When the last installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part epic adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s literary masterpiece,The Return of the King, finally came out on Christmas, 2003; the director completed what was thought to be impossible at the time. Not only had he adapted a seemingly unadaptable book to the big screen; the critical and financial appraisal for his work on the saga had gone from strength to strength. The Fellowship of the Ring had already set the bar quite high, but when The Two Towers came out, Jackson did the impossible. He took it another step further, and garnered even more critical and financial acclaim. It was only fitting that the last movie in the Ring saga would be even more spectacular and epic in scale. And Jackson and Co, did not disappoint.
All hands on deck
Jackson and his creative team had already achieved great things, not only for the previous entries, but had also made big waves in the world of Practical and Special Effects with the New Zealand based Weta Workshop and Weta Digital Effects Houses. Theirs had been the groundbreaking creation of a software and Motion Capture technique that had helped bring to life the completely CGI rendered character of Gollum; so succesfully, that his range of emotions and physicality was undistinguishable from those of his live action counterparts. The extensive use of massive miniatures, lovingly dubbed “Big-atures” by the crew; used largely to recreate some of Middle-Earth’s most amazing sites like the Elf cities of Rivendel and Lothlórien, the Mines of Moria, Saruman’s stronghold Isengard, with its numerous underground Orc pits, the fortress of Barad-Dúr, and that of Helm’s Deep, were of great help. These are only just a few examples of Weta’s mastery when it came to bringing the physical and fantastical elements of Middle-Earth to life. But their work load for this movie was going to be even greater. Something they knew coming in, but didn’t make it easy on them either. It was a “All hands on deck” type of situation that forced the crew to come up with imaginative solutions to tricky problems, and being able to resolve these quickly. The scope and size of this movie required a greater number of effects shots that put even more pressure on a crew who was already dealing with a dwindling Post-Production schedule. Once again, massive miniatures and digital extensions were used for the recreation of Minas Tirith. Entire chunks of its numerous streets were built for the actors and crew to work in. These sets were filled with such a level of detail that the cast was amazed at how realistic and lived-in they looked. Most members of the cast, like actor Ian Mackellen liked to get lost strolling around them, taking in all the details. These sets, both miniature and life-size,were built in the same place were the sets for Helm’s Deep had been built; in the same quarry outside of Wellington, and using most of the leftover material salvaged from the Helm’s Deep set; most of its walls and courtyards being re-purposed to be used for the Minas Tirith set. Not the whole of the city could be built life-size, though. Sets like Denethor’s courtroom and the inside of Edora’s Grand Hall were recreated inside of warehouses, big enough to accommodate them. On top of that, most of these sets were built in different sizes to be used as long establishing shots, and to recreate elaborate camera moves in and around them. It is amazing to think that what most audience members took to be CGI recreated cities and landscapes, are mostly miniature sets recreated in such a realistic way that they effectively passed up for the real thing, or a very realistic digital recreation. Miniature sets like those of Minas Morgul, and the stairs of Cirith Umgol, Mount Doom and its entrance, and the Black Gates, are just some of the convincing miniatures, and in some cases; matte paintings and digital extensions used for the movie. One of the biggest action set pieces of the movie, and one that required the most use of visual effects was that of the Battle of the Pelennor Firlds, outside of the gates of Minas Tirith. It was a huge set piece that required the use of every trick in the book; from matte paintings to digital extensions, miniatures, live action footage and digital replication of crowds to double the number of extras seen on-screen. The software used for this latter Visual Effect, named “Massive Crowd”, had already been used to a big extent on The Two Towers for the battle of Helm’s Deep sequences. This time, however, it would be implemented to an even larger extent. Aside from that particular scene, the crew also had to deal with the CGI creation of yet another important character of the story; the slimy giant spider She-lob who has her lair at the top of the Cirith Umgol staircase. Her character was one that was eagerly awaited by fans of the book, and one that was supposed to make an appearance of the previous movie. Due to the restructuring of the plot for all three movies, her presence was delayed to be included in Return of the King. It was, along with the Pelennor Fields battle scene, one of the highlights of the movie. Her design was largely based on that of a New Zealand tunnel spider. Large in size; it was decided early on that the spider would have the physical attributes of most of her real-life counterparts, but with added fantastical elements like large pinzers, a large mouth, enlarged stomach, and a sting. It was a completely CGI rendered creature. In the scenes in which Sean Astin had to interact with it, the special effects team had to build a crude replica of the creature which was basically a little section with the pinzers that were operated by a couple of puppeteers. Jackson and his Visual Conceptual Designer Christian Rivers, long-life arachnophobics, came up with a design that would represent their worst nightmares; and it was actually Rivers who brought a live tunnel spider from his own back garden as a model for the designers and animators to take inspiration from. Another element that gave the She-lob sequence an extra level of creepiness was her underground lair; which was reconstructed as a set in Studio as a series of overlaying tunnel pieces, that could be easily moved around to give the impression that the cave in which She-Lob lived went on forever. The interior of the cave was built and recreated to the smallest detail based on the sketches and drawings done by John Howe and Alan Lee. Even the spider webs were hand-made of a sticky glue-like substance that had to be heated up to 200° to give it a consistent frame. These would be later on glued to the sides of interior set. The special effects crew also brought in a lot of rubber pets like birds, skulls and bones to be spread all over the floor. The floor was also made to be uneven, and in some cases even tilted. All in all, this additions gave the set the desired creepy factor the filmmakers were looking for. Another sequence that gave the Visual Effects renderers at Weta Digital its fair share of headaches, was that of the creation of the Army of the Dead Aragorn uses to fight alongside him in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. It was thought at first to be a blend of actors in makeup and CGI. Their approach at first wasn’t that different to what the artists at ILM ended up doing in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Gore Verbinski, with Captain Barbossa’s cursed crew. Having seen what the people at ILM were up to, they had to change their ideas mid-stream, and try something different. Their appearance on the movie is more ghost-like, but not radically different from those un-dead pirates seen on the Gore Verbinski film.
An explosive shoot
As per usual, the shoot was a very long and difficult one. Having shot all three movies back to back, it was a Herculean effort for all those involved to keep track of which scenes for which movie had been shot first as, it’s mostly the case, movies are usually shot out of order, in order to accommodate actors’ schedules, location availability, and ever changing weather conditions. This would result in the cast and crew having to make changes on the fly, and find a suitable location in which to shoot scenes indoors when the weather turned bad. Such was the case in which, after only a few days into the shooting, a great flood in the area prevented the crew from shooting the scenes they had planned, and the entire crew had to move into a nearby hotel with a large Squash court where, after asking management for permission, had to rapidly put together a rocky set, which resembled the Cirith Umgol stairs, and shoot a few sequences from The Return of the King. So, it wasn’t unusual for footage, 3 to 4 years apart, to be seemlessly edited together with the help of a skillfull editor or editors as was the case for this movie, ( Jaime Selkirk and Annie Collins doing the honours this time around). The amount of footage coming in every day from all the filming units spread all over the island, made it an almost impossible task to get through it all. It was thanks to Jackson and Fran Walsh, who intimately knew the scenes backwards, and Jackson being able to remember which shot went where, after checking daillies in shooting order, that the editors were able to sift through the footage, and pick the best takes. Most of the battle scenes for The Return of the King proved to be a logistical nightmare due to the large number of horses and horse riders that had to be used in the second and third acts of the movie. A call was put out by the filming crew, looking for all available trained horses and riders around the island to act as extras. The idea proved to be a success. Riders with their horses from horse riding clubs all over the island came to the assigned location; a large field called Twizel, that would double as The Pelennor Fields. Riders in their hundreds congregated, and camped out on this field for the scene in which the Rohirrim cavalry charges against the Orc Army assembled outside the gates of Minas Tirith. The principal actors taking part in these scenes were also trained in horse riding, and some of them like Bernard Lee and Viggo Mortensen got quite good at it, while others like Miranda Otto and David Wenham were so hopeless that they had to resort to a contraption designed by Weta Workshop, which consisted of a wooden barrel with a saddle, on which the actors sat, and a rig that moved the barrel back and forth, giving the illusion, when used off-camera, that the actor, or actress was riding an actual horse. A stunt double was used for the more dangerous scenes. This technique had already been used for the first movie; for the sequence in which Arwen is riding away from the Názgul carrying an injured Frodo on her way to Rivendel. For the third movie, though; Jackson asked Weta Workshop to build a rubber horse which could be used for close-ups, and to give a more realistic feel to the whole thing. This rubber horse was jokingly dubbed “The phony Pony” by the crew. The field on which these riders were going to ride had to be checked every morning, though. The field was filled with hundreds of holes dug up by rabbits and covered by grass, which made it very difficult for a rider at full speed to spot in time before the horse fell through it and broke their legs. Another shooting location, which was ideal for another pivotal scene in the movie, also proved to be challenging. While scouting for locations, the crew had found a large stretch of deserted land which was perfect for the last confrontation between the Army of Gondor led by Aragorn and Sauron’s Army outside the Black Gates. The land happened to be owned by the New Zealand Army and had been used over the years as a shooting range, and to test out explosives. The difficulty resided in that a large amount of mines and explosives that hadn’t gone off during exercises were still buried all over the place. The crew was granted permission to use the land, on the condition that the Army was in charge of clearing up the field of any potential explosive devices before actual filming started. The crew was also given a lecture on what to do in case of running into any of this explosives, and given the sense of discipline that the soldiers brought to the crew; they ended up being used as extras in the Gondor Army, and organising the logistical aspects of moving a large group of extras in a orderly, and military fashion. Another striking location was the Mountainous region known as The Pinnacles, criss-crossed by huge ravines which was used for the Passage of the Dead sequence. It was an eerily beautiful region that had been previously used by Jackson in one of his first movies; Braindead (1992).
The crew was also given permission to shoot at the feet of Mount Rupeuhu, an active volcano; for the scenes in which Frodo and Sam are trying to reach the entrance to Mount Doom. Due to the fact that the volcano itself, and the mountains surrounding it, were considered sacred land by the Maori; the crew couldn’t show any images of the actual volcano and the surrounding volcanos, and these had to be digitally replaced by CGI replicas of Mount Doom.
Critical and financial success
As expected, The Return of the King was a massive hit with both audiences and critics alike. It walked away with a worldwide total of $1,140,444,782, making it the most successful of all three movies, and achieving a record breaking 11 Oscar Awards at the 2004 Oscar ceremony for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, putting it on par with Ben-Hur (1959), William Wyler, and Titanic (1997), James Cameron, each having been awarded the same number of Oscars.
As previously stated on my first two reviews with the Extended Editions of those two movies, the Extended Edition of The Return of the King is the way to go. By adding and extending scenes to enhance the richness of the story, and further help to explore Middle-Earth lore, and give an extra layer to already richly developed characters, the experience of watching the movie can only get better. Most of the added scenes left on the cutting room floor for the Theatrical version of the movie, are extended scenes and moments that help to draw the audience more deeply into the story; but there is one particular scene that stands out among the rest, and was sorely missing from the Theatrical cut; Saruman and Wormtongue’s demise in Isengard. The scene was cleverly edited out of the Theatrical cut of the movie, but fully restored into the Extended Edition. This scene plays an important part in the last book, and although it doesn’t play out the same way it does in the book; it does resolve a very important plot hole that wasn’t satisfactorily explained in the version released in cinemas. Jackson does insist that these are not to be thought of as the definitive versions of the movies but, in this case, I strongly disagree. As someone who likes to delve into the sticky subject of whether alternate versions of a movie, like Director’s cuts, Extended cuts, or Ultimate cuts might be necessary or not; or if they simply are nothing more than a shameless cash-grab, in this case I have to side with Peter Jackson. He has had a tendency, as of late, of overinflating the running time in some of his movies (King Kong, The Hobbit trilogy), but is spot on in this instance. The added material makes the movies richer, and give the story the necessary breathing room they need for such an epic tale. It’s just a pity that the same idea applied to The Hobbit trilogy he’d direct a few years later didn’t yield the same results. But then again, that story didn’t need the epic structure this one does. But that’s a story for another day, and one that I’ll be talking about in detail in the future.
There’s not much to say here that can add to what I’ve already said on the other two reviews. As I’ve said, when it comes to this trilogy, I tend to judge them as one movie. One movie, that because of the length of its story, happens to be divided into three parts. But when push comes to shove, I would have to say that the third installment is definitely the most epic of the three. Epic in size, story and performances. Such epic showpieces like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Frodo and Sam’s confrontation with She-lob, or the amazing finale intercutting between the battle between the Armies of Gondor and Sauron at the Black Gates, and Frodo and Sam’s struggles to reach the top of Mount Doom are among some of the most epic, and breathtaking sequences ever seen on the big screen. With this trilogy as a whole, but this movie in particular, Jackson and Co, achieved something so epic and magical that makes it worth it of all the critical accolades, and financial success it received. Every element of the production is on point; from Screenwriting, Set Design, Makeup, Cinematography,Wardrobe, Soundtrack, Acting and Direction. It’s a superb exercise in epic filming. Something that had never been attempted before. Sure, the Salkinds had done it with Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers two-parter back in 1973, the failed attempt by the Salkinds, once again, to repeat the same feat with Richard Donner, and shoot two Superman movies at the same time in 1978, or when Robert Zemeckis decided to shoot his Back to the Future sequels back to back; but nothing came even close to the scale of what Peter Jackson and his team did with Tolkien’s masterpiece. I would definitely rank these three movies among the best movies of all time. This is what Cinema is all about. Stories and characters larger than life, and amazing world-building to boot. These three fantasy tales demand to be seen back to back, and if possible, in their extended versions. One can never get enough of Tolkien’s wondrous world. One of the best trilogies ever made. Period. Right up there with Back to the Future and Indiana Jones.
Thanks for reading.
Excellent movie, my favorite of the trilogy in fact! However, never got into The Hobbit or Harry Potter… not the things that gripped me.
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