The Curse of 'Return of the...'
'The book is too short.' - JRR Tolkien
Given the tendency for epic SF-and-fantasy trilogies to go spectacularly belly-up in their third installment (particularly when part three's title begins Return of the...) it would be understandable if we'd all felt a few misgivings ahead of the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson's extraordinary Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. That almost no-one did is a tribute to the craft and skill and dedication Jackson and his army of helpers have invested in this project. Possibly in the entire history of the medium, only The Phantom Menace has been so breathlessly awaited by so many dedicated fans.
Attentive masochists will recall that I really, really loved the first two movies, for all sorts of reasons. I fully expected seeing this one for the first time to be one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. So maybe my expectations of this film were so great that nothing was ever going to satisfy them, because - while it is tremendous, stirring, emotive, and nerve-janglingly exciting - somehow I didn't emerge from Return of the King as awe-struck and enchanted as I did its two predecessors.
It all kicks off happily enough: Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are still trying to sneak into Mordor to get shot of the Ring of Power, not really suspecting the grisly ambitions of their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis), while their friends are reunited after the battle of Helm's Deep and the conversion of Isengard from industrial hellhole to bijou garden centre (complete with water feature). But trouble's never far away with that scamp Sauron about, and soon the city of Minas Tirith is under threat: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) scoot off to marshall the defences while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) joins the riders of Rohan1, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself having to raise his own army - literally.
For the first couple of hours this really is terrific stuff, everything we could've hoped for, as the hordes of Mordor close in on the city, and Frodo moves closer and closer to his fateful encounter with the horrible Shelob. As ever, it's the moments you least expect to that stay with you longest - Jackson takes a seemingly-mundane sequence like the lighting of Gondor's beacon fires, and, aided as ever by Howard Shore's wonderful score, transforms it into something fantastically rousing and beautiful. The charge of the Rohan cavalry into the forces of Mordor is heart-stopping cinema and the following clash with enemy Mumakils every bit its equal.
But once the siege is lifted, and Sam and Frodo have made their way into Mordor, I thought the film lost its way just a tiny bit. There is still spectacle and emotion, but to me it all felt somehow rushed, the story and characters denied the chance to breathe - a particular problem as this story has a slight but definite tendency towards anticlimax no matter what medium it appears in. This is a very long film even by today's standards, but even so the rhythm established in its first two thirds suffers as it nears its climax. Obviously the extended version will go a long way to fix this, and it's very clear that a lot of material has been deleted simply to keep the running time down - Christopher Lee's scenes have, notoriously, all gone, along with Bruce Spence's appearance as the Mouth of Sauron. Merry swearing fealty to Theoden (which made it into the trailer) has likewise been excised, seemingly along with the clash between Gandalf and the Witch King (Gandalf's staff, apparently broken in this battle, seems to disappear without explanation in the version actually released). There are times when you feel Jackson may as well put up a caption saying 'New Scene Will Go Here On DVD', so obvious is it - something which was never really the case with either of the other films.
This is still a remarkable, breathtaking achievement - it just doesn't surpass expectation and vanquish cynicism in the way The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did. I emerged from both of those absolutely certain I'd just seen the best film of their respective years. This time round, I wasn't - and while there have been a lot of good films out in 2003, I think the difference is still significant. It's at least a very good film - and time and a re-edit may well reveal it to be a truly great one. But I can only speak of what I've seen so far.
Now, what are we all going to do next Christmas?