Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

"The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" has 7 endings. I counted. And one of those endings has 3 sub-endings within it, so we're talking about 1 ending for every 45 minutes of the entire 14-hour extended edition trilogy. I'm not going to name all of the endings, because we've got a lot to cover today and I still have a parade and a musical to write about, but I just want everyone to be on the same page.

Ten endings. But the movie needs every one of them, because while Fellowship had just 1 linear storyline, and Two Towers had a hefty but still manageable 3, ROTK is juggling anywhere from 3 to 7 separate storylines at any given moment. At the midpoint of the movie, about two hours in, here is a rundown of the action: Gandalf leading the troops of Minas Tirith; Pippen caught up in the chaos of the burning city; mad Denethor plotting to commit suicide and take Faramir with him; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli taking the Road of the Dead; Theoden and Eomer mustering the Rohirrim; Eowyn and Merry riding in disguise with the Rohirrim to battle; Frodo and Gollum climbing to the giant spider; Sam cast out by Frodo on the stairs of Minas Morgul. The movie seamlessly weaves all of these stories together without sacrificing good pacing, character development, or emotional resonance.

Watching Fellowship for the first time, I was enchanted. "Look at the pretty elves, look at the ugly goblins, how will our heroes get out of this jam?" Watching Two Towers, deep in the midst of my nerdy obsession with "The Lord of the Rings," I was exhilarated. "Such a faithful adaptation, so much gallantry, oh cost and the glory of battle!" (Never things I said out loud, life was difficult enough in high school without talking like a Renaissance Fair groupie.) But watching ROTK--there's a scene in that movie where the enemy is about to break down the main gate of Minas Tirith with the big wolfshead battering ram, and Gandalf says to the soldiers, "Whatever comes through that gate, you will stand your ground," only to flinch back in consternation as "whatever" turns out to be fully armed and trained cave trolls. That's what watching ROTR was like. I thought I knew what was coming through the gate. I had no clue how powerful it would actually be.

I think by the time Peter Jackson & Co. were putting together ROTK, having already released the first two movies and seen the audience response, they were a lot more certain and sure of themselves. In Two Towers especially, there's a bit of hesitancy in the switch between storylines, which was cleared up in the theatrical version but really shows in the stuttery pacing of the extended edition, like the filmmakers were unsure where and when to go from Helms Deep to Osgiliath to Fangorn Forest. But in ROTK, they not only seem more confident in their ability to handle multiple storylines, they actually embrace it.

I'm thinking of the scene where Denethor sends his son Faramir out on a suicide mission to retake Osgiliath from the 100,000 Orcs that now hold it. While Faramir and a scant 100 or so knights on horseback ride across Peleanor Fields to Osgiliath, Denethor tucks into a hearty lunch and Pippin sings a slow, haunting little song in the empty, echoing hall. Now, I respect Peter Jackson and can't say enough good things about his movies, but in many ways I think he is a very conventional filmmaker. No one is every going to call him an auteur or say his movies are "experimental." (Example: one of the reasons Lord of the Rings holds up so well, 10 years later, is he eschewed CGI whenever he could, relying on techniques as old as film itself, like forced perspective, matte paintings, and miniatures. You could almost call him old-fashioned.) But that scene in the hall is a truly masterful and original piece of film, so wholly different in tone, pacing, sound, and editing from every other battle we see in these movies. Pippin's song would be sad enough, overlaid as it is on that pitiful company of men riding in slow motion to certain doom, but coupled with the sight and sound of Denethor snorking down his lunch, it becomes a heartbreaking and biting commentary on war itself (which is pretty bold for a movie where the opposing army is the literal manifestation of evil, so you don't have to feel bad when they all die horrible, horrible deaths at the hands of our heroes). The mad lord devours red tomatoes and red wine and cracks apart turkey bones to suck at the meat, like he's eating the bodies of the men he's just sent out to die in his name. The young man sings, the horses hooves pound, the knights yell, and the Orcs draw back their bowstrings for the killing strokes, but it's all muffled, drowned out by the smacking, gulping and chewing of Denethor in his beautiful, empty throne room. The arrows fly silently. We never even hear them hit their targets. And to cap it off, a shot of Gandalf, the most powerful wizard in the realm, who defeated 10,000 Orcs at Helms Deep, now slumped with despair in an alleyway, staring hopelessly at a pile of empty wooden crates as if they were the coffins of the dead.

Damn, I love this movie.

Now let's discuss the parts that made everyone in the theater applaud. Legolas bringing down that oliphant. Yeah, that was pretty sweet. Sam rallying Frodo for one last push up Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!" I get goosebumps just typing that. And thank you, all my fellow audience members, for clapping at that scene and not repeating last week's incident of giggling awkwardly because you can't help seeing teh queer everywhere you look (weirdos).

My favorite, the Witch-King gripping Eowyn by the throat and hissing, "You fool, no man can kill me," and Eowyn whipping of her helmet and proclaiming, "I am no man!" just before she stabs him in the face. In. The. Face! HUGE cheer for her big moment, probably the loudest of the evening. I was going to write something like I'm glad she finally stopped crying and just stabbed a dude in the face, but now that I think about it, most of the male characters in ROTK cry as much as she does, so I guess I'm pleased that Eowyn has shown us a woman can be a bit of a weepy mess and still stab dudes in the face. (Not even in the heart or across the throat, but right between the eyes! Or where the eyes would have been if he wasn't a demon-ghost. Not even Aragorn stabbed his enemies in the face, and he ended up being king. Eowyn is harsh, my friends, harsh indeed.)

Nobody clapped for the death of Gollum, though. I suspect that most people feel a bit conflicted about the character. Like Sam, we look at him and feel repelled by his ugliness and contemptuous of his creeping, servile whining. But like Frodo, we feel a bit of pity for him, too, ragged, friendless creature that he is, wanted nowhere and by no one. And the strange thing is, both reactions are correct. Sam is right not to trust Gollum, because the little fucker betrays them at every turn, driving Sam and Frodo apart, delivering Frodo to the giant spider, and biting Frodo's finger off to get the Ring (he and Eowyn should hang out). But Frodo is right to show Smeagol mercy (and isn't it significant that Sam calls him Gollum and Frodo calls him by his pre-Ring name), because it really isn't Smeagol's fault that the Ring drove him mad and twisted his body into his present form. We like Frodo well enough because he's the hero of the story, but he knows and the audience knows that the only difference between him and Gollum is time. Just like Denethor is Faramir's true enemy in the scene above, not the Orcs at Osgiliath, Gollum isn't Sam and Frodo's true enemy, though Sam often thinks he is. The enemy is the Ring, and the Ring works through Gollum, who is the Ring's longest running master except for Sauron himself. They were together for 500 years, Smeagol and his Precious. Whatever mental anguish Frodo endures as the Ringbearer, whatever connection he feels to the Ring, he knows it's a pale candleflame compared to the furnace of need and madness Smeagol must feel toward it.

You want to have some fun? Watch Two Towers or Return of the King and every time Gollum speaks in his evil-Gollum voice, as opposed to his somewhat friendlier Smeagol-voice, imagine that it's actually the Ring speaking. The Ring is an inanimate object and can't talk, and Sauron is a big eyeball of fire and can't talk, so Gollum is the closest we'll ever get to hearing the voice of pure evil. Just a little thought experiment for you, my precious.

In the end, Gollum is a necessary evil. Frodo can't bring himself to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom, but Gollum does it for him, not on purpose, but because he wants the Ring for himself. I think it's significant that the hero couldn't vanquish evil without help from evil itself. Gollum swore an oath to "serve the Master of the Precious," and he broke his oath to Frodo. Frodo warned him, "The Ring is treacherous, it will hold you to your word," and he's right. Gollum breaks his word many times over and into the fire he falls. But he takes the Ring with him, because the Ring is so powerful and evil that it can't be defeated by the forces of good, which it will always tempt, overwhelm and consume. But only the Ring CAN be defeated by the weakness that lies at the heart of all evil things. The Ring rewards Gollum's treachery with a treachery of it's own, but that final betrayal on the part of the Ring was its own undoing. Compare the fate of Isildur, who took the Ring from Sauron ("But the Ring betrayed Isildur to his death," we learn in the prologue) to the look of stunned betrayal on poor Gollum's face as he burns in the lava and silently implores the Ring to save him, or at least explain why. The Ring always betrays. Betrayal is the only way to defeat it.

God DAMN, I love this movie. The books and the movies were such a big part of my life at a time when I was turning into the functional member of society you see before you today, that even now, 10 years later, I can bond with perfect strangers in the movie theater over our mutual love of Lord of the Rings. It's actually the best part of nerd culture, that sensation of instant recognition of a kindred soul.

I've been working on this post for hours now and I'm still finding things to say on the subject, long after I'm sure most of you have lost interest and gone to look at porn. (You heathens.) I guess I just don't want to have to sign off on this post and say goodbye again. The first time around, when I saw ROTK in theaters and knew that this was it, there wouldn't be any more movies, I sort of made a fool of myself. I'm a big girl now, I can admit it. I wept so much at one screening that my friends refused to go with me to see it again "because you cried too hard and didn't want to talk about it afterward." "It's all just so SAD!" I wailed. "Frodo can never go home again! The Ring utterly destroyed him and he saved the world but it doesn't even matter because evil touched him too deeply and now he has to go across the sea to die and NO, he DOESN'T go to live with the elves, it's a METAPHOR for DEATH, didn't you read the Appendices?" (It's a miracle I still had friends to alienate.) But the weird thing is, I felt the same way after this special screening, years after I've moved on to other obsessions, years after I stopped having a copy of Lord of the Rings permanently resting on my nightstand, years after I stopped watching my copies of the movies. I still felt the ineffable sadness of seeing good friends sail off into the west, no matter how much I wanted them to stay.

Welp, I guess I'll go look online and see if they posted any new pictures from Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit"!


  1. As a 13 year old girl introduced only two months ago to the LOTR books, I must say... WILL YOU BE MY FRIEND? This post was awesome. It totally satisfied my craving for all things LOTR. And to boot, I wish that I`d known you as a child watching Return of the King, because I feel the same way! Of course, I barely have to wait a year between seeing Return of the King and the Hobbit coming out, so it`s hardly the same. Anyways, just want you to know this made my day, you seem like a real kindred spirit!

  2. Oh, I also forgot to tell you I quoted that whole NO, he DOESN`T go live with the elves thing on my twitter page. I am embarrassed to say I haven`t read the appendices through yet... only what happened to our dear friend Sam after the war and the tale of Aragorn and Arwen...