Has it truly been more than two decades since the first chapter of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ first thundered across the screen? ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ (2001) was easily the greatest fantasy film of its generation. New Zealand director Peter Jackson maintained that awe and wonder for the course of the three years. 31 Academy Award nominations, 17 Academy Awards and a New York Film Critics Award had been awarded by the time the final chapter ‘The Return of the King’ (2003) was launched. Middle earth, borne in the imagination of author J.R.R. Tolkien, was now transposed to the big screen.  

For years talk of a movie version had swept through Hollywood and it very nearly happened at Miramax, where two films were going to be created based on the books. But Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein got cold feet and withdrew funding, giving Jackson near impossible odds to take the series elsewhere. Turned down by all the major studios, he found himself at New Line where Bob Shaye watched the presentations, the cgi effects and then wondered aloud with marketing genius and vision, “Are there not three books? Why not make all three films releasing one a year? It offers built-in marketing value.” 

Music to Jackson’s ears. He moved the entire project to New Line, making it one of the greatest blunders of Weinstein’s career. Treated well by Bob Shaye, Jackson was left alone to make the films in New Zealand, using a cast of international actors, some well known, some not. He first permitted footage to be seen at the Cannes Film Festival 2001, where he screened about 15 minutes of the first film. Audiences, critics and industry folk lost their collective minds. The footage screamed BLOCKBUSTER! And the fact that there were three films, each a year apart, meant potentially billions at the box office. Suddenly New Line looked like the smartest people in the business. The countdown to the release of the film began and by the time it opened to rabid fans, it was a pop culture event.

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Merging fantasy with adventure and a sweeping narrative arc, the films were lavish productions, with startling cinematography, wildly imaginative production designs and costumes, dazzling visual effects, a magnificent regal score and perhaps the biggest surprise of all, superb performances that drew the audience into the story effortlessly. Jackson took risks with some of his casting choosing actors who were not all that well known and mixing them up with brilliant actors such as Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Liv Tyler as Arwen, an elf in love with a human. For the plum role of Aragorn, the rightful King, Jackson was forced to replace Stuart Townsend with American actor Viggo Mortensen, which turned out to be genius and fortunate for both the film and Mortensen. Sean Astin was chosen as Sam, the best friend of Frodo, who would be played by Elijah Wood. The balance of the cast was chosen from around the world and many of the actors would emerge as stars.

If there was any real criticism with the film it was the absence of Tom Bombadill, a major character in the books which Jackson explained easily. He decided to merge Bombadill’s character and actions with other characters in the book, making the entire narrative more streamlined and effective. His thinking was spot on, we do not notice the absence at all. The stunning performances of the actors took the film beyond the realm of mere fantasy, as we emerged from that first film genuinely caring for them, deeply concerned with what would happen in the subsequent movies. 

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Watching the film for the first time I was struck by the love and care that went into making the movies. The soaring, twisting cinematography was majestic, the production design and costumes swept us into Middle Earth easily, the score was astonishing, the visual effects, make-up and sound perfection, and the performances immediately iconic. In a single screening, the films became legends. And the advancement of computer-generated images and performance? Astonishing throughout but especially in the creation of the evil, treacherous creature Gollum, once a Hobbit, but corrupted and warped by the power of the ring he once held as his own. This evil ring warped his mind, twisted his thinking, and defiled him as a living creature, altering his appearance into something ugly. As portrayed by Andy Serkis, Gollum was a major step forward in the art of both visual effects created within the computer and performance capture acting, which dominated the next twenty years. Serkis would go on to portray Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ (2005) using advancements of the technology that somehow surpassed his work as Gollum. 

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The narrative, spread over three massive films tells the story of the hobbits, peaceful, gentle creatures not much more than four feet high, who come into possession of the ring. Gandalf, their trusted advisor and friend, understands the power of the ring and that it must destroyed. This involves crossing far lands into Mordor and throwing the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. To add to the challenge, the Dark Lord Sauron, the evil mighty wizard, knows the ring has been found and covets its power. Manifested as an all-seeing eye, he commands his armies from afar to do his bidding. Destroy the ring, destroy Sauron. Armies of disgusting, hideous blackened teeth monstrous killers known as Orcs are created by this monster and sent forth to wipe out any cities standing in the way of finding the ring, and those bearing it. Though Gandalf has no doubt the brave hobbits are up to the task, he establishes a fellowship made up of others who will protect them and help them get the ring to Mount Doom. 

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On their journey, the four Hobbits, Frodo (Wood), Sam (Astin), Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) and Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) are joined by Aragorn (Mortensen) a deadly swordsman who vows to protect them all with his fighting skills. He is the one true King of Gondor and is ready to take back his throne and bring peace. Gandalf is of course joins them along with Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a white-haired elf who is deadly with the bow and arrow, and a dwarf, Gimli, portrayed by John Rhys-Davies with some visual effects magic. In the city of the Elves, their fellowship is formed and sworn to go on to complete their task, knowing each might die in the process, and that Frodo is a constant target. Sauron sends undead riders who wound Frodo with their swords, but the fellowship fights them off. 

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With each film, they get closer to Mount Doom, with Gandalf the Grey resurrected in the second film, ‘The Two Towers’ (2002) as Gandalf the White, even more powerful than before. Thousands of Orcs descend on them, but they persevere. Meanwhile Gollum pretends to befriend Frodo and Sam as they make their way to Mount Doom, fully intent on killing the two hobbits and taking ring back for himself. Sam mistrusts the creature, and even when Frodo sends Sam away, the little hobbit returns to save his friend time and time again. Frodo grows ever possessive of the ring, even paranoid of Sam wanting it as they advance to the fiery mountain. Aragorn uses the dead in the mountain to help win a battle, the dead sweep through the city, defeat impossible to them. They are almost home.

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Aragorn’s army arrive at the gates of the city housing Sauron, just as Frodo and Sam climb Mount Doom. Jackson superbly cuts back and forth. Thinking Frodo dead, Aragorn steps forward and smiles at Gandalf, whispering “For Frodo”, before running into certain death as the army of orcs surround them. But high above on the mountain, Sam carries Frodo to the doorway of the mountain where they finally enter Mount Doom. Standing over the inferno, Frodo cannot bring himself to drop the ring in, but Gollum attacks him, biting his finger off and in celebration he and the ring fall into the deadly lava below. Though Frodo also went over the edge, Sam saves him once again, pulling him to safety as the mountain begins to collapse in on itself. Below, as they wage war against an impossibly orc army, the ring sinks into the intense inferno and Sauron collapses, his massive all-seeing eye crashing to earth, and the orcs try to escape. But the earth opens around the defenders and swallows them all. Gandalf, flying on a giant eagle, retrieves Frodo and Sam, asleep and wounded on the mountain.

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Frodo awakes a few days later in a soft feather bed, the comfort which he had not known for nearly a year. One by one, the fellowship enters the room, until they are circling the brave little hobbit. Gandalf begins to laugh an infectious, uproarious laugh, matched in the room by Frodo. Sam, standing slightly back meets Frodo’s eyes and smiles. A more loyal friend Frodo will never know. Soaring up the side of the city, we are at the coronation of Aragorn who finally takes his rightful place as King. As he moves through the crowd, greeting friends he comes upon the four hobbits, well dressed, who bow. Stepping forward, he stops them. “My friends, you bow to no one” he says and proceeds to bow to them. The hundreds surrounding him do the same. 

The hobbits return to their home in the Shire, where Sam marries and Frodo works on the book his Uncle Bilbo had begun. But Frodo is haunted by old wounds, both physical and emotional, and can no longer live in the Shire. He will accompany Gandalf to the Grey Havens to live his final days. 

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As the credits rolled on ‘The Return of the King’ (2003), I felt tears rolling down my face, as much in remembrance of the grace and dignity Mortenson brought to the words “For Frodo”, as for the fact the story was over. It was finished, there would not be another Lord of the Rings film, next year. Jackson had done it, created one of the most extraordinary achievements in film history and brought one of the greatest works of literature to the screen. 

Audiences went mad for the films, critics awed, the film industry stunned by what little New Line had risked and achieved. The first film, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ racked up an astonishing 14 nominations and won a measly four; ‘The Two Towers’ received only six nominations with two wins but the last film went eleven for eleven at the Oscars, winning every award it was nominated for as the Academy found a way to honour the entire series. Even the New York Film Critics, often loathe to honour fantasy, gave ‘The Return of the King’ their Best Picture prize, which was unprecedented.

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Wood gave a superb performance as Frodo, beautifully anchoring the three films with a sensitive, tortured performance. Sean Aston was sensational as Sam, the true hero of the film. Ian McKellen earned the only acting nomination for the series with a supporting actor nomination for the first film. This was no reflection of his performance which got even better with each film. That was true of Viggo Mortensen too, who was downright regal in the third film as the King coming to power. There was not a false performance from anyone in the series, each role was brought to life vividly and with great power.

The sweeping score from Howard Shore became as iconic and recognizable as anything John Williams wrote, giving an intimate and epic scope with each note. 

The trilogy, today is recognized as a masterpiece of storytelling, not so much a trilogy as a single film. Jackson was catapulted into the heavens as one of the finest directors in movies, remaking King Kong (2005) as a masterwork, a stunning achievement. But he will forever be remembered as the creator of this fine trilogy. Bravo sir! 

About The Author: 

John H. Foote is among the best known film critics in Canada, and has been active as a critic for thirty years. His career began as co-host, co-producer of the popular movie talk and review program Reel to Real. He left the show after ten years for his first love, print criticism, he longed to write about movies. For two years he wrote for Toronto Life and Fashion Magazine, his work quote in the LA and New York Times, as well as major papers across North America. He was offered a position writing for the internet and has since wrote for incontention.com, thewrap.com, screenrant.com, awardscircuit.com and most recently thecinemaholic.com. In May, 2018 he started his own site https://Footeandfriendsonfilm.com, which has enjoyed great success its first few months. Foote was also involved in film education teaching film history and film genre at Trebas Institute before leaving to be Dean of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history and continued his work as a critic. Foote has written two books, Clint Eastwood : Evolution of a Filmmaker, and Spielberg: American Film Visionary. His third, American Cinema in the Seventies is due for release in 2020. 

Through his career he has interviewed everyone in the business except Jack Nicholson. 

 

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