Appropriately, the last film of Peter Jackson’s history-making trilogy begins with a bit of recollection. Gollum (voiced and body-mapped by Andy Serkis) remembers how he turned from the hobbit Sméagol (fleshly Serkis) to the CGIed creature so relentlessly tormented by the Precious. While out fishing, Sméagol is so instantly smitten by the One Ring that he sets upon his cousin Deagol (Thomas Robins) with a murderous frenzy. From here, his subsequent addiction to Ringness leaves him alone in woodsy darkness, eventually transformed into the slithery, gaunt, and ferociously schizophrenic Gollum.
From here, Jackson’s version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King cuts back to the present, when Gollum is guiding Frodo (huge-eyed Elijah Wood) and Sam (the strangely brilliant Sean Astin — his performance here is excellent). Headed to Mordor, they seek to destroy the Ring (much to Gollum’s upset). Awhirl with panicky fears and tremors, Gollum has nonetheless agreed to “serve” Master Frodo. But he is, as Sam surmises, traitorous, so gripped by the Ring’s power that he schemes to wrest it back at his soonest opportunity and at any cost. The Ring is working its evil on Frodo as well: as they journey from one murky point to another, he begins to distrust his most intimate and loyal friend-to-the-end Sam, and believe instead in Gollum.
This taut three-character drama forms only a third of Return of the King. The film includes two other plotlines that merge in conflagration. First is the king of Gondor to be returned, splendid Aragon (Viggo Mortensen), who rides with his fellows, pretty elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and pithy dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), he of the comedic assessments (“Large chance of death, small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”). And second is forced-perspective wizard Gandalf the Now White (Ian McKellen), with earnest hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd). They all come together, supported by the men of Rohan and eventually, those of the seven-tiered city of kings, Minas Tirith, to fight the armies of Sauron, in what Gandalf pronounces “the great battle of our time.”
The bad guys are, as usual, marked by incessant ugliness and vague non-whiteness. This year’s crew includes the broken-faced Orcs, hulking trolls, swooping Fell Beasts, and, in a dismally Orientalist turn, riders of the woolly mammoth-like Mûmakil (a.k.a. oliphaunts). The war for dominion over Middle-earth occurs in several parts, stretching over the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and an assault on Minas Tirith. It is tremendous and exhilarating and lengthy.
All this mêlée imagery warrants the praise already heaped on it. Jackson and his CGI wonderfolks have created an astonishing mayhem, where meanness and munificence seem conjoined, each unimaginable without the other. Yes, the grand scale effects are thrilling: giant animatronic trolls, blown-up miniature edifices, and the computer-generated Shelob, the giant spider who webs up Frodo. And the close-ups solicit tears and cheers: the valiant stand made by Rohan’s King Théoden (Bernard Hill); the rise of his magnificent daughter Éowyn (Miranda Otto); and the charming mushy love shared by Pippin and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), the former briefly enchanted by Sauron, via a glowing orb.
Pippin’s brief, Gollum-lite encounter puts him on Gandalf’s list, which means he’ll have to prove himself worthy, again. No in-betweeners in this reductive view of the world: characters and choices are good or evil. This even as some of the good are rendered rather dull. The interracial romance between Aragon and elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) occurs mostly in flashbacks; her dad Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the gossamer Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) appear for brief, boring minutes, while, Aragon, becoming his royal self, has to perform long-seeming scenes with utterly silly-looking ghosts.
One conspicuously missing embodiment of badness is Saruman (Christopher Lee, who has publicly complained of his excision, having expected to see his seven minutes of a death scene, out of the film’s 201), most impressive of Sauron’s go-to guys. The Dark Lord Sauron, self-lauding creator of the One Ring, appears here as an enormous flaming eyeball with conveniently limited gaze (it misses Frodo when he falls behind a rock, and then, distracted by a battle, also overlooks his gradual progress to Mount Doom). Evil must fail, of course, and this literal lack of vision makes the triumph of good forgone.
The character most egregiously uglified by this rudimentary scheme is the Steward of Minas Tirith, Denethor (John Noble), also father of poor barely-a-blip Faramir (David Wenham), Dúnedain lord of Gondor, Prince of Ithilien. Miserable that his favorite son, Boromir (Sean Bean), is dead, Denethor becomes a ravaged shell of malevolent neglect: during one especially gruesome instance of metaphorical overkill, he chomps on juicy, bloody-seeming vittles while the film cross-cuts to a raging battle where well-intentioned humans, including the incurably obedient Faramir, are bloodily devastated.
Such broad strokes have surely shaped the trilogy throughout. Depending on what you’re looking for, the film’s uncomplicated moral oppositions are either entirely gratifying or generally irritating. As much as the context for the trilogy has changed from Tolkien’s day to Jackson’s, dissimilarities between sides remain readable in raced and national terms. (Notoriously, women in LOTR are so repeatedly left by the wayside that Éowyn can only define herself at her moment of triumph by what she is not: “I am no man!”)
Such reading is probably inevitable in what is, at one level, a war movie. Racism (in its most blatant forms) requires visible distinctions, and so do war movies. Hectic battle scenes are more legible when the adversaries are marked by red and blue flags, dark and light skins, gray and blue uniforms. That LOTR differentiates between villains and heroes by making them unsightly and not (save for dear Gimli, I suppose) is thus understandable but tedious too.
When Gandalf imagines a “greater country,” where the good might reign unimpeded, he might be speaking for any warlord or president who believes that his cause is just and his enemy’s just plain wrong. Wars are most effectively waged when sides are clearly drawn (otherwise, who would sign up to fight, save for those in need of work?); so too, war movies are most marketable when they manifest moral values in opponents’ appearances. Thus, the fearsome King of the Ringwraiths is a faceless black figure astride a Fell Beast, and Merry is an adorable hobbit, riding into battle in Éowyn’s lovely lap.
All this obviousness makes the subtler threeway dynamic among Frodo, Sam, and Gollum compelling by comparison. Their judgments repeatedly and differently impaired, they struggle to make peace with one another and themselves. Even the most faithful and good-hearted of them, Sam, has moments of lost confidence and rage, and Frodo, for all his genuine niceness and affection for tagalong Sam, is intermittently seduced by the Ring. Convulsive and frantic, Gollum’s split self is also perversely nuanced. So desperate to hold the Precious, so quick to hate on Sam and deceive Frodo, this hobbit transformed is newly raced. Without a fixed identity or ambition, haunted by traumatic memories, poor Gollum has no place to be, except those fiery Cracks of Doom. No wonder he’s feeling distraught.