At last, we have it: the long-heralded reckoning in Middle-Earth between the forces of Sauron resurgent, and the last alliance of Men and their allies, in a fight to deliver the world either into light or shadow. One of the glories of long-form storytelling is that it affords the latitude to set up major earned moments, and in this, the last act of The Lord of the Rings—Peter Jackson’s landmark adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark fantasy epic—we have what feels like an endless succession of them that cash in on all of the tension and setup established previously in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, as well as establishes a momentum of their own for one of the most sweeping and satisfying endings in fantasy cinema.
The story begins with Frodo, Sam and the Ring-obsessed wretch Gollum making their final approach into the land of Mordor, that ashen realm of the dark lord Sauron, whose armies stand poised to burst forth from the Black Gate and wage war upon all of Middle Earth. On the other side of that gate are the remainder of our stalwart heroes—Aragorn, the heir to Gondor; Gandalf the White, the resurrected wizard; Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf, Théoden, Éomer and Éowyn, the lords of the Rohirrim; and Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Sam’s hobbit friends from the Shire; and the assembled might of the lands of Gondor and Rohan. They have each traveled their own tortuous path to the city of Minas Tirith so they might hold the line long enough for Frodo to finish his appointed quest: to reach Mount Doom, the seething volcano that forms the sulfurous heart of Mordor. There, should he hurl Sauron’s Ring into the fires from whence it was forged, it shall be destroyed, and Sauron with it. Frodo is so close now, but the Ring knows it, and it has a power of its own, straining to break Frodo’s will and corrupt even his nearly incorruptible heart. And all the while, Gollum lurks at his side, trying to sow dissent between Frodo and Sam, and to engineer the opportunity he has craved for so long, to kill the ring-bearer and take his precious ring back for himself…
“Epic” is a word that gets thrown around carelessly when describing big stories, but the Return of the King is an exemplar of what epic really means. Everything about this movie is big and grand and full of thunder and emotion. Where Fellowship of the Ring was an introspective introduction, and the Two Towers an angst-ridden story of ascending darkness, the Return of the King is as vast a tale of heroic resolution as one could possibly hope for. As we see the gleaming spires of Minas Tirith and the obsidian crags of its sinister doppelganger Minas Morgul, armies take to the field in a struggle not just for martial supremacy but for the soul of an entire world. And while we see too many acts of individual valor to count, we know that our heroes’ every victory, brave defense, and cunning counterstrike all will count for nothing if Frodo and Sam do not make it to Mount Doom.
That might render this movie’s many great battle scenes pointless were it not for the collective reminder they offer: this is a world of great heroes and men whose blood run with the ancient power of ancient kings. Had they only listened to the warnings of a darkness in the east, had they only put their pettiness aside, had they only confronted their fears, they could have easily stopped Sauron long before now. The closer Frodo and Sam get to the volcano, the more desperate the battle becomes, and the more bitter a reminder that the reason why the world’s fate is in the hands of two extremely brave and humble hobbits is because every other race of the world has, in their own way, failed to take care of its business when it had the chance.
Much has been said about this movie’s extended denouement, which has been criticized for overstaying its welcome, and for having not one, but several endings, one epilogue after the other. Those critics might do well to read the novels that preceded these movies, for there is an epilogue there of such a scale that were it known to all, there might be a louder cry of protest that it too was not included here. Be that as it may, the ending of Return of the King is so extended because there is so much to bid farewell. There must be a proper reunion of our scattered heroes. There must be the union of Aragorn and Arwen to reunite Gondor and begin the Fourth Age. And there must be the final acknowledgement of the four hobbits—Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin—who each in their own way defied everyone’s expectations and performed acts of astonishing heroism.
There are many fine moments in Return of the King: Eowyn’s spectacular reveal on the battlefield to avenge her fallen father; the prologue establishing Smeagol’s corruption; Sam’s willingness to enter the heart to darkness for his friend; Legolas and Gimli’s body count competition; the frantic darting of Sauron’s eye when he knows all is lost, and a final look from Frodo himself who breaks the Fourth Wall to bid the audience farewell just as he prepares to leave Middle-Earth behind himself. Each one is such powerful magic. But none compare to when, at Aragon’s coronation, the hobbits kneel before their friend (and now king), and he bids them to stand. “You kneel to no one,” he says, his voice layered with emotion. And then the people of Gondor kneel to them. Aragon knows how close they all came to oblivion, even if the hobbits themselves do not. Perhaps that is what makes them more worthy of kingship than anyone else.