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The Return of the King Tehanu's Twenty-first Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

After three viewings I'm finally settling into that comfortable, happy state of being able to remember enough to think about what I've seen.

Plenty has been written about the film's epic qualities and the exhilarating triumphant tour-de-force that it is. I hardly need to comment on the acting -- if Sean Astin and Elijah Wood seemed outstanding, they also had more screen time in which to work. Everyone else seemed equally in command of whatever they were given, whether it was the subtlest facial gestures or the most dramatic whole-body action. It has been a hallmark of these movies that they are unafraid to move between different genres, so at one moment we're watching an comic book action flick, next a horror movie, and then a subtle, understated piece of inward drama that might belong to a great art house movie. They are all well done; how the movie succeeds with the viewers depends on their willingness to adapt to all these different styles in the same story. For me it makes for a very rich experience.

I'm going to write now about the things that struck me either with pain or delight. I'll also state my position on the purism/revisionist continuum, and it is this:

Often we treat Middle-earth as if it were a real place, and as if the events that Tolkien wrote about really happened. That being so, I take the pretence further and say: With any event that happens, public or personal, there will be as many interpretations of the story as there are observers. You see it all the time in journalism (try reading five newspapers from five different countries about the same world event, if you doubt me!) and you meet it all the time in real life. (After spending a month agonising that the person of your dreams walked out of a party just as you were getting to know them as the result of some stupid remark of yours, another person at the party reveals that he left because his pager went and he was on call. A third person says no, that wasn't a work pager, that was his wife. No, that wasn't his wife, that's his business partner, actually he's gay, says another. And so on and so on. You were right there and saw his departure with your own eyes, but was your 'story' the true one?)

Tolkien's world and Tolkien's story is big enough that I can easily pretend, just for the fun of it, that all those things he wrote did really happen. He told it the way he heard it (or found it in that pit of hearsay, inaccurate recollection, skimpy research and biased observation no doubt riddled with family politics called The Red Book of Westmarch). Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens tell a different story of the same events. What fun, I get to hear a whole different interpretation of it all! I love the newness and surprise. After all, nobody's taken away the original story I always knew. Every time I return to the written page, it surprises me and moves me with its power and beauty. But so does the film. But in different ways and for different reasons.

I love the way The Return of the King is paced, the way the stories separate out then tie together closer and closer as the film progresses. There's a nice symmetry. The prologue is one storyline only (Sméagol's), and emotionally it's as much of a downward plunge as Gandalf's physical plunge in TTT. Then we pick up the Fellowship who quickly roll up into two stories: Frodo and Sam in Ithilien, and (rejoined almost immediately at Isengard) the rest of the Fellowship. And then it all unravels again into a big hank of parallel stories and you have four or five lines to follow, but this time the connections between the stories are tighter. At times it's wonderfully done, like Pippin's heart-wrenching song that carries us between the great hall at Minas Tirith and the field outside Osgiliath where Faramir's men are charging to their death, or the sequence of beacons that carry Gondor's call to Rohan. Other times the action cuts across as the characters in one story wonder what is happening to the rest of the Fellowship. Sometimes the Eye itself is the link, for we follow its gaze from one event to another.

And then towards the end, the stories have narrowed down again to just two, but the cutting between the hobbit's story in Mordor and the Army of the West outside it sets up a counterpoint of two different kinds of tension that works very well in my opinion. And then the ending, one storyline at last.

Much has been said about the many 'endings' of the film. To me the endings feel quite right. Like the rhythm of a slowing heartbeat, the story jumps forward in 'pulses' -- the awakening after Mt. Doom, the coronation, the Shire homecoming, the reflective, rueful moment between the hobbits back at the Green Dragon, Frodo's spoken coda about how he feels adrift in the Shire, the leavetaking at the Grey Havens, and finally Sam's return home. It feels like deep breaths moving towards sleep. Like your last waking moments before you drop off. Memories of the day flash past, then you drift off and jolt awake to another thought, then another, then finally you don't wake again. For such a long epic, this seems appropriate. Almost as if a long story was winding to a close but you yourself were coming adrift from it, so the action has leapt forwards and the tone changed while you were away. In the first two movies we were pulled away from the final scene by the camera rising, dragging us away from the hobbits and out of Middle-earth. Here we seem to sink slowly to rest. Some people can't cope with that. Too bad.

By this the third movie we're becoming more aware of the way things are likely to be included in the extended editions to come, so even at first viewing I passed over some of the scene-changes I didn't like with a sigh thinking 'oh well, I bet they'll add something here and it'll all make more sense next November.' Hard to say what a Tolkien newbie would make of it all. When Gandalf and the others ride up to Isengard, look at it for a moment, then decide to go away again, a voice in my head kept piping up with that line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "On second thoughts, let's not go to Camelot. 'Tis a silly place!" I know that of all things, the film makers did not want LOTR to remind anyone of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so that's a shame. The scene before the Black Gates was the same. Gallop up, issue a challenge, and run off when the gate opens. Behind the gate is pretty much the wall of orcs and trolls we all expected to see anyway. For both those scenes there's room to insert some pretty juicy drama -- Saruman's demise, and the Mouth of Sauron. I'm one of those warped Gríma-fanciers, and so I'm hungry to see any amount of Shakespearean tragedy played out between him and Christopher Lee. Dish it out, I say! Tear up the floorboards!

I really, really looked forward to Eowyn's scene with the Witchking, and it was very good. She was exactly as I imagined in the book. "Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek…" And as Merry saw her, "She should not die, so fair, so desperate!" Beautifully done by Miranda Otto. Well fought, and the way the Witch King crumpled up was creepy and effective. If I have a complaint, it's that the scene didn't pause to let us savour the emotion for a moment before leaping straight to the boys' heroics -- Legolas and the Mûmakil etc. Fun, that, but I wanted to spend some more time letting Eowyn's extraordinary deed sink in before rushing to the next corner of the battle.

I liked the way Eowyn and Merry in the movie relate to each other. In the book Merry doesn't realise he's sharing Dernhelm's horse with a woman. The innocent wee lad! In the film, he has a look of such glee when she scoops him up -- "Whee, you mean I'm going to sit on Eowyn's lap for 3 days?" It means we lose that Macbeth-like moment of shock when Dernhelm reveals herself to the Witchking, who says, "No living man may hinder me!" (A misleading prophecy like "No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth…") I'm not sure audiences really got the full shock value of that. But then we see all the more clearly Merry's progress from thinking that this battle is going to be a bit of a lark, to the terrified realisation of what war really is.

There were so many good Rohirrim moments….I was so moved by the charge of the riders of Rohan, but then I knew I would be. For some people horses are just a pathetic forerunner of the motorbikes and cars we've replaced them with, but the film makers knew how to film their power and courage. Horses can't act, really -- their excitement, terror, fierceness and the trust with which they fling themselves towards whatever end their riders command -- those are not feigned. The camera running on tracks beside them caught the glory of those moments beautifully.

I loved the fact that so much of the Tolkien's speech was used as Théoden urged his troops to battle -- all that "Oaths ye have taken -- now fulfil them!" and "Arise now, riders of Théoden!" and so on. The horns of Rohan too -- a rough, wild sound. (If ever there's one prop I'd want to have from the movies, it'd be one of the horns!) Then the riders chanting "Death, Death!" That is in the books too, though at a later point, when Eomer finds Eowyn unconscious on the battlefield. "Ride to ruin, and the world's ending!" he cries, and "The Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible…"

I'd have loved to have seen more of Eomer -- Karl Urban is such a fine actor -- but I could see the storylines would have got further complicated with the crowning of ANOTHER king on the battlefield and the further deeds of Eomer as he fought his way towards Aragorn.

At Théoden's death, he speaks his final words to Merry, not Eowyn, in the book. The films have made more of the father/daughter relationship than the book did, and so it has more impact to give Eowyn and Théoden that scene together. That worked well, for me. All through the film there's examples like that where speeches from the books are re-assigned from one character to another -- so the story gets told, but the net of relationships is cast slightly differently.

The emphasis for Merry has been his relationship with Pippin. The film dwells on his anguish at parting from Pippin, and so instead of moving the focus to a scene between him and Théoden, the film leaves him alone to be found by Pippin on the battlefield. I like the way the camera draws back from them as Pippin says "I'm going to look after you." The way he's solicitously tucking Merry's cloak around him is a wonderful gesture - both futile and pathetic, yet staunchly optimistic given the piles of dead and dying lying around on all sides. It sums up their relationship and hobbit nature so well.

I thought the film paid tribute to Tolkien's sources in a subtle way when Théoden caught sight of the Mûmakil. What Gimli expresses a lot more crudely later on ("Impossible odds, certain chance of death, what are we waiting for?") Théoden expresses with one look. Yes, he's never seen anything so terrifying before, but they are worthy foes for a hero. Tolkien's translation of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon has the hero, faced with impossible odds, say,

Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,
More proud the spirit as our power lessens.
That was the spirit of those ancient warrior people -- preferring to die in glory rather than live in defeat. You see Théoden's eyes narrow with the realisation that the odds are hopeless but the fight will be worthy to live long in the memory of the bards.

I loved the moments when the film told the story in the way that only film can. For instance the very beginning, when we witness Sméagol's transformation into Gollum. Yes, it's a chance for the SFX department to show off, but it's more than that. The images of Sméagol's dissolution and enslavement to the Ring are potent and drive home the point as well as any amount of dialogue could. Another one is the lighting of the beacons -- this is startlingly moving. It's just a moment in the book -- Pippin sees them lit and Gandalf names them, all on their desperate ride to Gondor on Shadowfax. In the film that moment is transposed to a later point in the story. How the camera luxuriates in the power of it all! Hope and light are kindled and passed on, over the tops of the tall mountains in the gorgeous dawn and luminous star-studded night of the beautiful Middle-earth that they hope to save.

I've mentioned it before, but the moment when Pippin sings as Denethor eats, grim and wasted, in the deathly formality of his hall, and Faramir rides into the host of orcs in front of Osgiliath -- how unexpected it is to hear Bilbo's walking song in this context, recast as a lament. I thought that was a stroke of genius (and what a good voice Billy Boyd had for it too.) I had never seen that yearning in it before. I cannot now remember if they removed the line 'We'll wander back to home and bed,' but in any case the harmless looking lines 'Through shadows to the edge of night' and 'Away shall fade, away shall fade' became loaded with tragedy in the context of what was going on visually, with the doomed assault.

That reminds me of two things -- one a false note that happens as Faramir is leaving. It's a beautifully played scene between David Wenham and John Noble as Faramir asks him, "Do you wish that I had died instead of Boromir?" and Denethor replies, "Yes. I do wish that." And Faramir volunteers for a suicide mission. As he's riding out of Minas Tirith in front of the assembled crowd, Gandalf asks him to change his mind, for his father loves him "and will remember it before the end." This irks me -- the absolutely stupidest time to get somebody to change their mind by announcing their personal situation is when they're actively leading a group that is sworn to follow them, and are in front of a large crowd that also has come to see them carry out their duty. Faramir's not likely to stop, say "Oh, you're right!" and order everyone home. Maybe sometimes Gandalf is more like an unwelcome prophet who won't shut up than a subtle counsellor that can bend others to his will. But moments like those the film teeters uncomfortably between arthouse and action-movie.

At the same time that scene did something quite beautiful as it played on the faces of the people of Minas Tirith. Some of the frames looked as though they'd been composed by the Old Masters. I kept thinking "I've seen that face, that look, that pose, those colours, somewhere before. In a Rubens or a Rembrandt or is it Da Vinci?" The closest I've seen is this portrait by Vermeer but that is not exactly it -- I think I'm reminded of one of the many paintings by the Old Masters of The Entombment of Christ or Mary at the Cross. But I can't call it to mind, and I'd appreciate any better guesses that readers can offer me.

Which, if we're going in for religious imagery, reminds me of something I loved about the ending (or one of the endings). After that moment where the Eagles pick Frodo and Sam up (hats off to Weta for showing those grasping talons reaching down with such tender delicacy) we see Frodo flying through the air as though pillowed on the clouds themselves, for all the world like one of those old paintings of the saints as they're drawn up to heaven. Their bodies are so lax and rays of light come through the clouds to surround them in glory. The closest I've found is a Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian but this is not it either. Once again, some one of you will know the exact painting I mean. It'll be some "Apotheosis of St. Somebody-or-other" perhaps. And while we're on the subject, after Sam finds Frodo unconscious outside Shelob's lair, I'm reminded of Michelangelo's Pietá and I'm sure it's not accidental in a film which is talking about making and mourning the ultimate sacrifice. Sam cradles Frodo's body as a mother would cradle the body of her child. If you think that's too far a stretch, consider the words of the closing song, "Into the West." Who is sleeping safe in whose arms, and is it really just sleep they're talking about? All those ideas seem linked to me, and I enjoyed finding tributes and echoes in the film of great art from the past.

Backing up to the Steward of Gondor and his family: Once again, it's not the Denethor of the book, or rather, we only see his greatness and nobility reflected in the way his sons still in their different ways love and respect him, in Boromir's wish to do right by him, spoken aloud at Lothlorien in FOTR. By the time the film catches up with him he's more far-gone in madness than in the book. There is still authority in his look, but the stifling formality of his court is at odds with his slovenly behaviour. It's a fine line -- does he eat like a slob because he is too powerful to be criticised, or because his grief has put him beyond caring what anyone thinks? I'd say the latter.

He also emanates a quite terrifying power still. I find the scenes between him and Faramir interesting and believable. They are consistent with themselves, if not with the book. It makes an interesting contrast with Aragorn, who is so reluctant to hold power. Yes, people will follow his lead without hesitation. But he is never that eager to lead them, understanding the weight of the life and death decisions a king makes. Denethor has forgotten that, and I think the film is making a subtle point about leadership and the rightful use of power. Viggo's Aragorn will make a great leader. He looks like he's trying to be the Tao Te Ching's idea of a leader:

To have without possessing,
Do without claiming,
Lead without controlling:
This is mysterious power.
I have met people who don't question their right to rule everyone around them. So have you. You might work for one. What a lot of grief they spread around the world.

We don't see a lot of Arwen in the film. She does well with what she does have -- her moment of foresight, and her insistence that Elrond reforge Narsil. (Nice moment there, Figwit the 'Elf Escort' even got a line. I feel a bit like a midwife to Figwit, the Elf character totally invented by Roheryn, Arwenelf and others on their Figwit Lives website. I thought their championing of a totally unknown extra that we see for a split second on FOTR was funny and imaginative, and I kept plugging their Figwit news on this website until he became a cult phenomenon. Thanks PJ and crew for putting him back in!)

Back to Arwen though. I hated the cheap device of having Elrond tell Aragorn that her life depended on his success. That notion of him doing everything for love seems so Hollywood somehow. It's such a warm pink fluffy idea, totally at odds with the gravity of the situation. I'm not saying 'down with love!' It's just that when I think of interesting, brave, heroic things people do -- rescues, battles, explorations, scientific endeavours -- they seem more often motivated by a sense of duty, doing the right thing, and the love of adventure. It didn't make Aragorn 'more human' to have him go through all that 'for love.' How often do you read in the paper about some heroic rescue where the people involved don't even know each other? They risk their life because it's the right thing to do for another human being. Selfless, and competely human. In Tolkien's world that sense of civic duty, of standing by people, of defending them to the death, was a primary virtue. I think it cheapened Aragorn to make it seem like he needed any more incentive than that. I think everyone understood that all kinds of loving would be extinguished if Sauron won, anyway.

I do wonder if Elrond was just beating up a scare by telling Arwen that her life was leaving her and she was dying. As soon as she decided to become mortal she would be aging and dying, in Elf terms. We all are. So she has a mere 120 more years to live -- an eyeblink of time for an Elf, but nothing to panic about from our point of view. Is Elrond telling the whole truth here, any more than when he tells Arwen that in her future he sees only death?

I'm pretty happy that the film tries to show that Arwen has a struggle which is not a contest of arms, but finding the courage to face mortality. Three years ago I wrote in an earlier Note:

If Tolkien had written Arwen's story she wouldn't have done any more than she does in The Lord of the Rings, but we might have known whether she pricked her finger sewing the banner for Aragorn, and looked at the blood, and considered for the first time that it would one day be finite; a symbol of physical pains that might not heal once she chose mortality.

I imagine Arwen's Quest for the courage to gamble a few decades of mortal love against the immortality (and all she might there meet!) would move us through such symbolic moments.

As far as I'm concerned, the films have found a satisfying way of doing that.

I'm not going to talk much about the conflict between Frodo and Sam -- in terms of the movie, it feels plausible, it's moving and dramatic, and it rejoins with Tolkien's version of the story at the point where Sam fights Shelob. It's worth remembering that in the book, in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, when Sam goes to hand the Ring back to Frodo, Tolkien makes Frodo call Sam a thief.

"The hideous vision had seemed so real to him…Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth. But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled in his eyes."
This is what the Ring can do to you, Tolkien is saying. It's not implausible to have them act that way at the point which they do in the film, on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. Adding Gollum's connivance makes the most of an emotional triangle that had great story potential and the film played it for all it was worth.

Now to the endings. All along I've liked the way the Eye has become more and more clearly outlined throughout the films -- it was another visible symbol of Sauron's growing power. By this third film it's able to turn and focus like a real eye and its gaze rakes the landscape like an inquisitor's lantern. (Not that I think, myself, that it was ever something you could see with your physical eye, but how else could a film show the presence of that prying, spying, all-seeing will?) What did let it down at the last moment was the way the eye strained downward at the crumbling foundations of the Dark Tower, boggling with disbelief until Sauron was destroyed. It looked funny. The last thing I wanted to feel right then was amusement -- it ridiculed Sauron, made him seem less than the great evil I imagined. A bit of an idiot, in fact. It's debatable whether it makes Sauron more or less plausible to give him human emotions and reactions, though. I'd have preferred to see:

…as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.
How cinematic. And why should the filmmakers draw back from trying to create such an apocalyptic gesture? Their courage hadn't failed them before.

Then for those who can't stomach grand gestures and high drama, there's the endgame on Mt. Doom. That moment when Sam regrets all that might have been ("I would have married her!") -- possibly my favourite moment in the movie. It undoes me every time. Just before that a lot of important things happen though. Maybe having Gollum fight an invisible Frodo just wasn't visually interesting enough (it looked odd -- and I don't know how it could NOT look odd) but I still would have been happy enough to see Gollum fall off the cliff by himself. Instead Frodo pushes him. Is that making things too simple? An added crime in my opinion was the fact that Sam, reaching for Frodo's hand, says "Don't you let go!" and I have a terrible flashback to Titanic. Two things redeem it though -- one is the symmetry between that gesture and its reverse, at the end of FOTR, where Frodo reaches down to save Sam from drowning. The second is something very subtle but I hope deliberate. As Gollum falls into the molten lava, he doesn't instantly vaporise. The Ring is protecting him and unnaturally prolonging his life even then! Then the Ring floats on the lava, heating up until the letters begin to glow. But it's still not melting. It doesn't melt until the moment when Frodo makes a choice. You can call that choice what you like -- accepting that Sam's love has a claim on him, choosing life, choosing hope. The moment he reaches up to allow Sam to save his life, the Ring is destroyed. As though that tiny act of individual love and faith was Sauron's undoing.


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