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King Me
by Lucius Shepard
January 6, 2004

First, the obvious: The Return of the King is a suitably grand, albeit flawed, finale to what is bar-none, hands-down, and by-a-country-mile the finest high fantasy movie ever made. One question that arises from this verity is: Does that make it a great film or merely the winner of a beauty contest for goats?

On first glance, the imperfections of the film appear as monumental as its length. The endless pontifications, for one. Was the sound bite an invention of Middle Earth? So it would appear, for every time a big moment looms, nothing will do but that someone steps forward to announce its advent with a pithy, faux-Shakespearean and patently unnecessary pronouncement. When, for example, Legolas is given to intone, “There is a sleepless malice in the West,” the only appropriate response I could think of, considering the circumstance (not long before the final battle), was, “Duh!” With the exception of Viggo Mortensen, who underplays his role to good advantage, the actors are less acting than posing in costume—at times it feels almost as if we’ve been invited to a medieval vogue party. The so-last-century British perception of and fixation upon class, most obviously evidenced by the bond between Frodo and Sam, is framed in an especially hideous manner when Frodo the hobbit aristocrat tells his doting gentleman’s gentleman that he could not possibly carry the Ring of Power, that it would destroy him, a patent insult to which Sam, obeying the doughty regulations of his kind, responds by saying that he may not be able to carry the Ring, but he can by God carry the young master, whereupon he picks up the enervated Frodo and goes serfing up the slopes of Mount Doom. This relationship came to seem so cloyingly godawful, I half-expected a scene in which Sam, on his knees, tongue lolling, receives a snausage from Frodo’s hand. While these and other imperfections are faithful to flaws in the source material, Jackson has always claimed that he needed to make the material work as a movie, and it strikes me that some minor adjustments in tone might have enhanced the process.

A number of Jackson’s own authorial choices are no less dismaying. The editing (a strength of the first two films) is inconsistent, as is the CGI, and cutting Saruman from the final third of the trilogy was not a terrific idea—without Christopher Lee to put a human face on evil, we are left with the Sauron’s-flaming-eye dealie, which comes to acquire all the menace of one of those decorative electronic objets du excess income that can be ordered from yuppie catalogues. (I would hazard a guess that you might already be able to order a palantir with flaming eye effect from one company or another.) Surely some of the lugubrious farewells at the end of the movie could have been trimmed or left out altogether in order to remedy this omission. The white-light scene-fades upon which Jackson relies in Return imbue the film with a New Age taint that serves to leach the impact of its natural pagan coloration, and Howard Shore’s score hits new depths of drear sappiness, especially with those incessant Celtic keenings. Will the person who’s been torturing Enya or Lorenna McKennit or whoever that is . . . Could they just stop? Some of us need a break, okay? Give the lady a Xanax.

Against all the above we can set the spectacular portions of the movie: the sequence that displays the lighting of the beacons that summon the Riders of Rohan to the aid of Gondor; the stair of Minas Morgul; Shelob’s tunnel; and, of course, the battles, in particular the siege of Minas Tirith. Those are the scenes that remain in memory—the majority of the rest fades from mind or has the feel of sideshow material, like the ineptly scripted handling of Denethor, the steward of Gondor, and his parenting difficulties, which seems to have been inserted into the overarching story for no other purpose than to lay on a little Greek tragedy. All this makes me wonder exactly how we should view both Return and the entire trilogy. Obviously, a final judgment won’t be possible until the extended version of Return is released and one can watch the three films in close sequence; but since LOTR is basically a story of war, it might be interesting to contrast the Ring trilogy with another ten-plus-hour film trilogy that treats of the same subject—I’m speaking of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition.

Kobayashi was a pacifist who was forced into the army and served in Manchuria prior to WW II; he refused all promotion and was beaten frequently for resisting orders. His trilogy, one of the unquestioned masterpieces of world cinema, engages war’s despair and the debasing effect it visits upon everyone whom it touches. On the other hand, Tolkien (I prefer to use him instead of Jackson as the comparative, since he was the true author of the piece), served briefly in France during WW I, was wounded by shrapnel, and—invalided—spent the next couple of years standing guard on Britain’s sea wall, a tour of duty during which he wrote the first tales of his mythic chronicle. While LotR cannot be described as pro-war, it supports the moral rightness of war under certain circumstances, celebrates heroism, exalts the psychic attrition of combat by dealing with it in terms of fell wounds and the like, and confronts death in terms of meeting it nobly or with ignominy. That Tolkien chose to translate his war agony into epic fantasy, whereas Kobayashi strove for a brutal naturalism and limited his canvas to war’s destruction of a single soldier, speaks to the cultural differences between the two men and likely to personal differences as well. I suspect Tolkien’s Christian faith and the fact that he lost friends in the war yet did not witness their deaths made it possible for him to view death as a transfiguration of the sort emblematized by the white place to which Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, and the elves are voyaging at the end of Return.

A more apt comparison can be made between LotR and Richard Wagner’s tetralogy of operas, The Ring of the Nibelung. Both are cultural landmarks, if not towering works of art, giving voice to the social temper of the times in which they were produced. The similarities between Wagner’s libretto and Tolkien’s text are profound. In both, a Ring of Power—one that curses its bearer—is at issue; an immortal surrenders her immortality for love; friend kills friend (brother kills brother) to possess the Ring; a broken weapon is reforged; the Ring is returned to its origin; the gods (elves) renounce the world, and mankind is left to seek its own destiny; etc., etc., etc. It might be said that Tolkien reforged Wagner’s story and used it for a different purpose. But while these similarities are of moment to those who care to debate the German composer’s influence (or lack thereof) upon the Oxford philologist, the question posed is, How should we view Peter Jackson’s trilogy?, and there is a similarity yet unmentioned between the two Rings that bears more closely upon this. They each revolve about spectacular set pieces, and the intervals separating those set pieces are filled with padding—silly side plots, incidences of heroic suspense, and literal breaks in narrative that allow for breaths to be taken. Pure connective tissue, much of which seems disposable. A clunky structure that is not untypical of opera. And that, I believe, is how we should judge Peter Jackson’s trilogy: as an opera whose arias are battles. (Amazing, if you think about it, that no one has scored an opera using Tolkien as a source.) That’s how it works onscreen. If it is to be so judged, then criticisms about the pacing, direction, acting, editing, and so forth, while not entirely irrelevant, are definitely not central to the matter at hand. When we attend an opera, we don’t care if the fat lady can act, just so long as she hits the high notes. The Return of the King hits all the high notes and sustains them beautifully. Instead of presenting us with the terrible nature of war as did Kobayashi, Tolkien and Jackson have given us war’s music, and although those who have experience of war may feel that this music is the translation of bitter actuality into something too glorious, too glamorous, to reflect the agonies of battle, thus creating a kind of moral subterfuge, it is nonetheless stirring.

Late in The Return of the King, after Frodo and his mates have returned to the Shire, there is a small moment that makes me hearken back to the The Fellowship of the Ring, which stands as the purest cinematic event of the three films, mainly because it contained more effective small moments than did the sequels—moments that permitted character to be defined and gave the project a human scope and poignancy that became lost in all the posturing and spectacle. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are sitting at a table in a tavern, silent in the midst of a happy hobbit tumult. Their silence speaks volumes. In it, we feel their separation from the crowd bustling around them, the weight of what they have been through, the strange, magnificent, and horrific sights that they have witnessed. It’s a powerfully authentic moment, true to the experience of every soldier who returns from war in a foreign land to discover that he has been alienated from a place that once felt like home, and it’s accomplished without a single pompous sound bite. After all the padding, the ill-considered attempts at groundling humor (such as the off-tone dwarf jokes), the inessential suspense bits (Aragorn’s brush with the wolves in The Two Towers, for example), the less satisfying small moments distorted by pontification, this brief scene shines out. The end of the movie, the tears and smiles and hugs backed by the incessant lament of Enya-or-whomever: these are operatic gestures, sadness as eroticism, emotions so broadly rendered as to be visible to those in the cheap seats, and though they may elicit tears, it’s a cheap trick—the tears elicited are Pavlovian, a response to proven stimuli. Those scenes lack all genuineness. They are formal structures, opportunities to reprise the theme music, arias of farewell. They move us, but fail to impose other than a maudlin truth.

I wish Jackson had seen fit to incorporate more small moments like that tavern scene into the last two films, to braid them into the fantasy as he did in The Fellowship of the Ring. It would, I believe, have made the trilogy weightier, a film we could reasonably compare with classic war movies such as The Human Condition. It would have lent an extra dimension to Tolkien’s themes and yet would not have weakened the film’s entertainment value. I suppose many will see this as quibbling, and to a degree they are correct, because what Jackson has presented us is worth celebrating simply in terms of his illumination of Tolkien’s visuals. That he neglected certain aspects of the story can mainly be chalked up to time constraints and the logistics of making a 360-million-dollar film, and he deserves every reward he receives for his creation. When the Black Tower crumbles and the very land of Mordor collapses and Mount Doom erupts, we are left wishing there was another episode to follow—a sign we have been well-entertained. The trilogy has now gone into the popular culture, standing as an incomparable feat of technical magic, and criticism of the project will seem no more than dust raised by its vast passage. Still and all, a quibble or two are not completely out of order, and I submit, for whatever value it may supply, that LotR’s hallucinatory content—giant spider, F-16 pterodactyls, super-mega-mastodons, et al—might have been better served with a lighter touch of magic, a few less epic sorrows, and a smattering of sufferings more mundane.