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The Return of the King

Stuart Millson enjoys the final part of Tolkien’s trilogy on the big screen

There was something distinctly odd about watching the final battle for the future of Middle Earth in the consumerised surroundings of my local “multi-screen” cinema - complete with all the usual fast-food and drinks franchises, popcorn vendors and trappings of downtown Hollywood. I wonder what Tolkien would have made of it all; his vision of the innocent, Shire-bred Hobbits, leaving their green world where the Brandywine River flows, to do battle against forces of unbridled evil - all packaged up on celluloid for the consumption of people (apart from this writer!) holding coke cartons.

On the face of it, the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien is not something which seems to belong to this sort of place. The writer, an academic sage - always in tweeds, and heavily-influenced by Anglo-Saxondom - expressed a view of life, strongly at odds with his and our times. The plastic world of tawdry commerce; the grime and monotony of manufacturing industry; the unheroic, degenerate state of urban, processed 20th-century man - all were deliberately opposed by the world conjured up in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Yet there it all was - magnificently relayed to the cinema screen, and watched with immense concentration by individuals who, perhaps, longed for the greenery, forests, rivers, white horses, swords, mountains, magic and action of Tolkien’s imagination.

Directed by Peter Jackson, and the result of a decade of painstaking and deeply-creative labour by his production company, Wingnut Films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy - particularly the final episode, The Return of the King - marks a triumph for the art of cinema. For this was no “commercial” enterprise, no “film of the book”: this was a work of genius in its own right, and one which honoured the spirit of the writer.

Jackson had already made something of a reputation for fantastic films (I use the term “fantastic” in its truest sense), with productions such as Heavenly Creatures - a tragic tale of two New Zealand schoolgirls who invent their own kingdom, populated by knights, ladies, and 1950s’ movie and opera stars! But The Lord of the Rings was to be the greatest challenge of his film career. To re-create Tolkien’s landscapes, battles and supernatural happenings, the most advanced special effects technology had to be used, and for this, Jackson used the talents of the Oscar-winning, New Zealand-based Weta workshops.

Under the supervision of American technician, Alex Funke (known for his achievements in the films Waterworld and The Abyss), the artistic team imagined and built remarkable settings and models - using their mind-boggling technology to create the city of Minas Tirith and the castle of Helm’s Deep, both besieged by the most enormous armies ever to be assembled by the evil Sauron. And this is the essence of the saga: the struggle by the forces of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits to hold back Sauron’s overwhelming force of merciless Orcs, and remove the corrupting influence of the ring of power forever - the brave, selfless hobbit, Frodo Baggins, taking it to the fires and lava of Mount Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed.

Yet the spectacular impact of the film is not entirely the work of the extraordinary artists and technical men: the actors themselves deliver what must be the performances of their lives. None more so, perhaps, than a very famous face in the world of British television, the well-loved actor, Bernard Hill. Hill plays the role of King Theoden - a monarch once almost drugged and enslaved by an agent of the forces of evil. Woken and stirred from this sorcery and deception just in time, Theoden emerges as a hero - a Henry V of the film. And his exhortations to his horsemen, both at Helm’s Deep in the second part of the trilogy, and at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King must surely rank as the most moving moments in all cinema.

Great moments are also provided by the hero, Aragorn (the actor, Viggo Mortensen). At the crucial moment in the struggle, Aragorn (who turns out to be the lost king) persuades an army of ghost warriors to come to the aid of the forces of good - an action which assures victory over Sauron and provides yet another cinematic spectacle, on a par with King Theoden’s thundering cavalry charge into the pikes, spikes and swords of Sauron’s barbaric Orcs.

With music by composer Howard Shore more than matching the mood of every scene, and orchestral playing of titanic power by the London Philharmonic and New Zealand Symphony orchestras, Peter Jackson’s cinematic triumph is something which will live in the heart and mind for a very long time to come.

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