The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review
“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.”
I feel compelled to state right here at the start that the lavish productions making up Peter Jackson's Rings Trilogy are amongst the finest films ever made.
And yet part of me has not enjoyed looking back critically at them. At the risk of sounding all pretentious and soppily high-brow, I have found that dissecting some of my favourite movies over the years has had the unfortunate side-effect of creating some animosity in me towards them. Although I never suffered this backward step with Gladiator, Jaws, The Thing or American Werewolf, to name but four of my personal Holy Grails, other once cherished titles have taken a knock. Escape From New York, Romero's Dawn Of The Dead and Cronenberg's The Fly are films that I have been unable to revisit since sitting down to chronicle my thoughts and opinions on them.
For a long time I shunned the idea of ever looking at Jackson's Rings trilogy as a reviewer at all. And then, thinking that I had found the best way to attack them, I relented to cover the UK boxset. But once it arrived, the set then sat tauntingly in the “To Do” pile for a loooong time. Every little exploitation thriller and chiller that came along afterwards got looked at and enjoyed, yet one of the most epic movie franchises ever conceived, potentially the most ambitious production ever undertaken and certainly a work that I have held dear and been fascinated by since word first came through that Peter Jackson, of Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles (!), was going to helm it, has just languished unwatched in a sort of apprehensive limbo.
So, apologies for this review coming so long after many others, including our own Cas Harlow, have already taken the plunge and commenced upon their own quest to discuss, praise and unravel the marvels of how indelibly New Zealand became Middle-earth.
My own coverage will be a little bit different than normal. Basically, these films and their mammoth production are already so well known and still so fresh in peoples' minds that there is little point in delving behind the scenes to tell of how they came to be. The Trilogy became, for years, one of the most exciting things to look forward to at Christmas, and end of the year treat for fans of fantasy and action and of Cinema, itself. I, myself, have spent a fortune (not a small fortune, folks, but a big one) on merchandise from figures (all of them) to the swords (all of them), and the whole plethora of tie-in books, toys, rings, statues, masks and other Middle-earthien paraphernalia. Thus, it is fair to say, that Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's work has been a huge part of my life, and that of my son's as well. And its ability to transport the imagination and to inspire should never be overlooked.
As far as I am concerned, this has been the single greatest movie-making enterprise ever conceived and completed. We have The Hobbit to come, of course, but I seriously doubt that it could each the levels of surprise, emotion, eloquence and sheer imaginative power that we have already witnessed. But with Jackson rightfully back at the helm, I am sure it will come very close.
The Extended Cuts of the films are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the versions to watch. They add so much more in terms of character, action, colour, mood, passion and even violence. This said, I have to agree that the omission of bloody Tom Bombadil is still to be heartily applauded.
I'm assuming that we are all familiar with the story. If not, then you'd best skip to the technical aspects and the verdict because we are entering the vast and dangerous Kingdom of Spoilers here. All I am going to do now is to present what amounts to a list of the moments, themes and scenes that mean the most to me … and to take a little look at the ... well ... the silly bits. Feel free to dip in, dip out, discuss or dismiss, or just to add your own.
Coming off the back of The Frighteners, the disturbing beauty of Heavenly Creatures and the bloodbaths of Braindead and Bad Taste, director Peter Jackson may not have seemed the most fitting candidate to sieve from page to screen the complex world that JRR Tolkien created with his literary masterpiece, The Lord Of The Rings, but this was to be a colossal gamble that would not only pay off very handsomely indeed, but would also establish the Kiwi filmmaker as one of the greatest and most accomplished of craftsmen working in the genre of the fantastic today. His drive, his determination and his distinct flair for innovation knows no bounds and, coupled with a singular vision that encompasses every element that goes into a production, meant that the then-oversized Hobbit was able to bring a story that many believed was practically unfilmable to rich and authentic life and to have all of his own personal hallmarks stamped right the way through it.
And his splatstick horror fans need not have worried. The frights are certainly there, Jackson not forgetting his forte for the darker-hearted side of things. The sheer dread of the Black Rider as he leans over the huge root that hides the Hobbits from view, and the cosily creepy moment when the Shirelings, alongside Strider, listen to the rage of the Nazgul stabbing the decoys in another building. Our paralysing sense of terror as the Fellowship hear a swarm of goblins rousing from their slumber and surging to the attack. The birth of the barbarous Uruk-leader Lurtz amid the mud and magic of Saruman's infernal hatchery. The shock-cut of a Ring-possessed Bilbo suddenly lunging for the trinket around his nephew's neck. The grotesquerie of the Enemy's deformed minions and the no-holds-barred impact of the violence. Oh yes, this was a Peter Jackson film, all right.
The sparring kill-count between Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is the audience-pleasing tension-burster in-amidst the grimmest of the battles. And this, of course, does lead into the showstopping Elf's valiant agility, with each sequence of supernatural prowess seeking to outdo the last. His rapid-fire arrow-shooting in the wooded ruins of Parth Galen is an early stand-out, followed in Two Towers by his astonishing swing-around mounting of his own charging horse during the confrontation with Sharku and his Warg-riders. But things then go a bit stupid, don't they? We all enjoy his single-handed taking-down of a Mumakil and its entire platoon of Haradrim (“Ahhhh, that still only counts as one!”), but his skateboarding down the castle steps of Helm's Deep on an Uruk shield, firing arrows as he goes is, quite frankly, awful. It looks daft and that must be the longest flight of steps in the whole of Middle-earth.
I'm nit-picking, of course, as the series boasts some of the greatest action set-pieces of all time. The battle with the goblins (“They have a cave-troll,” you know) and the Fellowship's flight through the Mines of Moria, narrowly avoiding the falling columns of rock and then the fiery onslaught of the Balrog is a non-stop cavalcade of the furious and the ferocious and is the sort of grand spectacular that drops your jaw to the floor and then proceeds to nail it there. It is also capped-off with one of the most powerfully emotional of aftermaths. As the Fellowship tumble out of the Mines (kudos to the slow-motion arrows whizzing past Aragorn's head) after witnessing Gandalf's sacrifice in the abyss below the remnants of the bridge of Khazard-Dum, and accompanied by Howard Shore's Celtic lament for choir, the true gravity and importance of their mission is rammed home to them. Thus, as we watch them collapse in shock and grief (“Give them a moment for pity's sake!”) we, too, are stunned at the level of genuine tragedy that Jackson has been able to wring from the jaws of such pulse-pounding excitement.
The woodland fracas with Saruman's fast-moving legion of Uruk-hai that splits up the Fellowship in scenic Parth Galen is the perfect re-enactment material. Watch Aragorn, the future King of Men, fearlessly stride out into the bloodthirsty mob. We could do with his sort on the streets of England's urban war-zones! Scrappy and frenzied, the action is brilliantly captured by that overhead tracking shot, accompanied by the primal sound of the Horn of Gondor as Boromir makes his last defiant stand. Sean Bean is fantastic here as the troubled soldier, all of his doubts and fears and regrets coalescing into one final act of noble sacrifice as arrows thud remorselessly into his body. I'm not sure how effective a simple bout of rock hurling would be against a gang of marauding Uruks would really be, though Merry and Pippin do seem to take a few of them out with such a tactic.
Jackson pays homage to The Vikings, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Zulu with his centre-piece castle sieges. Helm's Deep is where Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli come to the fore and win their laurels. Legolas shearing the ropes on those immense siege-ladders. Gimli thunking his axe into leathery, monstrous groins. Aragorn swinging from wall to wall like a leather and chainmail-clad Tarzan. Their deeds here make up for their absence throughout much of the battle to save Gondor in the third film. An Uruk berserker becoming a cross between an Olympic torch-bearer and a suicide bomber. The enemy hefting a battering-ram and simply bludgeoning their way through their own ranks regardless of who gets knocked aside. An Uruk punching a fist the size of a shovel into a man's face. Annoyingly, though necessarily, the action is punctuated by Merry and Pippin trying to convince the lethargic Treebeard and the Ents to go to war. This diffuses the pace and the fury, but then that is what scene-skipping is there for. The Ent stuff isn't boring … but it doesn't half get in the way of the carnage. And yet having said this, when the Ents, themselves, get stuck in, we are treated to some of the most surreal and stimulating scenes of justified genocide you can imagine – masses of tree-killing Orcs squished, squashed, slammed-together and ultimately drowned (“Release the river!”). I love seeing Christopher Lee's evil sorcerer so aghast at the destruction of his little empire.
The siege of Gondor elaborates even further from the pulverising majesty of Helm's Deep, increasing the size of the armies, upping the stakes and protracting the battle time to the point where even the most demanding of chaos-junkies will feel glutted.
Three grand charges are championed by Jackson, all led by Bernard Hill's rejuvenated King Theoden. The first, down the ramp of a sacked Helm's Deep into the host of thousands of Uruk-hai, is exhilarating enough, with the swift and timely reinforcements of Gandalf and the exiled Eomer (Karl Urban) and the elite Rohirrim. But when it came time for Jacko to repeat the number, albeit in far greater numbers, for the rescue of Gondor, he created, both visually and emotionally, possibly the greatest charge ever to roar across the big screen. “Ride now! Ride now! Ride to ruin! And the world's ending!” he urges his men (and one woman … and Hobbit) after ritualistically knocking his sword against their arrayed spears and then, with the most monumental rendition of Shore's theme for Rohan and Theoden, leads them into the vastly greater hordes of Mordor's Orc army. With your heart in your mouth and your body actually simulating the galloping motion of a horseman, you brace yourself for the clashing impact when the two forces meet, fully expecting the shot to cut away. But it doesn't. Jackson stays with the charge as the Rohirrim scythe through the ranks of Sauron's monsters, crushing them and batting them aside like grisly rag-dolls. I've always admired the pell-mell and breakneck excitement conjured by the 7th Cavalry's final, doomed charge at the end of They Died With Their Boots On, Errol Flynn's horse actually skidding to a halt on its bum as a wall of Indians hems them in, but it is child's play compared to the chest-beating valour displayed here. And the third sinew-snapping example comes immediately afterwards as the Rohirrim whirl about to face the imposing line of frenzied Mumakil. I love the way that even the horses seem hell-bent on getting stuck in again – look at them rearing-up in excitement as Theoden rallies his troops with the cry of “Reform the line!” Penny for penny, this is the some of the most phenomenal and imaginative skirmishing that Cinema has ever witnessed. With Rohirrim weaving in and out of stomping feet the size of buses, and getting scattered to the four winds by those awful tusks and spiked chains, this is a high-speed adrenaline rush that has you swaying from side to side and ducking your head down in tandem with the riders. Best bit? When that totally fearsome painted Mumakil driver bears down upon Karl Urban's Eomer, having just bellowed with satisfaction at flattening a horse and rider, and gets a well-earned and well-aimed spear in his chest. The resulting collision of beasts has so much resounding impact that you even check yourself for damage.
Nope, Jackson doesn't flinch with his depiction of fantastical-cum-medieval warfare.
The chanting of the massed Uruks as they seek to demoralise and intimidate the defenders of Helm's Deep, roaring out their desire to taste man-flesh. The flinging of severed heads over the battlements of Minas Tirith and the slow encircling of Aragorn's men as they wait outside the Black Gates. The bad guys are tremendous, aren't they? Whether they are simple Orcs, cave-dwelling goblins, the flame and shadow of the satanic Balrog, the cancerous bulk of the mighty spider, Shelob, or the sick and twisted Mouth of Sauron, the best villain, by far, is Lurtz, the warrior chieftain of Saruman's fighting Uruk-hai. Eight feet of bruise-coloured muscle, the lynx-eyed, Hobbit-sniffing juggernaut is a truly terrifying sight. Like Monty Python's amputation-dismissing Black Knight, this brute can lose a limb, get himself sliced, gouged and impaled and still keep coming after you. Jackson was wise to create this new icon to the Tolkien universe. Not only did Lurtz (played by with chilling savagery by Kiwi Lawrence Makoare) provide Aragorn with a worthy nemesis in the first film, but he delivered the physical depiction of the threat that would be continually opposed to the Fellowship. During the last third of the first film, it was Lurtz who made us realise, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Jackson wasn't going to hold back for the sake of the kids.
All this would be nothing but blood 'n' thunder if it weren't for the characters propelling the quest.
I love the fallibility of Ian McKellen's Gandalf. Getting flummoxed and frustrated by the Dwarf riddle to open the gates to Moria, then forgetting the way through the maze of tunnels. And have a look at his stunned face when, just after steadying the troops in Gondor with a rousing speech about standing their ground “whatever comes through that gate,” a horde of armoured battle-trolls burst upon them. Gandalf does lose much of his mystery as the saga continues, which is a shame, but that enigmatic quality that makes him actually quite sinister during Fellowship becomes a reassuring humanity once he leaves his Grey incarnation behind and becomes the White. We all know what a technical achievement it was to create Gollum and there can be no argument made against Andy Serkis being the mo-cap king, with King Kong and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes cementing his title. Yet one of Gollum's strongest scenes occurs with Serkis' real face grimacing out of the screen. Smeagol's macabre murder of his pal, Deagol, leads into a fabulous montage-sequence depicting the monstrous transformation that he undergoes due to his addiction to the Ring's power. Jackson returns to his horror roots again with this haunting and quite scary sequence, and it is shocking just intimidating the Hobbitised Serkis already looks before he retreats deep into the Misty Mountains. But Gollum's most memorable bit comes when he argues with himself over what to do with the “sneaky Hobbitsess” who have ensnared him, his two conflicting selves locked in a vicious schizophrenic duel for dominion over his undoubtedly lost soul. Jackson milks the innocence-in-jeopardy angle in almost every part of the saga, but it is never more apparent than in the fractured identity crisis of Gollum's bitter cold turkey.
John Rhys-Davies' Gimli gets on my nerves. Stuck with more hair than a dozen Yetis and saddled with the role of comic relief, we have to watch him fall off his horse, wheeze along behind Aragorn and Legolas, mutter and moan almost constantly and worry about getting “tossed” by somebody! We all know that the saga of this scale needs a blend of every tone under the sun to get along, but some of these little character traits and vignettes are a bind, particularly when such things often lead to embarrassingly “cute” reactions from those around him. Legolas is awesome, though, and even if he has relatively few lines to deliver, Orlando Bloom is excellent in the role. We all thought that he would be the breakout star of the franchise – but remove his blond wig and pointy ears … and he's pretty useless, isn't he? I normally cannot abide Liv Tyler, but I have to admit that her performance as Elf princess Arwen is sublime. Not only does she look amazing, that horse's face of hers actually benefiting from the ethereal makeup, hairdo and ears, but she is stunningly adept in her bravura stand-off with the Black Riders. And then there's Viggo Mortensen who just excels as Strider/Aragorn. Somehow he manages to make the innate heroism and nobility of the soon-to-be King work with humour, down to earth pragmatism, wisdom and a genuine humbleness that makes it impossible for him not to be endeared to us. He may have his fair share of twee moments but this is a truly three-dimensional and fully-rounded characterisation. Yet, for all the valorous deeds he delivers, I still like his attempts to pretend that he is enjoying Eowyn's rancid stew the best. He's not as good at delivering battle-speeches as Hill's Theoden, though. His attempt outside the Black Gates is very poor, indeed.
The interplay between Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan, who went on to carve a career in Hollywood and on US TV, and Billy Boyd, who seemed to disappear after Master And Commander) is like a breezy antidote to the simpering woes of Sam and Frodo. Apples that come out of nowhere, height rivalry and poo-dodging are the hallmarks of a brevity that will be systematically undermined as their own trials and tribulations beset them. But this is what enables the later moments of heroism and devotion to burn through with the most lingering finesse. “I think we made a mistake leaving the Shire, Pip,” groans a battered Merry, being given an unwanted piggyback by a grunting Uruk-hai, a little half-smile revealing that the happy-go-lucky Hobbit is still in there somewhere, just beneath the wounds. His subsequent speech to his friend about what will happen to all the things that are “great and good in this world” is agonising in almost the same way that it is to hear a child coming to terms with the death of a loved one, such is the level of their innocence. Pippin's back-to-front logic for getting the Ents to go to war is beguiling - “The closer we are to danger, the further we are from harm” - and his coming-of-age as he sings a lament to mask the massacre of Gondor's finest is a shimmering peak of doomed revelation – another seeming child being forced to deal with death and destruction. Although the development of the relationship between Sam and Frodo is more massive and central to the story, I am rarely as touched by their interplay. Too often it becomes wallowing and morose, the sense of Ring-bound repetition dragging them down into the doldrums of despair. Both Sean Astin and Elijah Wood are fantastic in these pivotal roles but, asides from some really big moments of unearthed emotion and soul-searched sentiment, there is a palpable downgrade in our mood whenever the film catches up with them after around midway through The Two Towers. There's only so much doe-eyed awe and soft-hearted affection that a mere mortal can take and now, a decade down the line from enjoying and being incredibly moved by this pairing, I find the duo clogging and depressing to watch for the most part, yet they are still the glue that binds the story together.
I was always disappointed by Shelob, the great spider. I'm a bonafide arachnophobe and I was truly dreading seeing this monstrosity. But I have to say that, as horrible as the creature is, I found it more sympathetic than shuddersome. However, I love the way that Jackson, ever the big-bug fan, has the ghastly thing puncture Frodo with venom and then twirl him up in a fast-spun cocoon right before our very eyes. But it is his ability to convey pity for these beasts that is the most commendable facet. When Sam defeats her and Shelob retreats into darkness, in pain, we genuinely feel sorry for the lonely old hag. Likewise, the poor trolls that have been bullied and abused into service for the Dark Lord or the goblins of Moria. Chained, blinkered and whipped, we understand that killing them is probably the greatest act of mercy that they can receive.
Something that never disappoints me is the appearance of the Mouth of Sauron. Played by Bruce Spence (the Gyro-captain from Mad Max 2), this diabolical PR rep for the Dark Lord brings with him some of the most skin-crawling atmosphere of complete dread that the entire series has to offer. Voice, costume, demeanour – he is the ghastliest creature that Jackson and Weta concoct. And the fact that his big moment comes in broad daylight just goes to show how insidiously petrifying he is. But the clincher is when he produces Frodo's mithril shirt to taunt the good guys with the horrible evidence of how much agonised suffering their saviour had to endure. “And he did, Gandalf. He did,” the beast mocks. It is a sequence of almost delicious horror, so thick with ripped empathy that your own blood boils even though we know it is a lie.
And, of course, if we want to talk about emotion, there is also the exquisite moment during a lull in the carnage of a sacked Minas Tirith when Gandalf whispers to a terrified Pippin about death not being the end. This is such a beautiful little vignette that it truly conjures up the dreadful fear of inescapable mortality, the reverent hush before chaos and the never-ending optimism and hope that resides in the heart even during the most horrendous of situations. This addresses the resignation that some people have when they know that they are powerless to avoid severe circumstances – the real-life plight of the injured Black Hawk pilot as he lay, helpless, as the Somali mob descended upon him in Mogadishu, turning his eyes to the skies above and just accepting what will come, for example. Although both Gandalf and Pippin, and even that poor pilot, actually survive their ordeals, none of them believe that they will at the time. As the big battle-trolls finally pound their way through the sealed doors, Gandalf simply nods to the Hobbit, and Pippin, after being soothed by the wizard's words of the Grey Havens, shudders in terror once more, his face etched with utter despair. This is intensely powerful and heart-rending stuff, but it is also extremely accurate of the human condition and the conflicted emotions that rage through it when faced with … the end.
Finally jettisoning the easily-ridiculed “Mr. Frodo, sir!” series of homoerotic exchanges between himself and the ring-bearer, Sam spikes the heart and the tear-ducts with his rousing pledge to haul his friend up the side of Mount Doom. I elicited a big girlie gasp (very Pippin-like, in fact) during this moment when I saw the film theatrically, and looked around myself in embarrassment to see who'd heard me. And, reflected in the light from the big screen, I saw nothing but snail-trailed faces in the packed cinema. Similarly, the achingly poignant moment when, job done, Sam and Frodo sit exhausted upon the rocks amid a sea of lava, and reflect upon what might have been if they hadn't done Gandalf's bidding, is mightily humbling. But, for me, that little addendum when the Eagles come in to rescue them, is possibly the most captivating. Just look how the claws of the giant birds gently, ever so gently, clasp the stricken bodies of the collapsed Hobbits and pluck them to safety. As potent an image as this already is – what with a tsunami of bubbling lava lapping all around, a couple of near-dead Shirelings, a wind-wisped wizard and a clutch of enormous eagles – there is an intricate and heartstring-pulling lyricism to this that comes as an enormous wave of endorphin-laced catharsis.
Now here’s the weird thing. Up until he got this career pinnacle assignment composer Howard Shore had always been one of the coldest, most introverted and determinedly impersonal of film scorers. Known primarily for his collaborations with David Cronenberg (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly being what many would have considered to be his “signature scores”), lovers of grand, epic film music, the sort of thing that Middle-earth cried out for, were largely aghast at the choice of composer. How could the most bleak, austere and inhuman of composers reach the emotional heights, the dark and satanic lows, the pure and rousing heroism and the infinite colour and breadth of such a huge and varied canvas over the course of three impossibly huge films? With a staggering level of commitment and imagination, that's how. And a huge orchestra at his disposal.
Of all the incredible themes that Shore wove into his masterwork, my favourite would have to be that for the Rohirrim. Tallied forth with heartfelt majesty during the two great charges – that seen at the salvation of Helm’s Deep and then later during the massed counter-offensive on the plains before Gondor – this is the rising, valorous pulse of the story, the ethnic, human-laced cadence of an oppressed but resolutely proud and steadfast people. But his main title themes for each Part – May It Be, with Enya, for Fellowship, Gollum's Song with Bjork-alike, Emiliana Torrini, for Two Towers, and, best of the lot, Into The West, with Annie Lennox, for Return – are justly celebrated. The way he introduces these themes throughout is canny and sly. By the time we hear the vocal versions, their very melodies have become almost like a race-memory swirling in our blood.
A bad side to the Rings?
Well no. Not really. But where’s the fun in that?
So, just to keep the balance and to have a little bit of a laugh, let’s have a look at what was daft, dumb, unintentionally hilarious and/or cringe-worthy about Jacko’s mind-bogglingly in-depth tour of Tolkien’s world.
The Elves. So pure and ethereal. So magically sublime. Always enlightened and at-one with the environment and all that occurs within it. Elrond, King of the Elves, is hardly given to status-dropping moments of crushing embarrassment, yet just have a gander at his reaction to a cluster of little Hobbits all scurrying around him at the Council session to gather the Fellowship. And what about that little tear he sheds as his daughter gets herself hitched to the King of Men? Oops. Basically, these aren’t expressions that you want to be pulling in a massive movie that millions of people are going to see, are they? But he's not the only Elf to drop the Palantir. Craig Parker, who plays the doomed Haldir, is simply wretched. He was wretched as a Roman leader in Spartacus: Blood and Sand too. But what about the hideous moment when he and his crack squad of pointy-eared archers, the Galadhrim, arrive at Helm's Deep just in the nick of time, marching and stamping their feet and about-turning like a bunch of parade-ground bootnecks? And that little expression of surprised camaraderie when Aragorn welcomes him with an all-too human hug – ugghh, just ghastly, I'm afraid.
The Council of Elrond. Dear God … I don't think I've managed to sit through it all since the first time I saw Fellowship at the flicks. Does it still seem to go on forever? I tend to just skip ahead now. Like the wedding in The Deer Hunter, you just want to cut to the action and stop the debate. I view the scenes in Lothlorien in much the same way, to be honest, despite Cate Blanchett's mesmerising and elusive portrayal of Galadriel. And in Two Towers, the admittedly important sidesteps with Faramir (David Wenham) and his men are more instant chapter-skips, although the moonlit trap for Gollum is really quite tragically enchanting. Wenham's scenes would really improve in Return.
Poor Bernard Hill. Not only does the great Yozzer Hughes (Boys From The Black Stuff) and former captain of the Titanic get to mumble away his introduction to this epic as a rambling, dishevelled, magic-blighted stooge for Sauron’s odious henchman, Brad Dourif's misshapen imp, Grima Wormtongue (and, by the way, who in their right mind would ever trust someone with a name like that in the first place?), but he gets several of the naffest screen-shots going. Not convinced? Well just check out his to-camera reaction of the Deeping Wall getting blown sky-high, then. Dear God, this stultified expression of dumbfounded amazement and horror at something that he has clearly only read about in the script and not actually seen at all is unbelievably woeful. At best, it seems as though he is reacting to something else entirely (like being told he’s just fathered an Orc). At worst, he looks like he's trying to be a waxwork dummy. But there are other moments of facial ignominy too. Have a look at his comically glum, stern-faced countenance as he boards up the hole in the shattered gates and swiftly, and sort of abstractedly, advises Aragorn and Gimli, who have attempted bravely to stave off the Uruk attack and buy him some defensive time, to simply “Get out of there!” They're trapped outside and surround by the enemy. He's just locked them out. Or, strutting about in full Kingly mode, when he indicates to his men where to position the strengthening beam of wood against the gates. It's fairly bleeding obvious where it is meant to go.
To-camera faces and expressions play a major part in the films, in fact. The mother of all embarrassing facials just has to be – and I'm perfectly sure you can guess what I'm going to say – is when we are treated to the sight of the group of Hobbits all whinging at the thought of their friend going off to sea with the Elves. Although totally in-character and all very understandable after everything they've been through, this is absolutely rib-tickling to behold.
Just how do piddly little arrows, no matter how many of them are, manage to bring down a mighty Mumakil? They wouldn't feel a thing through their thick armoured hides. On the same topic … it might be supremely cool to see Eowyn (Miranda Otto) riding underneath one of these war-behemoths and delivering a double-sworded slicing to its legs, but we can plainly see that her blades hardly even penetrate the coarse skin. The wounds would be less incapacitating to it than a paper-cut would be to a fat man's bum, yet come crashing down the huge beast does.
And whilst we are on the subject of iffy bits ...
I know it's been said before, but I just want to add my voice to the charge. You want that Ring dropped into the flaming pits of Mount Doom, right? You need to be able to surmount an inordinate number of terrifying obstacles, monsters, armies, evil wizards and demonic bestiary, not to mention the awful soul-ensnaring influence of the trinket, itself. Grown warriors can’t be trusted. A benign sorcerer can’t be trusted. You reckon that only a little Hobbit can make the journey all the way to Mordor, eh? You see those bloody big Eagles up there, wheeling about the sky? Yep, those same Eagles that can smite a raging Nazgul from the air and delicately pluck a stricken, not to mention plump, shire-ling from a remote outcropping of rock and can traverse leviathan distances without pausing for breath. Well, here's an idea … why not just let them carry the Ring-bearer to Mount Doom so he can drop it in from above? It’s going to be quicker, easier and involve a lot less bloodshed. Just before he takes the plunge in the abyss, Gandalf perhaps even realises this when he utters the classic line, “Fly, you fools!” See, Old Greybeard sussed it out.
The balance, of course, is far more weighed-down on the side of the great things, though.
For me, Fellowship is still the best all-round adventure film of the three. We have incredible action, the full momentum of the quest, a story brimming with great characters all introduced excellently and who develop convincingly with each passing scene, plenty of wonderful twists and turns and, overall, a true atmosphere of the fantastic. Both Two Towers and Return of the King have their moments, of course, and plenty of them, but Fellowship is the most magical and eerie of the three. What followed, with sporadic elements of ethereal glory and profound character intimacy, were essentially war films. Fellowship was full of battles too, but the focus was much smaller, the sense of togetherness more fascinating, making the eventual splitting of the heroic nine all the more devastating and seemingly climactic. Fellowship may only be the beginning of the journey, but it still feels the most complete instalment to me.
Take it or leave it, Jackson's Trilogy is a landmark in motion picture history. It's influences are vast, but inordinately literate despite the level of technology incorporated to manifest Tolkien's world for us. It's legacy too immense to fully calculate. Without these three game-changing instalments, Cinema would be a poorer place.
The term “masterpiece” is far too easily bandied-about these days. But Jackson created one with this. The Lord of the Rings, as one single and huge story, gets the highest recommendation possible.