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Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

[Our Sunday Visitor, December 28, 2003]

What becomes a legend most? The old answer, “fur,” wouldn’t be as popular today as it was when Blackglama mink draped legendary stars like Lauren Bacall in a glamorous ad campaign. What makes something a legend, a classic, is not easy to identify, but the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has got it, hands down.  “The Return of the King” is a crowning conclusion to the trilogy, and also arguably the best of the three films, though none are disappointments. That’s something that can’t be said of most movie-sequel series.

People know immediately that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is historically significant and will have lasting value through future generations. It’s a classic. It’s not till we go on to say, “a classic like…”’ that we realize there is no obvious work to compare it with. When have we seen something like this before? The Star Wars series is not of such consistent quality, and in its shallower moments seems a Patty-Duke cousin to Star Trek. Films set in outer space may always be doomed to Jetsons’ syndrome, premised on speculation that will sound arbitrary or even silly with the passage of time. Outer-space films will inevitably lack gravity, you might say, though I’d advise against it.

Other films at the top of anybody’s ‘classic’ list are often character studies (‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Graduate’), or vigorous entertainment of the action, musical, or tear-jerker variety (‘Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Gone With the Wind’). To get the trilogy’s combination of profundity, emotion, and astonishing spectacle you almost always have to have a war movie—‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ’ Saving Private Ryan,’ though neither is as comprehensive as LOTR.

It helps that J. R. R. Tolkien created a legend to begin with, from its furry hobbit toes upward. Director Peter Jackson realized this material impeccably, with the best music, casting, and effects available. In this concluding film of the trilogy all the elements previously set in motion come together in perfect synchronization, without the occasional drag of the second film.

In that film, for example, the battle scenes were sometimes wearying—too many tiny figures clashing on a giant screen. In ‘Return of the King’ the battles feature larger elements that are easier to track visually. The city of Gondor, a mountainside tower of flat-white stone glaring against the charcoal-gray sky, defends itself by launching giant chunks of masonry against the orcs, which land with the impact of a tossed elephant. The enemy has, not elephants, but oliphaunts, a beast the size of an aircraft hangar with bristling tusks. Each oliphaunt bears a wooden tower manned by dozens of archers, and when one of those goes down, it’s a sight to behold. (The elf Legolas’ acrobatic defeat of an oliphaunt brought an outburst of applause from the screening audience.) The winged Nazgul wheel overhead emitting unbearable screams. You can tell because the characters onscreen are clapping their hands over their ears in pain, but thanks to the miracle of modern sound recording technology, the audience doesn’t have to do the same.

A ‘big’ classic film has big fight scenes. It also has courageous characters banding together, and in ‘Return of the King’ we see members of the original fellowship further separated from each other, to the point of fearful isolation, and then brought satisfyingly together again. It’s necessary that such a story show the characters’ fallibility and fear, or else the courage seems to have no cost. Quiet doubting or despairing moments visit several of the characters, memorably when Pippin is required to sing a Shire song in a foreign land, and this hobbit who was hitherto a clown lifts his voice in a poignant ode. Most striking, however (PLOT SPOILER AHEAD) is the moment when Frodo has arrived at Mt. Doom and prepares to complete his quest by throwing the evil ring into the flames—and changes his mind. Its power over him has grown so strong that he declares he will keep it instead, and puts the ring on, becoming instantly invisible. (ALL CLEAR) We feel Sam’s astonishment and helplessness at that moment.

The effect on Frodo is lasting, and in the concluding scenes he retains a brooding, troubled quality. This is what saves the film from being too sweet; it’ s what preserves a quality of mystery. Tolkien wrote to his publisher: ‘My work has escaped from my control. I have produced a monster—a complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance.’

What becomes a legend is a story that is made out of elements already within us: awareness of a great battle that is going on, that involves us somehow already, as well as invisible powers far stronger than us; the need for others to help us in this journey, and a love for them in all their failings; a sense of our own capacity to turn traitor at the last moment, despite our high-flown claims. All of these are elements of the Gospel story, the story we’re born carrying inside, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ as it was called in a movie that used to be considered a classic. Such overt presentations of the Gospel have no traction in our current culture and provoke ridicule instead. The story has to go underground and come up from Middle Earth for a modern audience to embrace it in disguise. That’s how a story becomes a legend, and a great film of such a legend becomes an enduring classic.

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