Director: Peter Jackson, 2003. (Extended edition)
By 2003, it was apparent that Jackson had created something magical and fantastic with his The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Though the Academy snubbed the earlier two films, with Oscars only for sound, vision and make-up (four for The Fellowship of the Ring and two for The Two Towers), they seemed to make up for this by awarding 11 Oscars to this final chapter. Matching Ben Hur and Titanic, this is the most Oscars won by any film. And this time, Jacson's film earned Best Picture and Best Director honors. Surprisingly, it garnered no acting wins.
Unlike The Two Towers Jackson provides a prolog, a flashback showing how Smeagel (Andy Serkis) won the Ring and was corrupted by its power, turning into the creature Gollum. Then back into the present, we see Gollum leading Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) into Shelob's lair. As a former Ringbearer he has a plan to regain "his precious." Trouble is brewing.
Trouble also faces the men of Gondor in the city of Minas Tirith. Kingless, they are led by Denethor (John Noble) the current steward. When Osgiliath falls to Sauron's orcs, he charges Faramir (Davud Wenham), his younger son to lead a suicide mission to retake the castle, since Boromir his favorite son died earlier. It is a poignant scene when these warriors leave knowing they will fail. Worse, though, are his words when Faramir says, "You wish now that our places had been exchanged . . . that I had died and Boromir had lived." Denethor despondently whispers, "Yes. I wish that."
Denethor gives us a picture of a poor father. He had favored Boromir (Sean Bean) as first-born, a stronger warrior than Faramir. He looked down upon his younger son, even telling Boromir, in The Two Towers, "Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses and they are few." What damage he did. And what damage we do when we play favorites with our children. Our disapproval can wound beyond healing. God has blessed us with children who are unique and not to be compared to one another. As a parent, our job is to "train up the child in the way he should go" (Prov. 22:6). And then release them to the unique paths prepared for them. If we are like Denethor, we may end up sending our unfavored children on psychologically suicidal missions of their own. What a sad price to pay!
The Two Towers ended with hope hanging by a thread, and this continues. Realizing where the hope of Middle Earth lay, Pippin asks Gandalf, "Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?" Gandalf retorts, "There never was much hope. Just a fool's hope." But they keep going for where there is even a ray of hope, men can draw strength.
Sometimes that hope must be manufactured. When Theoden (Bernard Hill) refuses to go to the aid of the men of Gondor unless requested, Gandalf and Pippin ride to Gondor to surreptitiously light the beacon. Aragorn sees the call: "The Beacons of Minas Tirith! The beacons are lit. Gondor calls for aid." It is a terrific moment when Theoden declares regally, "And Rohan will answer. Muster the Rohirrim. Assemble the army at Dunharrow. As many men as can be found. You have two days. On the third, we ride for Gondor . . . and war."
The Return of the King sets up the magnificent Battle of Gondor on the Pelennor Fields. It is spectacular, with men facing orcs, oliphants bearing mercenaries, and even the Witch King of Angmar, the Ringwraith riding on his flying beast. But victory in this battle can only be accomplished by the return of the king with his rightful sword. Aragorn had hidden as a ranger, calling himself Stryder for too long. He had refused to accept his position as son of Arathorn and hence heir of Isildur, the son of man who could raise the blade that once before defeated Sauron and separated him from his Ring.
Aragorn is called to his destiny when the night is darkest and hope is at its dimmest. He tells Elrond (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), "Sauron will not have forgotten the sword of Elendil. The blade that was broken shall return to Minas Tirith." Elrond challenges him, "The man who can wield the power of this sword can summon to him an army more deadly than any that walks this earth. Put aside the ranger. Become who you were to born to be."
Aragorn must rise to his destiny. He is the returning King. He points us to Christ who will return one day as the ruling King, bringing an army to conquer all the forces of evil (Rev. 19:11-21). At his first coming, Jesus was King but he did not act like a king. He had no army. He came in meekness and humility rather than in pomp and splendor. He was crucified as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26) but the Jews denied his kingship and decried him as their Messiah. His destiny had not arrived.
What is our destiny? Who does Elrond challenge us to be? We were born sons of Adam, with a sin-tainted nature. But Jesus' death and subsequent resurrection calls out to us: we are born to be children of the King (Jn. 1:12). In Jesus, through faith in his finished work on the cross, we can become an heir of his, a son or daughter of God. "Isildur's heir," the Son of Man, has made it possible for us to be co-rulers with him upon his regal return (Rev. 20:6).
If The Return of the King centers on the story of Aragorn, it does not forget the story of Frodo. As the film winds through Mordor towards its climax, the power of the Ring begins to corrupt even this little hobbit. But Frodo is a Christ-figure, saves the day and the whole of Middle Earth.
As Aragorn was a version of Christ, so too is Frodo. His path was the humble one, as was Jesus at his first coming. He set his face like flint to accomplish the mission without turning back. So did Jesus (Isa. 50:7). Just like Frodo, Jesus felt the onerous weight of his mission just before he arrived at the end. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus cried out that God might take the cup of wrath away (Matt. 26:39). If there was any other way that would enable him to avoid the cross, he prayed for it. But that was not the will of the Father. No, evil had to be cast into the fires. Sacrifice was necessary (Heb. 9:22). As the tag-line says, "there can be no triumph without loss; no victory without suffering; no freedom without sacrifice." This could be just as easily referring to the first coming and final return of the true King Jesus.
When the battles are all done, when the war is won, and we expect the movie to close out in Hollywood fashion with a quick conclusion, Jackson has a surprise for us. There is still almost an hour left in the extended version. Craig Detweiler, in his book "Into the Dark", asks "why did he have to take us back to the Shire after such a stirring wedding and coronation?" He answers his own question and highlights the way we can connect with this conclusion and with the themes of the three films:
But perhaps I misunderstood Tolkien's intent. The fellowship did not take on the task for profit or glory. The battles were fought to return to life as they knew it -- a modest existence in a remote village. In Tolkien's novels, the Company of Nine do not take up arms with shouts of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.' Their battle cry is decidely local: 'The Shire!' . . . . This connects the dots between God's questions [from Gen. 1-4]. How do we remember who we are? By joining with our brothers and sisters, forming communities in action. We discover where we are as we answer, 'Who is my brother or sister?' These are the bonds of fellowship that triumph and endure, resisting temptation, overcoming evil.Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs