December 2003 came to be a time of celebration and sadness for a lot of the film-going world. Peter Jackson’s astonishing vision for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was set to finish with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After initially being told that it was an impossible task, Jackson took the Warg by the teeth and filmed all three films back-to-back. His hard work would pay off at the Oscar ceremony the following year, when he swept through, winning an incredible 11 statuettes and righting the wrongs of the Academy after they overlooked Fellowship of the Ring in favour of A Beautiful Mind.
Jackson’s greatest achievement within the whole trilogy was the way he cleverly dealt with the huge text available to him. He cut unnecessary elements like Tom Bombadil and Sharkey attacking the Shire. He rearranged the narrative to make it run in chronological order, a feat which the book, frustratingly, never seemed to bothered with. He even gave us epic battles on the biggest possible stage and redefined what fantasy battles would look like going forward. This is not to say that the series is without some problems, with The Return of the King especially suffering from multiple-ending syndrome. But these small foibles can be ignored when looking at the saga as a whole.
Fellowship of the Ring was a revelation and is without question the best of the series. The Two Towers, sagging under the pressure of being a sequel and the ‘filler’ portion of the narrative, introduced the battle of Helm’s Deep and ranks as the best middle film in a trilogy since Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. By the time The Return of the King was due to be released expectation was as high as for any film in history. Concerns were voiced about how Jackson would tackle the length and breadth of the story ahead. These voices should have learnt their lesson after the first two films.
The Return of the King had to tie together all the disparate elements of the broken fellowship like a shopping list of things to do; Get Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to Mount Doom. Have Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finally realise his true destiny. Get Pippin (Billy Boyd) to sing. Have Gandalf (Ian McKellen) kick some serious Nazgul backside. Jackson, as he had in every film leading up to it deals with all of this with the confidence of a man who knows he has got it all sorted and under control. Only in the final scenes does the action start to drag slightly, but he clearly had trouble saying goodbye to the characters that he’d grown to love. Can we really deny him this one small misstep?
Ranking as the second best in the series, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is still head-and-shoulders above most fantasy genre films and even most films released that year. It’s a marvel that brings everything back to the beginning and rounds out what could be argued is the best trilogy of all time. Breath-taking, exciting and fully realised, The Lord of the Rings trilogy will go down in history as proof that passion, hard-work and commitment, rather than advertising, a-list names and set-pieces, do get rewarded. Well done Peter Jackson. Simply wonderful.