Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Forty-Eight

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#48 — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003).
When surveying the films of the past ten years, it’s tempting to view Peter Jackson’s three excursions into Middle Earth as a singular achievement. While he adhered to the most commonly used (though not really intended by the author) three-part division of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork of fantastic literature, Jackson filmed the project in one extended shoot and always had the luxury of working on it with the entirety of the project in mind. Certainly when the third and final film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, swept every category it was nominated in on the way to a record-tying eleven Academy Awards, the consensus was that it was an acknowledgment of the astounding efforts by Jackson and his collaborators in bringing the whole trilogy to the screen. If some film scholars have taken to considering The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (conveniently excluding The Godfather Part III) as a single entity when weighing them against other cinematic achievements, surely the trio of films that were explicitly conceived and constructed together can be similarly bound together.

That may highlight the astonishing scope of what was accomplished, but it also shortchanges the individual films, which abound with their own virtues. The elegiac qualities of Return of the King are undoubtedly enhanced the immediate preface of the first two films, but there are stirring character arcs, grand battle sequences, headlong pacing and pointed commentary that stand as their own triumphs, independent of what came before. One of the underappreciated achievements of Jackson is his shaping of the three parts of this epic story as their own satisfying films.

Jackson’s feel for the majestic is on full display throughout the film. He’s pulling from Tolkien’s novels to create an entire world, after all, and at times it seems he’s determined to capture every bit of it in single, stunning shots. The camera itself is practically agog as it surveys ravaged battlefields, imposing castles, volcanic horrors. Jackson combines the otherworldly beauty of his native New Zealand with seamlessly integrated special effects to practically redefine the very parameters of widescreen, grand scope film making. It’s to his credit, however, that he doesn’t settle for the dazzling deployment of these images. He’s fully invested in the part of his film that might seem smaller, but actually looms as the most vital component.

Return begins with a glimpse of Smeagol before his passion for the powerful ring caused his degradation to the villainous, gruesome Gollum. That a telling choice, indicative of the attention that Jackson and his collaborators bring to the characters. Jackson and his collaborators never lose sight of the fact that there are potent, fascinating characters within all the spectacle. The sequences on the battlefield are riveting. So too are the sequences built around characters considering the very nature of the war they toil in, or struggling with their own worry and emotional turmoil. In the attention of the film, the psychology of a grim ruler being enveloped by madness or the ruminative discussions of the encroaching gloom of death rightly carries as much weight as the clashing steel of soldiers on the battlefield.

It’s no startling revelation to note that the film ends in triumph for the forces of good, but it’s a sort of tempered triumph. The victory is surprisingly somber. They have saved the world, but it is a world that’s changed forever. It is noticeably, irreparably damaged, and the closing scenes make clear that the most enchanted elements of it are fading away. Frodo, the diminutive hero who carried the ring from the innocent, Edenic splendor of The Shire to the bubbling cauldron of Hell at Mount Doom, is a wounded soul, noticeably adrift even before he steps onto a big wooden ship to carry him away from the land he preserved with his bravery. Jackson comes to this conclusion out of fidelity to the original work, of course, but that makes it no less uncommon or brave on his part. Movies built around skirmishes between clearly delineated forces of good and evil are supposed to end with contentment and adulation for the heroes, not bittersweet realization that they’ve returned from their mission as scarred victors. Jackson is bold enough to acknowledge that, even in a universe of readily apparent magic, evil is never bested, only quelled. And war, no matter how noble and just, always inflicts its toll.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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