The Return of the King is what is known in the industry as a review-proof movie. Clocking in at three hours, it’s the season’s colossus and it follows on the heels of the first two, phenomenally successful, installments in the series. There’s no way that fans of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are going to miss this one, no matter how bad reviewers say it is. Fortunately for all concerned, Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King is not bad. In fact, it could fairly be called a knockout. Take your pick of movie review superlatives: Thrilling! Suspenseful! Stirring! Masterful! The reason we see movies!
It’s all true. The Return of the King is a huge, extremely well-made movie spectacular. Most everyone will enjoy the film and it will make a ton of money and it will get lots of Oscar nominations. Sign it, seal it and take it to the bank.
So, what is there to write about? The film stands quite ably on its own and there are legions of Tolkien-ites who are better qualified than I to tease out its finer points (and, frankly, its rougher points). Indeed, I wandered into The Return of the King not being completely sure I could remember which noble fighter is Boromir and which is Faramir. And wait, aren’t some of the good humans called Rohans while some of the others fight under the Gondor banner?
Although I’m no expert on Middle Earth, allow me to offer the following plot summary, which is intended for those of us who were content to watch the first two films only once or twice. Frodo and Sam are still traipsing through the wilderness with the treacherous Gollum. They’re carrying the ring, which Gollum continues to covet as he leads the doughty hobbits to the fiery volcano in Mordor, into which they will cast said ring. Meanwhile, Sauron–the really evil one–is directing the Orcs to move on the fortified city called Minis Tirith, a redoubt that is ruled by an ineffectual and perhaps insane pretender to the throne. In this power vacuum, the benevolent wizard Gandalf and the rightful heir Aragorn assemble a small but valiant force of humans, dwarves, elves and others to defend the castle. These are just the essentials but, rest assured, there’s more.
And more and more and more. It’s all quite a blast and indeed, several of the action scenes left me breathless and squirming and wincing. And other scenes left me sighing and giggling. So I urge all interested parties to see it. Duh.
But a movie this capacious and leisurely also leaves room for viewer rumination, and I found myself thinking about two subjects in particular. One is relatively trivial: When is Sean Astin’s Sam going to declare his love–his erotic love–for Frodo? This subject began to emerge after The Two Towers came out last year, as viewers began to notice the unusually passionate friendship between the hobbits.
In this final installment, Frodo is even more clueless about Gollum’s evil machinations and it is tireless, faithful, devoted Sam who keeps covering Frodo’s back. When the deluded Frodo finally banishes Sam two hours into the film, it hurts us as much as any romantic rejection. And later, the reconciliation is so lovingly filmed, so intense, that we fully expect the two of them to start kissing. Nothing happens, of course, but I wish it had (even if it doesn’t happen in the book). The actors and their director are obviously aware of how this male relationship is scanning on the screen, but they opt for sly hints over overt expression, for safe orthodoxy over a brave and potentially calamitous break with the book and mainstream tastes. As such, we’ll have to content ourselves with one of the intense and memorable friendships in recent screen history.
The other issue is more disquieting. Midway through, I realized this film, as much as any other, illustrates the appeal of totalitarianism, and more specifically, Nazism. This is not to condemn people who, like me, enjoy the film. Rather, I was struck by the extent to which I was enraptured by this misty Northern European pagan saga which comes with ancient, recondite myths and the prophecy of the restoration of those glorious days of yore. It just happens that Hitler indulged in some of the same literary sources as Tolkien, and he spun tales to the German people of their glorious Aryan past and promised a thousand-year Reich.
It is true that Tolkien, who wrote his great novels during the World Wars, intended his books about mixed-race armies uniting to fight evil to be at least partly an allegory of the struggle against fascism. But that context is less urgent now, and what I see in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is everyone seeking deliverance from evil in the person of a chiseled, long-maned Nordic warrior who looks like Viggo Mortensen. Furthermore, the sheer scale of Jackson’s production recalls the bombast of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, from the impossibly huge, computer-generated armies doing battle in impossibly vast architectural spaces.
The fact that all of this is happening in a movie is itself significant, as both the Nazis and the Soviets understood the power of the cinematic medium to move, enthrall and motivate the masses. Although I’m certainly not suggesting that The Return of the King is promoting fascism, I do think that fascism’s allure can be understood in the context of this thrilling, escapist, rapturously epic movie.
But it is, fortunately, only a movie.