TOLKIEN TRANSCENDED : PETER JACKSON ’S RETURN OF THE KING
by Neil Young
For once, the global hype is justified: this last and longest instalment of Jackson ’s epic J R R Tolkien adaptation is also, without any doubt, the best of the three. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, while far from flawless, were undeniably impressive achievements. But now we can see that they were (extremely) elaborate preludes to this spectacular – and spectacularly entertaining – pay-off. The two main plot-strands – the against-all-odds quest of hobbits Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) to destroy the all-powerful Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, and the great battles between good (led by Viggo Mortensen ’s Aragorn) and evil on the plains and in the cities of Middle-Earth – finally reconverge at the climax of a film which is itself one long, thunderous climax.
As before, Jackson and script-collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens can’t (or perhaps wont) quite alleviate the welter burden of Tolkiens semi-intelligible, mumbo-jumbo-laden, cod-Arthurian/hake-Shakespearian/mackerel-Wagnerian dialogue. Nor do they water down the the books hysterically monarchist, anti-democratic subtext (as the title implies, its all a Restoration fantasy) which is most crudely expressed* here in the figure of Denethor (John Noble), steward of Gondor in the absence of the territorys king (Aragorn). Not being of royal blood, the Cromwell-ish Denethor isn’t just an unworthy ruler he’s incompetent, cowardly, decadent and, worst of all, a messy eater: we get extreme close-ups of his fruit-guzzling, juice-dribbling mouth.
This time, however, it is much easier to overlook the dodgy political angles that mar so much of the source- material (and if he can do this with JRRT, incidentally, what on earth is his King Kong going to be like?). Because, while Jackson is so often held back by his fan-boy fidelity to Tolkien, he has much more scope than before to let his imagination run wild – with some truly stunning results. Some striking sequences are relatively quiet and elegant: a series of warning beacons being lit across the mountain-tops to warn of impending peril. Others are more operatic in their sturm-und-drang, including Denethors fiery demise as he falls in flames from the vertiginous battlements of his snow-white mountain-side city Minas Tirith, he’s blithely ignored in the tempestuous wider scheme of things as war rages below: a witty touch that presumably nods to Brueghels Landscape with Fall of Icarus (as described in Audens poem Musee des beaux arts.)
Jacksons frame of reference isn’t usually so high-falutin, of course: many sequences involving monsters (including giant-spider Shelob), ghouls (there are plenty of uglies on both sides this time) and assorted goblins remind us that he’s fundamentally a horror-movie director with a distinctly weird, B-horror sensibility. But given a huge budget, an un-improve-able cast, and astonishing New Zealand locations skilfully augmented by CGI, he soars to new heights quite literally so during the ballista-dominated siege of Minas Tirith, when the camera takes to the air alongside the pterodactyl-like Fell Beasts (recalling the aerial shots from the fortress-under-siege sequence in Tarkovskys Andrei Rublev). But its during the ensuing centrepiece battle of Pelennor Fields that Jackson goes into full-tilt overdrive: his jaw-on-floor visuals (in collaboration with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and an army of computer programmers) explode across the screen, exceeding anything previously attempted in the action/fantasy/war genres.
Return of the King makes just as much impact in the ‘smaller ’, character-based moments, however: the showstopping, nonchalant dismount of elf-archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) from the mighty ‘oliphaunt ’ he ’s just slain; warrior-princess Eowyn (Miranda Otto) fearlessly confronting the seemingly-invincible Witch-King (Lawrence Makoare) at the frenzied height of the Pelennor battle; Sam tirelessly carrying the knackered Frodo up the mountain on their journey ’s final leg.
Over the course of these 200 amazing minutes, the director himself displays the graceful aplomb of a Legolas, the plucky audacity of an Eowyn, the fat-kid-comes-good endurance of a Sam – not to mention the serene magic of wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the flinty good humour of dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the born-to-do-it confidence of king-in-waiting Aragorn. Jackson ’s achievements here set a benchmark against which all future blockbusters will be measured – and, surely, found severely wanting.
Comparisons with other stand-alone films aren ’t really fair or possible, of course – The Lord of the Rings must be assessed as one single, unprecedented work running 560 minutes, but released in three annual chunks because of commercial requirements and the physical frailties of its human audiences. This explains why The Return of the King may seems to drag towards the end – this isn ’t just the conclusion of a single film, but of the whole ginormous trilogy. And as a film, it doesn ’t stand alone – there is no recap of events for audiences who haven ’t read the books or seen episodes one and two.
Even at 200 minutes, there ’s also no space for Saruman (Christopher Lee), one of the main villains in the first two films, nor for ‘lesser baddie ’ Wormtongue – only relatively briefly seen in Two Towers, but a role in which Brad Dourif delivered arguably the trilogy ’s finest single performance. Honours are fairly even this time, though a supporting-actor Oscar-nomination for Astin wouldn ’t be misplaced – it ’s possible to actually interpret the whole trilogy as Sam ’s tale: the story of a young lad who must to perform heroic, globe-trotting deeds so he can pluck up enough courage to ask a lass out in his local.
Saruman and Wormtongue may, of course, pop up on the DVD – all three films also exist in ‘extended versions ’ which push the total running time beyond the ten-hour or 600-minute mark. The trilogy ’s enormous running-time, vast budget and general hugeness are somewhat ironic given the recurrent David-vs-Goliath theme that runs through so many of the films ’ clashes: time after time, some lumberingly enormous monster or army of evil is bested by smaller but more nimble and intelligent agents of good. Despite the bigger-isn ’t-better theme, and the conspicuously emphasised prominence of the tiny hobbit heroes (to whom all, even the King, eventually bow) The Lord of the Rings is, ironically, something of a colossal behemoth itself: dauntingly gargantuan in scope, length and ambition.
In terms of value-per-minute (and outlay), it ’s arguable that Peter Greenaway ’s 12-minute, hobbit-sized miniature Water Wrackets (1978) – a deadpan-parodic but dazzlingly original re-imagining of Tolkien ’s world – is actually superior as a film, and certainly closer to Tolkien ’s desire to create an emphatically English (i.e. not Celtic) mythos. It ’s now available on one of the recent DVDs featuring Greenaway ’s early shorts, but was difficult to see for many years. There ’ll be no escaping The Return of the King for some time, of course – but, if we must have mega-hyped blockbusters, we might as well have visionary, intelligent, wonderfully satisfying ones such as this. Best Picture at the Oscars is the least it deserves. And if, as seems possible, Titanic ’s long reign as all-time box-office champ is usurped, surely no-one will bedgrudge Peter Jackson his crown.
12th December, 2003
* Apparently the fault here lies more with Jackson than Tolkien: Denethor got a hatchet job done on him according to one LOTR expert
by Neil Young