Observations: The Return of the King Movie

Observations: The Return of the King Movie

The Return of the King poster-smallHey, folks. Today I’m wrapping up my series about The Lord of the Rings movies with the third installment: The Return of the King (following The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers).

The third film begins with Gollum’s origin tale, telling how he came to be, well, Gollum. Smeagol and his friend Deagol are fishing when Deagol falls in the river and accidentally discovers the One Ring. Smeagol kills Deagol for it and afterward is exiled, forced to live a miserable existence under the Misty Mountains. The main point of this scene is to show us (again) the Ring’s power to inspire intense desire in anyone who sees it.

We then move to Frodo, gazing at the Ring while Sam sleeps. The desire is obvious in his eyes, a reminder that the Ring is taking control. Gollum wakes them to get moving. In a cute exchange that reveals he’s the only remaining optimist in the group, Sam is rationing their food so they have enough for the journey back home.

Aragorn and company (now with Gandalf, King Theoden, and Eomer) ride to Isengard. Merry and Pippin are there to greet them, being silly with the pipeweed. In previous viewings, I missed that this mini-scene is important because it marks the starting place for the two young hobbits, smoking and feasting and drinking. They will never be this naïve and carefree again.

I also love how Treebeard greets Gandalf as “young master Gandalf,” like he’s a little kid. My grandfather used to greet me the same way (without the ‘Gandalf,’ obviously) and it still makes me smile.

Saruman stands atop his ruined fortress and tries to sweet-talk Theoden about how they should let bygones be bygones and make up. But the king of Rohan is having none of it, so naturally Saruman starts handing out insults. The former White Wizard gloats that their end is near.

Saruman in his Tower-smallGandalf tries to convince Saruman to do the right thing and tell them what the Enemy is planning, but Saruman refuses. Instead he attacks with sorcery. Gandalf defeats him with ease and shatters Saruman’s staff. The traitor meets his end when Grima Wormtongue stabs him in the back (literally), and Saruman falls on a spiked water wheel. Pippin picks up the palantir which fell out of Saruman’s sleeve and holds it for a few seconds until Gandalf takes it from him.

Next there is a victory feast at the Rohan capital of Edoras. And, again, poor Gimli is the comic relief, engaging in a drinking game with the invincible Legolas.

We’re switch to Gollum talking to himself. He’s convinced himself to kill the hobbits and take back the Ring. Sam overhears this confessional conversation and attacks Gollum. Frodo stops him, saying they still need Gollum as a guide.

Then back to Edoras. After the party, Pippin snatches the palantir from Gandalf for another peek. (Yeah, even Merry knows this is a bad idea and tries to talk him out of it.)

Pippin sees the Eye of Sauron in the seeing-stone, and it sees him, too. Aragorn rushes in to knock it out of his hands.

Pippin  with the Palantir-smallGandalf interrogates Pippin, who says he saw Minas Tirith burning. Gandalf takes this to mean that the Enemy is going to attack the White City. Theoden is not convinced he needs to help Gondor if war comes. Gandalf and Pippin ride to Minas Tirith to warn them. Oh, and Merry tells Pippin that he smokes too much. Stoners ftw!

The film takes us to Arwen, riding to the Grey Havens. She sees a vision of a young boy playing with an older Aragorn; it’s their son-to-be. This little scene is well done, tugging on the right heartstrings.

She rides back to Rivendell to confront her father. She talks him into reforging Narsil, the broken sword of Gondor’s kings. And it’s a nice touch that Rivendell isn’t as clean or bright as before, showing that the power of the elves is waning.

Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Minas Tirith, which is breathtaking with its modeling and set design. They meet with the city’s ruler, Lord Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who is stricken with grief over Boromir’s death.

Minas Tirith-smallGandalf tries to warn him about the imminent attack, but Denethor refuses to hear him. He knows that Gandalf is trying to bring Aragorn to Gondor to take the throne and he will not cede his power. Also, he refuses to call for help, a la Theoden when Rohan was almost overrun. Mordor starts churning out a cloud of darkness to cover the land.

Frodo and Sam are still following Gollum through the wilds.

Gandalf and Pippin look out over the darkened plain. Pip is afraid as Gandalf lays out their desperate situation. Talk of the Witch-King leads to…

…Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to the hidden stairs leading past the evil citadel of Minas Morgul. Frodo is drawn to the fortress until Sam and Gollum stop him from walking up to the enemy’s gates. At that moment, a spectral signal flare shoots into the sky like reverse lightning, and the Witch-King emerges to oversee his army as it marches out.

Faramir’s host is camped at the ruins of Osgiliath. Somehow, boats full of orcs — with torches — manage to surprise them with a sneak attack. The orcs overrun the city and drive the Gondorians out. This echoes how Faramir lost the city the first time, but this time Boromir isn’t here to bail him out. Also shades of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. Is it just me, or does the orc leader remind you of Sloth (the guy chained up in the basement) from The Goonies?

Back in Minas Tirith, Pippin (at Gandalf’s urging) lights the signal fire to alert Rohan that they need help. It’s a majestic scene as the chain of signal fires pass along the mountains. I have a couple minor quibbles with it. First, if Lord Denethor had no intention of calling for aid, why is the signal pyre at Minas Tirith loaded with wood and a flame at the ready?

The Return of the King signal fires-smallAlso, are we really supposed to believe that people are stationed along those mountaintops year after year, prepared to light their signal at a moment’s notice? Talk about dedication to duty! But, it is a rousing scene, so I’m inclined to go with it.

At Edoras, Aragorn announces that Gondor is calling for aid. King Theoden says, “And Rohan shall answer!” I guess this is supposed to tell us that Theoden has finally graduated from grumpy old man to uber-king. It’s a little abrupt since he just got done telling Aragorn and Gandalf that he saw no need to help Gondor, but okay. Merry offers his service to Theoden, echoing Pip’s new duty to Denethor.

As Faramir’s troops retreat from Osgiliath, the Nazgul show up and start slaughtering them. Until Gandalf rides out and drives them away like a shepherd protecting his flock. Gandalf learns from Faramir that Frodo and Sam are still alive. Then Faramir tells his father that he let the Ring go. That is the straw which breaks the steward for good.

Frodo and Sam get to the top of the stair. Gollum is whispering in Frodo’s ear, using the Ring’s influence to turn him against Sam.

Pippin swears service to Denethor. Denethor wants Osgiliath retaken at all costs, saying he wished Faramir had died in Boromir’s place (which might have happened if he had sent Faramir to Rivendell for the Council in the first place…) Faramir, heartbroken, volunteers to lead the attack.

The Return of the King Faramir's charge-smallGollum frames Sam for eating all their rations. Sam attacks Gollum, but Frodo stops him (again). Corrupted by the Ring and Gollum’s whispers, Frodo sends Sam away and goes on without him. Sam is crushed.

Faramir and his men ride out to attack the ruins. At the same time, the Rohirrim gather under Theoden’s banner. They are too few. Eowyn wants to fight, but she’s told to stay back.

Elrond arrives in camp and gives Narsil (reforged into Anduril) to Aragorn. He convinces Aragorn to take up his destiny and recruit the ghosts under the haunted mountain to help in the fight.

As Aragorn prepares to ride out, Eowyn confronts him. She’s angry that he’s leaving the army (and her); he finally mans up and says he cannot give her what she wants. Gimli and Legolas, of course, insist on going with Aragorn.

The host of Rohan rides to Gondor. Eowyn (dressed as a man) tags along and takes Merry, too.

Aragorn summons the dead soldiers of the mountain and reveals himself as the heir to the throne of Gondor. The ghosts don’t seem receptive to his offer of a reprieve, but they come around after dumping an avalanche of skulls on the three heroes.

Aragorn in the Paths of the DeadFaramir’s horse drags him back to Minas Tirith. The attack was a massive failure. Denethor is too insane to see that his son is still alive; he orders his soldiers to give up the fight and flee. Until Gandalf smacks him upside the head and takes over the city’s defense.

The battle begins. I’m not entirely sure why Minas Tirith’s trebuchets hurl pieces of city at the attacking army. Wouldn’t regular ammunition (stone or iron shot) be more effective? However, it is scenic. The entire battle takes advantage of the city’s beauty with picturesque shots.

However, the Gondorians fight like punks. This entire movie I was less than impressed with the vaunted fighting prowess of Gondor’s soldiers. I can understand getting overrun by superior numbers, but even individually they just suck. Still, it looks as if the city might withstand the assault, until the big battering ram rolls up.

Aragorn and his undead army stop the fleet of corsairs from sailing to attack Minas Tirith.

Gollum leads Frodo into the lair of Shelob, the giant spider, and then ditches him. Frodo remembers Lady Galadriel’s gift and lights it, which wakes the spider. He flees and finally cuts his way out of the lair. Gollum attacks him, they fight, and Frodo wins.

Return of the King Shelob-smallI just want to pause and say that I loved how Shelob was shown in the movie. Watching that big spider crawl around was genuinely creepy.

At Minas Tirith the battle is not going well. As Denethor takes the unconscious Faramir to the crypts, the ram breaks down the main gates and the orcs pour in (behind an assault squad of armored trolls).

Frodo is approaching a watchtower in the mountain pass when Shelob catches up to him. She stings him with her poison (through his mithril shirt, it appears….) and wraps him up in webs. Right then, Sam arrives with Frodo’s sword, Sting, and Galadriel’s light.

He fights off the spider, driving her off and saving his friend. Frodo, however, appears to be dead. As Sam laments, orcs show up and he is forced to leave Frodo’s “body.” The orcs, however, know that Frodo is still alive because the spider likes her pretty living when she eats. They take Frodo away for interrogation.

Pippin tries to stop Denethor from laying his son on a pyre, but cannot, so he goes to tell Gandalf. (Really? Does the old wizard have to do everything?)

As Gandalf and Pippin ride to the crypts, the Witch-King swoops in. The lord of the Nazgul shatters Gandalf’s staff — which should render him almost powerless, if we’re going by other events in the story. Just before the Witch-King can kill poor Gandalf, however, the Rohirrim arrive, and Witch-King goes to deal with them. Extremely anti-climactic and (this is blasphemy, I know) poor storytelling. Such a shame it wasn’t handled better.

Return of the King oliphants-smallAnyway, Theoden gets his men fired up with a pep talk and they charge into the battle. Meanwhile Denethor is dousing himself and Faramir with oil. Gandalf and Pip manage to save Faramir, but Denethor gets lit up anyway and runs burning over the ramparts of the citadel in a dramatic death. (Lots of people falling to their death in this movie.)

On the battlefield, Theoden’s men have driven off the orcs, but now the Haradrim (men from the south allied with Sauron) show up with a bunch of war-oliphants.

I love the way the oliphants plow through the Rohan cavalry. The scene gets a little silly with its heroics. Eowyn hamstrings a giant oliphant with one-handed chops through tendons capable of supporting a hundred tons. Merry turns into a mini-hulks and starts killing orcs left and right. (That must make the Gondorians feel really terrible about themselves in comparison.) Later, Legolas triple-taps an oliphant through the back of the skull and surfs down its trunk. All silly, but it’s in good fun.

There’s an interesting little scene where Gandalf tells Pippin not to despair because death is just the beginning of a new journey in a wonderful afterlife. It’s touching, although I couldn’t help wondering… if that’s true, then why fight at all?

The Return of the King Eowyn and Witch-KingTheoden falls to the Witch-King, and Eowyn comes to his rescue. Legend says that no man can kill this Nazgul, and Eowyn reveals that she is not a man. I really loved the effect as she stabs the Witch-King in the face, how he crumpled inward like he was being sucked into a singularity. Theoden dies anyway, and Eowyn falls unconscious from her wounds.

After his army of ghosts wins the day, Aragorn releases them from their eternal bondage. Some folks have brought up that Aragorn was stupid here, that he should have forced the undead army to take out Mordor, too, before he released them.

I see the logic, but Aragorn is a man of honor. The ghosts did what he asked them to do, so he fulfilled his part of the bargain. It makes sense from the character’s perspective.

Pippin just happens to find Merry’s cloak on the battlefield and then finds Merry. Aragorn heals Eowyn’s Nazgul-inflicted wounds and brings her back from death’s door.

Frodo wakes up inside the orc watchtower. Things look bad for him until the orcs start to fight over his confiscated possessions, which leads to a fight, which leads to a bigger fight outside until most of the orcs kill each other. (Yeah, just go with it.)

Aragorn at the Black Gate-smallSam sneaks inside, with some incredibly huge balls, and defeats the surviving orcs to save Mister Frodo. I do enjoy when Sam reveals that he took the Ring for safekeeping and then has a moment of hesitate before he hands it back over. It’s clear that Sam has become the real hero of this story, and the rest of the movie only reinforces that. Disguised as orcs, Frodo and Sam enter Mordor.

Back in Minas Tirith, the battle may have been won, but Gandalf is worried because Mordor is still full of orcs, which will make it very difficult for Frodo to reach his destination. Aragorn suggests that they distract Sauron by attacking and give Frodo the chance he needs. Aragorn takes up the palantir (which was pretty much forgotten since Pippin had his look) and reveals himself to Sauron.

In response, Sauron shows him Arwen, possibly dead. I think it’s interesting that Aragorn can see that, and then not mention it to anyone. But oh well. The armies of Gondor and Rohan ride out to Mordor.

Frodo and Sam are trying to cross the plains of Gorgoroch when they are caught up in a company of orcs heading to the Black Gate, but they manage to slip away. Thus begins their long slog across the barren wastes toward Mount Doom.

Sam carries Frodo-smallFrodo can barely move because of the Ring’s great weight around his neck. Sam now realizes this is a one-way mission. Frodo sees the Eye searching for him, and falls unconscious.

Note: at this point the movie starts jumping back and forth between different perspectives at an alarming rate.

Aragorn’s army arrives at the Black Gate where they met by the Mouth of Sauron — a grisly character who is one of my favorites of this movie. The Mouth insults them before showing them Frodo’s mithril shirt (which the orcs had taken from him during his capture). The Mouth says Frodo died a horrible, painful death. Then Aragorn cuts off his head.

The gate opens and the armies of Mordor pour out. The Eye moves to the gate to watch the action. Aragorn gives his soldiers a pep talk as his army is literally surrounded and then he leads the attack.

Sam gives Frodo a pep talk about the Shire and then picks Frodo up. (The classic line: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”)

Frodo holds the ring-smallGollum shows up again and jumps the hobbits. He chokes Frodo, who can barely put up a fight. Sam hits Gollum with a rock and wrestles him away. Frodo dashes up the mountain in slow-motion. (Oh! Now you can run, after poor Sam carried you for a while. Slacker!)

Nazgul arrive at the battle at the Black Gate, but they are met by a flock of giant eagles, who fend them off.

Sam follows Frodo into Mount Doom. As they stand in the heart of the volcano, Frodo can’t let go of the Ring. He decides to keep it (hearkening back to the first scene of this movie, showing the Ring’s power over the mind) and puts it on. The Eye immediately turns to the mountain, and the Nazgul head toward it at maximum warp.

Gollum whacks Sam on the head with a rock and jumps on Frodo. He manages to bite off Frodo’s finger and get the Ring back. Gollum is so freaking cute when he finally gets back his Precious, laughing and dancing around. Frodo tries to wrest it back, and they both fall over the side of the walkway.

Gollum looks truly happy as he plummets into the magma. Frodo is, naturally, hanging from the ledge by one hand. Sam helps him up and they escape as the Ring is destroyed. The army of orcs and trolls flee as the citadel of Barad-dur collapses, and all that Sauron has wrought comes undone.

Barad-dur collapses-smallFrodo and Sam run out of the mountain, but rivers of lava are cascading all around them. Trapped on an outcrop of rock, they share a bromance moment and reminisce about the Shire. It looks like they are done for, until the giant eagles come to take them away to safety.

Here starts what I consider one of the most moving movie sequences I’ve ever seen.

Frodo awakes in a bed with Gandalf watching over him (again). They share tearful laughter as Merry and Pippin show up and tackle Frodo. Then the rest of the surviving Fellowship enters. Samwise comes in last; he and Frodo share a look that says it all. We did it, man.

Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor by Gandalf (completing his role as epic-level wizard/warrior/magus/priest.) Then Arwen shows up, and Aragorn kisses her. Even Elrond smiles at that. They walk over to the four hobbits, who start to bow. Aragorn speaks the line I’ll never forget, “My friends, you bow to no one.” And everyone, including the new king, kneels before the little guys. I’ve probably seen that scene half a dozen times, and it kills me every time.

The hobbits return to the Shire, which has carried on just fine without them. The Shire hasn’t changed, but they have, and now they feel almost like outsiders in their own home. Sharing a drink at the Green Dragon, even Pippin is subdued. But at least Sam finally gets the courage to ask out Rosie the bartender. I guess there’s hope for all the romantic gardeners in the world.

Sam and Rosie get married. Frodo, however, can’t get re-acclimated to his home. He’s not the same hobbit anymore. He finishes his account of the saga, except for the last few pages. Then Gandalf arrives in a cart; he’s taking old, old Bilbo to the Grey Havens where the elves have made room to take him to the Undying Lands. The four hobbits escort them. As they ride in the cart, Bilbo asks Frodo if he still has the Ring.

Frodo's goodbye-smallThey meet the three elf lords of Middle-Earth on the docks. Bilbo boards the ship with them. Gandalf says a tearful goodbye to the hobbits, and then Frodo surprises them by saying he is going, too. This final goodbye is especially poignant. Sometimes you can win the war, but still never fully recover. The ship sails off to the West, and Sam returns to his family. The last pages of Frodo’s book are for him to finish.

Watching these movies again was just as rewarding and entertaining as the first time I saw them in the theater. Actually, more so because I really enjoy the added content in the extended versions. I’m still thrilled to see the Balrog chase our heroes through Moria, still enchanted by the ethereal beauty of Lothlorien, still impressed by the acting of the main cast, still moved by the series of climaxes from Minas Tirith to the Grey Havens.

I consider these films a masterpiece. Yes, there are a few hiccups along the way, but overall they are magnificent in their scope and detail. As a fantasy writer and reader, I’d like to think there will be even better fantasy-themed movies in the future, but I don’t know if anything will ever beat this. They’ve certainly set the bar sky-high.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip. It was my pleasure to write these articles. More than anything, they’ve instilled in me a desire to re-read Prof. Tolkien’s books for the umpteenth time.

Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.

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I’m assuming the bit with the beacons is just a sign that while Denethor doesn’t intend to use them, he is a competent steward and is all about maintaining things as they were. And I hope the soldiers were on some kind of rotation rather than a permanent station up on the mountains 🙂

I agree about the Gondorian soldiers’ fighting. Jackson really just whiffs on Gondor in general. He missed the point of Denethor’s fall, portraying him as a goon rather than a great man tragically in despair, and I think he’s so intent on ratcheting up suspense with the carnage that he inadvertently makes the good guys look completely outclassed. I think his horror background has the effect of making him more interested in monsters than in the heroes that vanquish them.

While there have been many criticisms about Jackson’s decision to have Frodo and Gollum wrestle over the ring, I like what Jackson does with the editing of that bit: the ring falls but it doesn’t actually melt until Frodo embraces hope and takes Sam’s hand.

Why keep fighting if the afterlife is so great? God didn’t make the world just so a bunch of assholes could wreck it for all time… *shrug*

It’s common to figure on Sam being “the real hero all along”, but I think that diminishes what Frodo is really taking on by carrying the ring. I would much rather be Sam in this story than go through the horror of what Frodo volunteered for.

My wife HATES the part with Frodo surprising his friends at the Grey Havens and I think she has a point. If you’re going to up and leave your friends forever, you should give them a heads up, give them time to throw you a nice going-away party or something.

Joe H.

Flaming Denethor running and jumping was a little over-the-top for my tastes. But I think in general John Noble did an excellent job with the part as it was presented to him.

And add me to the contingent who was happy that they included all of the endings up to the Grey Havens.

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