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The Very Definition of Perfection
There is a point towards the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING in which Aragorn leads a contingent of warriors to the Black Gate of Mordor. Surrounded by thousands of Sauron's forces, he quietly looks at his troops and says, "For Frodo."
And that is what the last chapter of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is truly about. As the hosts of Mordor launch an assault upon the last free city of Men -- Minas Tirith -- ringbearer Frodo moves ever closer to the peak of Mount Doom.
Whereas THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING was about friendship and compassion, and THE TWO TOWERS was an out-and-out war film, this final RINGS installment is a marriage of the two. Middle-earth is indeed at stake, but more importantly the lives of these characters we've grown to love are on the line.
The story kicks into high-gear twenty minutes in, with mischievous Pippin stealing the palantir from a sleeping Gandalf. Looking into the Seeing Stone, Pippin sees a dead white tree amidst a city in flames. Gandalf sees this as a sign that Sauron is ready to launch a strike against Gondor's capital. Taking Pippin with him, he rushes to the White City in hope of counseling the present steward, Denethor.
Denethor is the father of both Boromir, who perished in FELLOWSHIP, and Faramir, the Captain of Gondor who held Frodo and Sam prisoner for a time in TWO TOWERS. He is grieving the loss of one son, and disgusted with the other, for he has failed to hold the city of Osgiliath. Facing his father, Faramir asks if he wishes that his sons had switched places, and that he was dead and Boromir still lived. To this, Denethor coldly replies "Yes" and begins to eat his dinner, sending his son on a suicide charge to retake the city.
With Osgiliath taken, the orcs have the ability to cross the River Anduin and make for Minas Tirith. Realizing that Denethor is lost, Gandalf convinces Pippin to light the Beacons of Gondor, which signals the need of aide to the likes of Rohan. Heeding the call, Theoden prepares to ride to Minas Tirith. But they are outnumbered, and Aragorn is advised by Elrond of Rivendell to travel the Paths of the Dead and seek fulfillment of a thousand-year oath to the King of Gondor.
Meanwhile, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum move closer to Mordor, traveling through the emerald city of Minas Morgul. As they begin the climb up the long stair, they witness the march of an army: Sauron's forces, lead by the Witch King of Angmar, who also happens to be the Nazgul that stabbed Frodo in FELLOWSHIP.
Making their way deep into Mordor, Frodo is betrayed, and finds himself alone in a dark lair -- home of the monstrous spider Shelob, portrayed as a wonderful Visual Effect by WETA Digital.
In the two previous films, there have been several scenes that made my heart leap. RETURN OF THE KING has these as well, only tenfold in number. Director Peter Jackson clearly shows off the city of Minas Tirith, letting us see each level as Gandalf climbs higher and higher to see the steward. As this happened, a wide smile stretched across my face. There it was -- the White City.
The scene that topped all others in this regard, however, involves Eowyn, niece of King Theoden. She is confronted by the dreaded Witch King. He utters `No mortal man can defeat me.' To this, she proudly removes her helm and replies, `I am no man!' Their battle is breathless and elicited quite a cheer from the audience I saw the film with.
Some have criticized the ending(s), saying they are too numerous and run on too long. To this, I contend that they're wrapping up a 10-hour story, and the sense of closure is needed. Many mention overly long fades to black, tricking the audience into thinking the film is finished. In fact, there is only one fade to black, and the audience whom I was with seemed to love the last two segments most.
Quite a few moments induce sobbing. As Gandalf puts it, "Not all tears are evil." Many of the final scenes will have your face running red, but others in the middle may bring upon the same response. Whether it be Gandalf explaining life after death to Pippin, or Denethor in a final moment finally appreciating Faramir, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone in the crowd who had dry eyes for the entire three hour, twenty minute runtime.
So, what now? I dearly want the Extended Edition, and a film of Tolkien's original THE HOBBIT. But I'm very much content with what we have. THE RETURN OF THE KING is easily the best of the three, and a fine end to what very well may be the greatest trilogy in motion picture history.