as well as the film - has less action than the first, and so Jackson could open up his film to give the story and his characters some breathing room. He set up his battles, allowed tension to build, spent time with subplots and bits of character observation, and in general seemed more relaxed about his direction. That's not to say it slacked off; on the contrary, he gave the film much greater power than the first.
By the time the story reaches Book III, "The Return of the King," no one needs to be introduced and there are fewer elements to keep track of. We can relax and watch Frodo and Sam in their mad and frightening struggle to return the ring to the fire; see Aragorn and Gandalf rally the troops, face the last great attack, and give a final peace to the cowardly dead; and watch the unfavored son Faramir be released at last from his father's grasp. And Jackson does not shy away from Book IV, the elegiac coda to the entire epic; he takes his time to say goodbye to those who are leaving for good. At the screening I attended, many people were in tears as the story wound down.
Once again, we can see how well he cast his films; each actor disappears into his or her character. And they grow on us from film to film; by now they're like old friends. The computer-generated elements, which I found intrusive in the first film and less so in the second, are much better integrated now in "The Return of the King." Not all are completely successful, particularly the army of the dead, who seem too wraithlike to be the destroyers of orcs. But that's a quibble. Pathetic, frightening Gollum is all too human, and a giant spider that poisons Frodo is very scary. Jackson's cinematographer is Andrew Lesnie, who has chosen certain colors of light for each different strand of the story. Frodo and Sam, for instance, are shot in a dark blue light, so that even the occasional slate grey seems bright to us among the rocks and cliffs of Mordor. And by the time of the epilogue, splashed with golds and greens and oranges, we are held in the warm glow of sunset. All in all, a fine achievement that does honor to the original, but really - hasn't anyone else noticed that the dread Eye of Sauron looks unnervingly like a flaming vagina? Where's a graduate student when we need one to explicate the coincidence?