Movie Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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Peter Jackson
New Line Cinemas
for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images

It might seem like, after writing reviews of the first two movies in the trilogy, I would have run out of unique points to bring up when I got to the third. But then the last film in the series is always the one where everything finally comes to a head—where the characters are forced into terrible situations for the last and worst time, and where their decisions point most strongly to the worldview that was perhaps only hinted at in the earlier parts of the story. And even here at the end, we are still being introduced to new characters—ones that, by their very nature, communicate an unchristian view of reality.

This review of The Return of the King is built on the foundation explained in the reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and, without reading both of those first, it’s entirely possible that this one won’t make any sense, or that it at least won’t seem like a very solid case for the rating I gave it. Then again, there might be a strong enough case, even without covering the fundamental problems over again.

Violent and Intense Content:
I made the comment in my review of The Two Towers that, just because two films earn the same rating from me, does not mean that I liked them equally well. Let me say in this one that, just because two films earn the same rating from the MPAA doesn’t mean the same group of people can watch both of them comfortably. The violence is most definitely increased in this last film in the series. The movie opens with an intense strangling scene. Halfway through the movie, an enemy catapult throws severed, bloody, human heads into the city—faces, close-ups and everything. (These are some of those images that I mentioned in my review of The Fellowship of the Ring—the kind that stuck so well when I saw them several years ago, and had a lower opinion of innocence, that I didn’t need to see them again this time to review them accurately).
The battles are much more personal, the up-close images of death and carnage more frequent, and the villains more generally alarming. Arachnophobia may be fostered by this movie. A few of the orcs are scary enough for their very appearance to warrant a mention. The Black Riders may seem more intimidating (and they do seem more intimidating) without their draconic mounts, which replaced the easier-to-identify-with horses in the second film, but the new models serve their own gory purpose in the battle scenes. Skeletons and female screams are made more of this time, as are non-violent images played in a gruesome or intense manner, such as the transformation of a friendly hobbit into the decidedly creepy Gollum. An intentionally disturbing subplot features a crazed man attempting to burn himself and his son alive. He is only half successful.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
My principal reason for not placing this category first in this review, as I did for the other two, was for variety’s sake. The second reason was that anything I would have said here I already said in the first review.

Sexual Content:
A couple of kisses and a few very low necklines pretty much cover this category. They are not unimportant by themselves; they are, however, comparable to the sexual content in the first movie, significantly less than that in the second one, and I think they pale in comparison with the other objectionable content in the third film, like the worldview.


As I said in the first review, my take on The Lord of the Rings is apparently unique in the world of film criticism. That was fairly obvious before I came to The Return of the King. Having come to it now, however, the differences between my perspective and those of mainstream conservative reviewers becomes undeniable; and some of the issues are much broader than The Lord of the Rings. For one thing, I noticed the feminism, and I thought it important enough to comment on. For another, I didn’t put the feminism in the “Positive Elements” category.

I’m generally a bit on the strict side. (If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you can smile at the understatement, if you like). I probably still would have made mention of the feminism if the only hint at it was the king’s appointment of his niece to rule in his stead. In that case, however, I wouldn’t have made much of it, because I wouldn’t have had to continue with an explanation of how that niece of his, in an act of defiance against the king, her brother, and biblical gender roles, went charging into battle after a couple of days slinking around the camp with her long hair tucked into her collar. It seems that, in order to convince the audience just how wrong* her brother was to say that “War is the province of men,” it was necessary to add in extra little feminist touches like a personal encounter with the leader of the orcs, and the simply beyond-female ability to swing a stocky, three-and-a-half feet tall hobbit into the saddle, using only one arm, or to cut the head clean off a couple-story high dragon, in only two blows (pardon my adding to the violent content of the review, but I think any doubts you may have as to whether a girl of her build was capable of that last act will be removed upon questioning a friend or neighbor who is experienced in decapitating poultry). The shieldmaiden’s greatest hour, however, comes in a showdown with the captain of the Black Riders, a mace-wielding fellow with enough strength to knock pretty little Eowyn from that world to this one (but who is prevented from doing so by feminism’s magic and the audience’s naïveté about the dynamics of single combat). The climax of the contest comes, not when she actually kills the unkillable villain, but right before that, when she pulls off her helmet and says triumphantly, “I am no man!”

Besides all that, the other significant female in the story finally wins the argument with her father over the sacrifice of her immortality (see the first review, if you can’t remember what I thought about that little element). Again, if your worldview came only from The Lord of the Rings films, you’d get the idea that fathers weren’t very helpful creatures. At best, they’re over-protective and aren’t interested in letting you live up to your potential; at worst, they’ll try to kill you because they are weak parents with favorite children.

The trick about fiction, though, is that you can seemingly get away with patterns or ideologies that are unacceptable in real life. Real life doesn’t allow a man to “gladly give my life to defend her beauty, her memory, her wisdom”—not when he’s just talking about the city he grew up in. And, if you can assign virtue to several acres of neatly stacked rock, it doesn’t take much stretching of the imagination to assign vice to a stack of rock with a more natural flair. “That mountain is evil,” says a character. “That character is superstitious,” say I.

Because of the nature of the genre, it’s also hard to tell sometimes whether the characters are connecting with magic in a way that is supposed to parallel this-world spirituality, or this-world spiritualism. A few of the characters have visions, and one of them interacts quite physically with his. In a couple of instances, characters might be praying, or they might be using incantations; there is nothing in Tolkien’s Middle Earth to prevent it from being the latter.

There are ghosts in The Return of the King. For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that there are such things as ghosts. Well… no we won’t. I can’t even quite reconcile Jacob Marley with a Christian understanding of life after death, and he still can’t participate in the physical realities of this dimension, unlike the ghosts of The Return of the King. And, unlike the Black Riders, for example, these fellows really are dead—simple and straightforward. The problem is that they don’t act like they’re dead… and that their “living death” is the result of a mortal man’s curse… and that they continue to make moral decisions even after they’ve died… and they are saved by works… and they are not forced even in death to confess that Jesus is Lord… and their eternal fate is peaceful oblivion—annihilation—“nothingness”.

I don’t think I need to explain that human souls do not pass into a “long, slow sleep of death embalmed.” And one would think that the doctrine of salvation by works—whether kindness, heroism or mere naïveté—wouldn’t need refuting to a Christian readership. As much as we would like to be able to say otherwise, Tolkien’s view of God differed significantly from the biblical view, and Peter Jackson’s view of eternity does likewise.
“End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The gray rain curtain of this world rolls back, and it all turns to the silver glass, and then you see it… White shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
It’s spoken with the authority of a character who really has been there before, and we, who have not seen it for ourselves, find that this concept of “heaven” certainly appeals to our here-and-now sense of the worthwhile. It is missing one vital element, however, to make it a uniquely Christian concept. The Christian’s idea of heaven includes God, first and foremost. If God is not even to be found in heaven, where he ought to be the very centerpiece according to his own revelation, it would seem that the chances of finding him in the rest of the story, without a strong imagination and some convenient cut-and-paste work, are dwindling fast.

As is the number of characters who aren’t directly affected by the power of the ring. Elf maids as well as Dark Lords now have their fate “tied to” it, and, of course, it goes on tempting and destroying various hobbits. In the meanwhile, it grows heavier, and its influence becomes harder to keep off. And I don’t think it’s meant to be a metaphor for anything in this world.

You know, if you want to read a positive review of The Return of the King, there are many places you can find one. There are many reviewers who will assure you that Tolkien wrote from a distinctly Christian perspective, and that The Lord of the Rings is full of biblical worldview. I’m afraid that, as unpopular as the opinion might be, I have to disagree with both of those positions. There are just too many wrong things in The Return of the King for me to be able to enjoy it like I did a few years ago. You know, I was very weak on the exclusivity of the biblical worldview back then, and I used to be a feminist after Eowyn’s own heart. It isn’t that I fear falling back into those particular errors; not at all (other errors, quite possibly). Right now I believe I’m firm enough in my present convictions to be able to say with determination that that wrong worldview is unacceptable for me… and for the characters in the movie.

I am not opposed to the claim that The Return of the King is an exciting story, with strong and virtuous heroes. I’m not going to argue with the person who says, “We know the annihilationist view is corrupt and antichristian, and the feminism is of the most dangerous kind out there, but when we get to those parts of the movie, we just remind one another how wrong they are, fast-forward through them, and get on with the rest of the movie.” I think I can safely give The Return of the King the highest rating that I won’t be watching again, because there is quite simply enough movie there that fast-forwarding through a couple of bad scenes will still leave you a long movie, and even perhaps a good one. Fifteen and up is what I suggest, on account of the violence, and I suggest that parents preview the movie even then.

* Judges 4:17-22, 9:50-54; 2 Samuel 12:21 Note that the "warrior women" in these biblical passages had a tremendous effect on tremendous battles without ever leaving home.

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