Whether we love or hate the “Lord of the Rings” films, we have to admire them: they are a monumental cinematic achievement. Shot over 274 days for $281 million and lasting 558 minutes, these films have, at the time of writing and in the United States alone, grossed over $897 million.
Taking his cue from J. R. R. Tolkien’s single novel, published in three volumes, the New Zealand director Peter Jackson conceived this project as one film. Some commentators have said, incorrectly, that these films are the first time such a project has been attempted. While not on the same scale, Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” was shot as one film and released in three parts over three years, from 1959 to 1961.
Anyone who has seen the second or third installments of “The Lord of the Rings” knows how uncompromising Jackson has been on the unity of the narrative. There are no previews of earlier episodes. Either we have seen the previous films, or we have to come up to speed quickly on the complex characters and plots. In the third and final installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the three stories told in the previous films now intersect.
Gollum/Smeagol, a former hobbit, convinces our hobbit hero, Frodo, that the only way to Mordor, the realm of Sauron the Dark Lord, is a journey by way of Mount Doom. There, where the One Ring was made, its evil powers can be destroyed. During the journey Frodo’s closest companion, Samwise Gamgee, becomes increasingly suspicious of Gollum and his motivations, and with good reason. These suspicions tear Sam and Frodo apart.
Meanwhile, the good wizard Gandalf convinces Middle-earth’s kingdom of Rohan that the final showdown must commence. “We come to it at last, the great battle of our time....” With that, Rohan and the ancient kingdom of Gondor are reunited in the Fellowship; and from Minas Tirith, the gleaming hillside capital of Gondor, Aragorn (its dispossessed but rightful king) leads the charge. Gimli the dwarf, Legolas the elf and Pippin the hobbit join him, along with Eowyn, the female warrior and Princess of Rohan, and Faramir of Gondor in confronting the dark forces.
Sauron’s formidable army is made up of the spectacularly ugly Orcs, never-ending rows of archers, armored knights and oliphaunts (a sort of elephant on steroids), while overhead dragon-like creatures dive bomb from the sky. The Fellowship is hopelessly outnumbered until Frodo achieves his destiny, destroys the ring and robs Sauron of his evil energy. Mordor’s army is obliterated.
In triumph, Gandalf crowns Aragorn king of Gondor and protector of the Fellowship, and Arwen, the Elf princess, becomes his queen. Peace restored, the time for farewells arrives.
We know from Tolkien’s personal correspondence that at the time he was writing the three-part The Lord of the Rings, he was deeply influenced by two elements in his life: his devout Christian faith and his fascination with the psychology of Carl Jung. It is illuminating to look at these books and films with reference to both influences.
“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a long parable about good and evil. Only a viewer with a most impoverished imagination could see this final film and doubt that Tolkien believed in good having the last word over the forces of darkness.
Indeed, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” could well be an adaptation of St. Ignatius Loyola’s “Meditation on the Two Standards” in his Spiritual Exercises, or an allegory on the eventual reign of Christ the King at the parousia. Tolkien, a veteran of the trenches of the First World War, believed that some wars are necessary to defeat evil. One justifiable criticism of his books and these films is that good and evil are too sharply drawn, with no shades of gray in either. If only the world and our choices within it were so easily defined.
On a simpler, but no less profound level, this film is a study in discernment. As they climb Mount Doom, Frodo has to decide whether to listen to Samwise Gamgee or Gollum/Smeagol. It is not by coincidence that over Mount Doom Gollum tempts Frodo to pride, power and greed. The film opens with the story of the hobbit Smeagol, and how he gave way to the very temptations he is now offering Frodo. We see the effects of them in Gollum’s life. Evil has distorted who he was.
Blinded by fatigue and desire, Frodo has to march on not knowing which voice he should listen to and whom to follow. Sound familiar?
On the ground, Aragorn and Gandalf must determine whether Frodo is still alive and if it is worthwhile to mount an attack on Mordor. At one stage Aragorn declares, “Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.” Gandalf asks, “How do we know Frodo is alive?” Aragorn replies, “What does your heart tell you?” Taking stock of their hearts, they weigh their options, and enter into the final battle. Heart, mind and body are all part of their discernment.
“The Return of the King” can be read as an allegory on Christian salvation, in which divine characters labor with the residents of Middle-earth to destroy evil and establish a reign of peace and justice. Gandalf is a father who creates and calls. Frodo is a son who takes on the form of the least, a hobbit, but whose destiny is to save, and Galadriel, the Lady of Light, is a spirit who inspires, enlightens and comforts.
The other evident contribution to these films comes through the influence of Jung’s psychology. Carl Jung once observed of the cinema that it is “like a good detective story, [in that it] makes it possible to experience, without danger, all the excitement, passion and desire we must suppress in ordinary daily life.” It is akin to dreaming, the gateway to understanding the power of our unconscious life.
Many of Jung’s major interests are represented here. In these films, filled with mythical archetypes and rich symbolism, every character can be read as a facet of one human personality on a quest to explore his or her shadow side.
On the inward journey we meet Jung’s main archetypes: the complexity of the Shadow in Gollum/Smeagol, the Anima/Animus in Gandalf/Galadriel, the Syzygy, or divine couple, in Aragorn and Arwen, the Child in the self-actualized Frodo, and the Self, the viewer who becomes conscious of his or her conflicted nature and vicariously wins the war against the forces of darkness.
Even apart from deeper codes and meanings, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is terrific, if lengthy, entertainment. At 204 minutes (25 minutes longer than its predecessors), this last installment is too long. Jackson apparently felt obliged to follow faithfully almost all of Tolkien’s lengthy coda, with its personal and poignant farewell discourses. But this must be seen in the context of the three films together, as one long narrative. The speeches work better in the book than they do on the screen.
All through the film we are treated to outstanding cinematography, computer-generated effects (1,500 of them), sets, make-up, costumes and sound designs, as well as editing and music that are among the best you are likely to see on such an epic scale.
Throughout the course of these three films, the acting has become more engaging and entertaining, as the characters have become more complex and the story more involved. And while it remains a Boys’ Life view of the world, one of Jackson’s major departures from the books, much to his credit, was to develop the women’s roles. There was only so much he could do. One of the uncredited stars of the film is the spectacular scenery of New Zealand.
I imagine we will probably again have to sit through complaints by conservative Christians of every persuasion waxing hysterical about the evils of wizards, elves, hobbits and dwarfs. But for those who take evil in the world seriously, these objections are nonsensical. If we applied them to the canon of Western literature, Christians would never read most fairy tales, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” or C. S. Lewis’s “Narnia Chronicles.” I only hope Christians who get into a lather over the evil of fictitious creatures are equally committed to the anything-but-fictional fight against starvation and the unjust distribution of wealth.
If you have never seen any of these films, be consoled that a “Lord of the Rings” film festival is just around the corner. All you will need is nine hours, a strong bladder and an openness to wonder at film history being made before your eyes.