The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

This review includes full spoilers. Proceed accordingly. For other movie reviews from me, click HERE:

Dusty: Read now!… Read now!… Read! Read to ruin and the post’s ending!
Dusty: Death!
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Dusty: Death!
Comments: [echoing] Death!

Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Fran Walsh (screenplay), Phillippa Boyens (screenplay), Peter Jackson (screenplay)
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis
Release Date: December 17, 2003 (United States)
Run time: 3 hours, 21 minutes


via Wiki:

The hobbitSméagol, is fishing with his cousin Déagol, who discovers the One Ring in the river. Sméagol’s mind is ensnared by the Ring, and he kills his cousin for it. Increasingly corrupted physically and mentally, he retreats into the Misty Mountains and becomes known as Gollum.

Centuries later, during the War of the RingGandalf leads AragornLegolasGimli, and King Théoden of Rohan to Isengard, where they reunite with Merry and Pippin. Gandalf retrieves Saruman’s palantír, and the group returns to Edoras to celebrate their victory at Helm’s Deep.[a] Pippin looks into the palantír, seeing Sauron and a burning tree. Gandalf deduces that the enemy plans to attack Gondor‘s capital Minas Tirith; he rides there to warn Gondor’s steward Denethor. Pippin, who accompanies him, swears fealty to Denethor, whose now-dead heir Boromir had saved his life;[b] on Gandalf’s instruction, Pippin triggers the lighting of the beacons, which call for help from Rohan.

Frodo, who carries the Ring, and Sam continue their journey towards Mordor, unaware that Gollum, now their guide, plans to betray them and take the Ring for himself. The trio witnessed the Witch-king of Angmar, lord of the nine Nazgûl, setting off towards Gondor with his army of Orcs. Gollum conspires to frame Sam for eating food supplies and desiring the Ring; influenced by the growing power of the Ring, Frodo is taken in by the deception, and orders Sam to go home. Gollum then tricks Frodo into venturing into the lair of the giant spider Shelob. Frodo narrowly escapes and confronts Gollum, who falls down a chasm after a scuffle. Shelob discovers, paralyses, and binds Frodo, but is wounded and driven away by a returning Sam, who, mourning Frodo’s apparent death, takes the Ring. Sam realises his mistake when a group of Orcs takes Frodo captive but manages to rescue Frodo as the Orcs fight among themselves. Now inside Mordor, the hobbits continue towards Mount Doom, their destination.

As King Théoden gathers his army, Elrond tells Aragorn that Arwen is dying, having refused to leave Middle-earth. Elrond gives Aragorn Andúril, reforged from the shards of King Elendil‘s sword Narsil, and urges him to commit to claiming Gondor’s throne, to which he is the heir. Joined by Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn travels the Paths of the Dead, and pledges to release the ghosts there from their curse should they come to Gondor’s aid. Meanwhile, Faramir, who was earlier overwhelmed and driven back to Minas Tirith by the Witch-king, is gravely wounded in a suicide charge; believing his son to be dead, Denethor falls into madness. Gandalf marshals the defenders, but the huge Orc army breaks into the city. Denethor attempts to burn himself and Faramir on a pyre, but Pippin alerts Gandalf and they rescue Faramir. Denethor, set ablaze and in agony, jumps to his death.

Théoden arrives and leads his army against the Orcs. Despite initial success against Orcs in the ensuing battle, they are decimated by the Oliphaunt-riding Haradrim and the Witch-king mortally wounds Théoden; however, his niece Éowyn slays the Witch-king with Merry’s help. Théoden dies in his niece’s arms. Aragorn then arrives with his Army of the Dead, who overcome Sauron’s forces. Their oath is fulfilled, and the Dead are released from their curse. Aragorn decides to march on Mordor to distract Sauron from Frodo, now extremely weak, and Sam; all of Sauron’s remaining forces march to meet Aragorn’s diversion, allowing the hobbits to reach Mount Doom. Gollum, who survived his earlier fall, attacks them, but Frodo still manages to enter the mountain. There, he succumbs to the Ring’s power, putting it on his finger, but Gollum manages to bite off his finger and reclaim it. They struggle together and both fall off the ledge. Frodo clings to it with one hand as remorse and guilt flood his mind in the wake of his succumbing to the ring when Sam’s unwavering faith and belief in his friend convinces him to make one final reach for Sam’s hand, saving Frodo’s life. Gollum falls and dies; the Ring, which fell with him, disintegrates in the lava, causing Barad-dûr to crumble as The Eye of Sauron explodes, destroying the dark lord once and for all. Aragorn’s army emerges victorious as its enemies and the lands of Mordor collapse into the earth, and Mount Doom erupts, with Frodo and Sam narrowly escaping the lava.

Gandalf rescues the hobbits with the help of eagles, and the surviving Fellowship is happily reunited in Minas Tirith. Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and marries Arwen. The Hobbits return home to the Shire, where Sam marries Rosie Cotton. Four years later, Frodo, whose wound inflicted by the Nazgûl refuses to heal and suffering from trauma, departs Middle-earth for the Undying Lands with his uncle Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Elves. He leaves Sam the Red Book of Westmarch, which details their adventures. Sam returns to the Shire, where he embraces Rosie and their children.


The Return of the King is not quite as perfect as The Two Towers, but it does not miss the mark by much. The individual plot arcs for the main characters are all satisfying. Gollum finds peace at last, and through him, we all learn how important Bilbo’s pity, all those years prior, really was. Frodo and Sam complete their mission. Pippin grows up. Aragorn embraces his destiny. The emotional beats of RotK are more powerful than those of the preceding two movies. In particular, I was moved by Sam’s acceptance of there not being a return journey for himself and Frodo, coupled with his grim determination to see things through to the end anyway. That sentiment was also echoed in Théoden’s pronouncement to his men that despite not having enough men to win that they would meet Sauron’s forces in battle nonetheless.

Yet there are some blemishes to this cinematic work of art. Time has caught up with the CGI in various places in this film, probably because it relies on it far more than the previous film. The issues were most notable to me during the Minas Tirith scenes. The Battle of Helm’s Deep was able to hide behind its nighttime backdrop to some extent, during its main battle sequence a little harder to see and this fact protected the appearance of realism. The Battle of Minas Tirith was fought during the daylight hours and lacks the advantage of dark. Two decades later, some of the scenes from the city during the battle no longer look perfect – though they certainly still look good. The nitpicks that stick out ot me are that the city is kind of glossy in appearance and the damage from the catapults looks aged and computer generated.

The other disadvantage faced by The Return of the King, when compared against The Two Towers, is one of source material. Modern stories do not make use of deus ex machina the way that older ones do. Thus, as a modern viewer, it is jarring that the most powerful army in the world – a ghost army – is not mentioned at all in the trilogy until Aragorn needs a miracle to save Gondor.

Elrond: You’re outnumbered, Aragorn. You need more men.
Aragorn: There are none.
Elrond: There are those who dwell in the mountain.
Aragorn: Murderers. Traitors. You would call upon them to fight? They believe in nothing. They answer to no one.
Elrond: They will answer to the king of Gondor.

This scene is extremely cool, and would have been fine had these ghost traitors been mentioned earlier in the story, just to put their existence on the radar of the audience, but that did not happen so this solution is tough to accept.

If The Two Towers was a story about hope, and friendship, in the face of overwhelming odds, then The Return of the King takes those elements, preserves, them, and then adds the theme of destiny. Aragorn is the most obvious example of this, setting aside his life as a Ranger and taking up the mantle of Kingship. Subtly, though, and I think more powerfully, the hobbits occupy this idea as well. Let’s think back to a conversation between Gandalf and Frodo from The Fellowship:

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Gandalf alludes to an unseen force playing its own role in this story, guiding the destiny of the world and guiding in particular the destiny of a few hobbits. That force allowed the Ring to find its way into the hands Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. All three were uniquely difficult for the Ring to corrupt. We see the fulfillment of their destinies in this film, with all three hobbits playing their unlikely, though key, roles in the salvation of Middle Earth. Bilbo’s good heart echoes all the way to Mt. Doom, as his pitying of Gollum allowed Gollum to play an important part in Frodo and Sam’s stories. Frodo was able, barely, to bear the burden of the Ring right into the heart of Mordor. Sam was incorruptible to such a degree that he was able to resist the Ring’s appeals to him and that innate good nature allowed Sam to be present during Frodo’s hours of need, in a way that the rest of the Fellowship would have been unable. None of the others were likely to resist Boromir’s fate for as far, and for as well, as Sam. When fate knocked, all three hobbits answered.

In many respects, The Lord of the Rings is Sméagol’s story. Return of the King opens with a visceral and sad flashback depiction of how the Ring corrupted and ruined him. He subsequently possessed the Ring for longer than anyone else except Sauron himself. He ends up spurring most of the action in the tale, having lost the Ring to Bilbo, telling Sauron to look for the Ring in the Shire, and then guiding Frodo and Sam into Mordor – even rendering much of that service cheerfully. Ultimately, he is the one who saves Middle Earth, in that he takes the Ring from Frodo before Frodo can get away from Mt. Doom and before the Nazgûl can arrive to retrieve it from him for Sauron. It was fitting, and tragic, that he dies in a state of elation, and unintentionally heroically, having done an terrible thing that had a good outcome.

At least he died happy and with the one he loved.

Three Favorite Scenes:

  1. The Charge of the Rohirrim.

    Théoden gives probably the best motivational speech of the trilogy here. The visual of the riders lined up, ready to charge, then charging…. it looks amazing. The music is enough to stir feeling into the hardest heart. This scene is a fantastic example of why people go to the movies and it’s what movie-makers hope to create someday when they’re studying in film school.
  2. Aragorn meets the King of the Dead.

    This scene delivers a bit of my favorite dialogue in the movie:

    King of the Dead: The dead do not suffer the living to pass.
    Aragorn: You will suffer me.
    Aragorn: I summon you to fulfill your oath.
    King of the Dead: None but the king of Gondor may command me.
    [Swings sword; Aragorn blocks him with the sword Anduril]
    King of the Dead: That blade was broken!
    [Aragorn takes him by the throat]
    Aragorn: It has been remade.
  3. Sam frees Frodo.

    It’s a tough call between this scene, and when he throws Frodo over his shoulders to carry him up the side of Mt. Doom, but I ever-so-slightly prefer this moment. Sam enters a tower filled with orcs, alone, wins a sword fight on the stairs, before killing another orc just before it killed Frodo.

    “That’s for Frodo! And for the Shire! *And that’s for my old Gaffer!*”

    Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.

Verses the Book

[Just skip to the next sub-heading if you don’t want to be spoiled here]

The biggest change from the books is that the Shire goes untouched. In the novels, the hobbits return home to find that Saruman has taken control of the region. They have to free their homeland after the Ring is destroyed.

I think Tolkien has the right of things. Given the scope of the problems in Middle Earth, it makes very little sense that the Shire should go unscathed and unscoured. That said, it was strangely satisfying anyway to see a hobbit glaring at them, upon their return, like they are a group of weirdos. They were bowed to by the King of Gondor and that means absolutely nothing back in Hobbiton. If Tolkien’s books perhaps reflected the World War I and II experience of the United Kingdom’s troops, then the films reflect the experience of American troops who returned home from those two wars, to a place that went relatively untouched by the enemy while they were away. Personally I preferred the novel’s version of the story, but the film’s story is great in its own way. I particularly enjoyed the shared knowing looks between the four hobbits as they drank together in the pub.


  • Eowyn cut off the head of the Witch King’s flying lizard in one strike. How sharp is her sword? It’s not like that neck was a gogurt tube. There had to be a lot of thick bone and tissue to slice through, right? [I’m imagining a depiction of her swinging her sword at its neck about thirty-three times, with the Witch King standing aside and tapping his foot, before she finally severed it.]
  • One of the orcs was modeled after Harvey Weinstein.
  • What kind of fish pulled Deagol under the water toward the Ring? Had the Ring been down there in the riverbed corrupting one of the fish with super-strength? Had it been corrupting the river life for centuries?

Final Thoughts

The Return of the King is a great movie and it won a bajillion awards for reasons that remain obvious two decades after its release. The special effects show their age somewhat in this film, but they are still remarkably good considering their age. Howard Shore’s musical score is absolutely brilliant, and in particular I loved his piece “The Black Gate Opens.” The Celtic flute whistle at the one minute mark is magic. Everyone involved in this film’s set design and costuming should feel unbelievable pride in their achievement as they gaze at their award show trophy displays. The cinematography is beautiful and is still inspiring people to take vacations to New Zealand. The acting performances were incredible.

If you haven’t seen The Return of the King in a while, or if you have not watched it yet this week, I recommend watching it again.

Here are some classic LOTR memes to celebrate completing all three films:







Read my other LOTR film reviews:

+ The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
+ The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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