Credit: New Line Cinema
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — Peter Jackson

December 22, 2023

The great director Paul W.S. Anderson expressed irritation in his commentary track on Alien vs. Predator (2004) to the common descriptor used to label films with relentless energy and unceasing action as “roller coaster” rides. The description misses the source of the thrilling catharsis of amusement park rides: the anticipatory climb before the descent into action. A binary of action can be inferred from Anderson’s casual opining: those that synthesize the action with other artistic ambitions, and those that use action as both a means and an end. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, one of the highest-grossing films ever made and the culminating entry of the modern epic, challenges that binary. It’s both a roller coaster in the more accurate description and an onslaught of what can only be called big filmmaking — the type we should resist applying the amusement ride analogy to in the first place. In this, The Return of the King is about as pure of a spectacle as Hollywood has ever produced: able to capitalize off two films of ascension only to offer pure thrill for nearly four hours (in the extended edition). For better and for worse, Jackson’s demonstration of episodic filmmaking’s ability to have its cake and eat it too has proved an artistic decision that continues to reverberate through 21st-century blockbuster filmmaking.

Few movies have ever loomed so large over an era and type of filmmaking as Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. And like all multi-part films, no entry in the trilogy stands on its own — and this will always be their great bane. With that caveat aside, The Return of the King stands apart from The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers not just by virtue of satisfactorily closing out the nine to eleven hours (depending on which editions one prefers), but also for the complete pivot to pure spectacle. It also benefits from featuring several largely self-contained narrative and character arcs: the riff between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), the realization of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) as the face of a monomyth, the development of Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) into individual personalities instead of interchangeable comedic reliefs, the entirety of Denethor’s (John Noble) tragedy, and the best of Sméagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis). The strength of these individual threads are served well by the film’s writing structure, which meets the climax of Jackson’s vision and helps establish the final film as a classic blockbuster. 

The Return of the King also carries over the best qualities of the two previous films — otherworldly production design and location, the exponential weight of the ring on Frodo, and, of course, the upscaled epic action — but sets aside or resolves the worst elements of its predecessors: tedious exposition, the entertaining though vacuous banter amongst the fellowship, and the fraught editing back and forth between the more important quest of the ring bearer and the comparatively weightless squabbles between the various kingdoms of Middle Earth. That latter dichotomy doesn’t disappear with the final film, but instead, the non-Frodo/Sam plots, at last, accumulate dramatic weight that not only complements but flows naturally from their ventures into Mordor. The large-scale abandonment of J.R.R Tolkien’s interlacing structure — an alternating tapestry of narrative threads across one chronology — simplifies the first two “books” but augments the final entry and ushers us into an astonishing Homeric climax as Jackson’s more traditional chronology reaches its finale.

While the director is often credited for his prescience into the future of Hollywood (though, perhaps, he was just shaping it), less appraised is his appreciation and indebtedness to the past. In particular, The Lord of the Rings does not exist without Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), the first great multi-part operatic fantasy series. Most obviously, both are based on famous literary works set in Euro-normative medieval societies involving a magic ring that grants its wearer world dominion. Both are larger-than-life adaptations that swell through romance and death, kingmaking and regicide. Likewise, they both make liberal use of indiscrete symbolism and hyper-legible stylistic choices — the sort of directorial choices that are so obvious yet so effective that they democratize the decoding of their images. Jackson follows Lang’s lead in creating massive sets, a special dependency on special effects, and in emptying the source material of most of its spirituality and political ideology. They also both amounted to monster runtimes that forced serialization: Lang’s production was divided into two, while Jackson followed the tripartite structure of Tolkien’s saga. He even looks to the Austrian “Master of Darkness” for a lesson in the efficiency of dramatic lighting in creating a coherent fantasy world. Lang used bold contrasts that approached impressionism at times, whereas Jackson mostly uses hard key lighting and often innovatively combines it with various degrees of edge fill and backlighting to create an angelic or halo effect; this is especially common in his presentation of the elves, who are the most divine and sinless of the races of Middle Earth. A more meaningful distinction between Lang’s and Jackson’s approach to fantasy filmmaking comes in their opposing impressions of modern life. Lang embraces it: having medieval castles resemble 20th-century skylines and performing a kenosis of almost all things supernatural. Jackson’s general fidelity to Tolkien disdains all things about modernity — the utopia of the rural Shire with its neat family lives stands in contrast to the evil of the more urban landscapes of Mordor (for another example, see the green pastures of the former vs. Sauron’s campaign of deforestation in The Two Towers). The collapse of these large and dark urban monuments of evil upon the ring’s destruction begins the process of the land’s renewal.

And in one final lesson from Lang, the scale of the production design is among the most impressive found this century. The previous film’s high point in terms of the sets, art, and production design, and more specifically architectural ambition, was emphatically located in Isengard, with its fantasy gothic exterior and skinny, phallic creepiness; its nadir, on the other hand, was found in the claustrophobic stronghold at Osgiliath where Jackson seems either unwilling or, more likely, unable to show more of the besieged castle than two or three small corners. But The Return of the King’s expression of the imposing and vast capital of Gondor, Minas Tirith, and the endless overpowering pit of Mordor minimize the greatness of Saruman the White’s Isengard. (The aftermath early on of the watery destruction of the fort still impresses, though it’s nearly entirely omitted from the theatrical version.) Elsewhere, Shelob’s webby and cavernous lair, shot by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie in a blue-green tint, entrenches the camera as much as it does Frodo; the giant spider’s cave is claustrophobic and labyrinthine, yet also, contradictorily, the path of escape is always quite legible. The geometric interior takes inspiration from German Expressionism, an influence that reinforces Jackson’s bend for a spectacle of danger.

Mordor, meanwhile, resembles Peter Paul Rubens’ poetic chiaroscuro and vertically structured painting The Fall of the Damned. Jackson builds off the black, red, and gray chalks of Rubens’ depiction of bodies being tossed and tumbling into hell and adds a volcanic center and two discernable faces, Sam and Frodo, to the visual. When the two wear orc disguises and pass through the horde on their way to Mount Doom, the crowd of orcs, from their lowly hobbit perspective, even retain a degree of the verticality from that artwork and its hellbound bodies. The feelings conjured simply through its artistic atmosphere are that of a soul-crushing apocalypse: both a personal scourging and collective expiration. The depth of texture — and depth of focus, something lost to many of the 21st-century CGI adventure films that take inspiration from Lord of the Rings — of Mordor presents an evil as boundless as the horizon line; at the same time, the color contrast with the earth tones of the shire folk makes its destruction into a red and black fiery abyss also feel personal. In retrospect, no alternative art designs of Sauron’s base of power would have been able to replicate the morally demanding and mythical milieu of Jackson’s Mordor. Indeed, we should count ourselves lucky that The Return of the King arrived when it did. Any earlier, and technological progress would have hindered ambition; any later, and the studio system would have likely squeezed any idiosyncratic vision dry, just as it did with Jackson’s subsequent The Hobbit trilogy. But it did come at the right moment, and big-budget filmmaking will never be the same because of it.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon