Return of the King

by Kieran Healy on December 26, 2003

Just went to see The Return of the King, which opened in Australia today. As the Nazgul were dive-bombing the crap out of everything during the battle of the Pelennor Fields, I found myself wondering whether there was a deputy assistant undersecretary from Gondor’s Defence of the Realm Department hiding under his kitchen table somewhere on the fifth level of Minas Tirith thinking, “I must have written dozens of memos about Mordor’s air superiority, but would they listen, oh noooo! Just like every other year, the whole goddamn budget was blown on horses, silver filigree and whitewash.”



Walt Pohl 12.26.03 at 4:12 pm

Geez, Kieran, thanks for ruining the movie. Now when I see it again, I’m going to be thinking about this during the whole battle scene.


Mikhel 12.26.03 at 4:39 pm



rea 12.26.03 at 6:39 pm


Spending the money on horses pays off for them in the end, though . . .


laura 12.26.03 at 6:47 pm

I’m going to take your ability to wonder about this as support for my contention that the Nazgul were horribly overused in this movie and were in fact turned into nothing more than effective fighters, not the terrifying agents of dread they were in the book.


Idiot/Savant 12.26.03 at 8:21 pm

You had to wait a week?

Move to New Zealand already!


Dan Simon 12.26.03 at 9:15 pm

Interesting….as someone who’s neither read the books nor seen the films, I’m very curious to know (a) how similar Tolkien’s presentation of this tactic was to modern aerial bombardment, and (b) whether any culture’s myths and legends contain anything similar. I’ve always heard that Tolkien was fastidious about making his work consistent with folklore, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a folk image that corresponds to such a form of warfare. (Of course, Tolkien, writing at the time he did, would obviously have had his own reasons for finding such an image compelling.)


Idiot/Savant 12.27.03 at 12:20 am

I’m very curious to know (a) how similar Tolkien’s presentation of this tactic was to modern aerial bombardment

It wasn’t really in the book.


Vinteuil 12.27.03 at 12:31 am

Dan Simon: what’s your beef?


LC 12.27.03 at 6:31 am

Actually, the bit that twigged in my head watching this was Aragorn’s whole “Men of the West” speech. I realize that the book is written that way, but it couldn’t help but send some shivers down my spine. I can only imagine the take a good Freeper would have on the film.


Peter Murphy 12.27.03 at 8:29 am

This reminds me of Hero, the movie I got around to seeing this week. For those who haven’t seen it, it is set around 200 B.C. in China, when the first Qin emperor unified the place. It contained lots of great sword fights. However, the thing that set my bowels on edge was how the Qin fought their battles: by intense use of barrages of arrows – both by machines and knee-held bows. One command, and 20,000 of the buggers were up in the air coming right at you. At one point, it nearly destroyed a small village – personnel and architecture. Truly nasty.

That would have been the solution for our young Gondorean bureaucrat. Forget about aerial superiority – just develop enough surface-to-air missles to turn the bastards into Ringwraith pincushions. They’re supernatural, but not that supernatural.

Of course, it was the SHS (Special Hobbit Service) that won the war in the end…


Katherine 12.27.03 at 5:38 pm

I am not a diehard Tolkienite at all–I think the movies are better movies than the books are books, in many ways. But I wasn’t happy with what they chose to include and leave out in this one.


LC 12.27.03 at 11:33 pm

Actually, katherine, I agree with you about the movies being better movies than the books are books.

I’m curious, are you referring specifically to th Scouring of the Shire at the end?


Keith 12.28.03 at 12:27 am

Personally, I love the films. I find the books to be tedious and poorly paced. If Tolkein were to submit that monster to a publisher today it would be rejected on a number of substantial grounds so I guess it’s lucky for thos eof us who do enjhoyt he story that it was published fifty years ago, when the publishing industry was more apt to take chances on something flawed that still posessed a core of heart and wonder.

And yeah, that whole Men of the West Speach shivered my timbers as well. Some people have tried to indite Mr. Jackson and Mr Tolkein by default by sugesting that the Easterlings who fight for Sauron are veiled (litterally) references to Islam. I see where they could get that impression but I’m more apt to dismiss this as simple post war cultural chauvenism on the part of Tolkein, who, after all, did live in less PC erra.


Aramis Martinez 12.28.03 at 11:23 pm

Well, my turn I guess. There are a few things that irked me about the movies — upon leaving ROTK I turned to my friend and said that Peter Jackson’s vision was 95% of what it should have been. Here’s some examples:


1) Jackson did not portray powerful characters satisfactorily. In the books, Aragorn is not the weakling portrayed during most of the movies. Jackson turned indecision about whether to retake the throne of Gondor into a pervasive character trait that made Aragorn smaller. Gandalf is Istari (a middling-level angel analogue), and more use of the accompanying power should have been made of that, especially since it is critical in multiple scenes in the book. Being an wood elf attaches special importance to Legolas, much of which was ignored. It seems like Jackson took exceptional characters and shoehorned them into mere humans. The handling of Gollum clearly shows that he can adapt characters to the screen while maintaining their essences, so I don’t understand why he did this.

2) Jackson in some parts simply threw away Tolkien’s story and/or substituted his own. Because books and movies are different types of media with different needs, this is okay, and at times even desirable (I applaud him for not slowing the movies down with the Tom Bombadil escapade or the flowering of the White Tree). However, HE REPLACED CRITICAL EVENTS WITH MUCH WEAKER PLOTLINE (please forgive the shouting). Adding the stand at the Black Gate rendered the Palantir pointless; since he ignored most of the other events associated with it, it should have been left out altogether. Gandalf’s sword (Glamdring) and Aragorn’s sword (Anduril aka Narsil) terrify orcs, giving unbelievable advantage in battle. The manner in which Helm’s Deep and most of the Ent subplot in Two Towers were altered made things less interesting, not more. In ROTK the orc “general” was just confusing (people were wondering whether he was in the books, because he didn’t seem to fit with the story). Sometimes the liberties taken with the Arwen-Aragorn-Elrond subplot improved things, but at other times Jackson was just wasting screen time.

Sure, some of these complaints are manifestations of geek-hood, but I tried to leave out the nitpicking we do (remember exactly when Aragorn gets Narsil? hint: maybe he’s carrying it when the Fellowship leaves the Last Homely House. how did Shelob stab Frodo through mithril armor? wasn’t Legolas the only elf at Helm’s Deep? biggest pet peeve: a lack of immolating swords). It’s just that a good number of the complaints have naught to do with geekiness since so many people feel the same way.


Brett Bellmore 12.28.03 at 11:29 pm

Re Pincushions, yeah. I spent much of the movie, though I enjoyed it, thinking, “Archers! Damn it, where are the archers?” That, and wondering why nobody had the sense to shore up a gate that’s being struck by a battering ram. I’d have backfilled them with rubble, myself, long before the ram arrived. And where was the burning pitch? What loon would try to defend a castle without burning pitch?

Saw a seige engine once in Scientific American, a treadmill powered automatic cross bow, that would have done up the Nazgul right and proper. Ironicly, I believe it actually predated the trebuchet mounted on the walls of Minas Tirith.


Neel Krishnaswami 12.28.03 at 11:46 pm

Actually, I just reread the books, and the dive bombing snatch-and-grab was in them, though not described in any great detail. And the reason that the flying Nazgul came as a complete shock was that Sauron kept their existence secret until he was ready to invade Gondor. Of course, even if the flying things were forseen by the Gondorians (Gondorites?), they might reasonably have expected the giant eagles to help them out. I mean, they are the last free kingdom of the West, or something. So maybe neocon Gondorians would be complaining about the uselessness of the UN Security Council, er, Council of the Wise?

That said, I was struck by how morally flat the books were. I made a list of every bad guy in the book, and they were all either supernatural evils or corrupted by supernatural evil. There wasn’t even one single character who had joined the dark lord for practical reasons, like the fact that his army was twenty times bigger than everyone else’s combined and sure looked like the winning side.


Night Owl 12.29.03 at 6:28 am

I didn’t mind the Nazgul so much since it also gave a good reason for the eagles’ intervention.

Three things REALLY bothered me though:

1) Leaving out Sauruman in Movie III (the palantir is thrown out the window of the Tower and not found in a puddle, S debauches the Shire, S is killed by wormtongue after Frodo shows mercy).

2) Aragorn looks into the palantir and scares Sauron into an early attack. This single act of going toe-to-toe with Sauron proves his right to the Kingship.

3) MOST IMPORTANTLY – Gandalf. I want lightning EXPLODING out of his staff!!! I want whole phalanxes of orcs laid out with one big stab of fire!!! I want a show!!! Geez, there were more fireworks from Gandalf at Bilbo’s goodbye party than in the whole of Movie III!!!

Finally, for me the best scene in the book is when the orcs finally break through the door and Gandalf is there to stare down the Witch King (with a big blast to boot). Why they chose to omit that scene I will never know.


seth 12.30.03 at 1:00 am

Night Owl:
Yes, yes, yes on Gandalf.
I was wondering the whole darned time through ROTK, “What exactly are Gandalf’s powers? What can he do, for heaven’s sake?” He’s supposed to be a wizard, and the movie skimps on him doing appropriately wizardly things, except perhaps acting as an inspiration to those around him.


Jeremy Pierce 12.30.03 at 11:18 pm

On Gandalf not showing his power, what you want would be against Tolkien’s explicit statements (in the Istari chapter in Unfinished Tales) about the Istari not being allowed to match power for power. I think I agree with almost everything Aramis Martinez says above except the Gandalf power thing. That sums up most of my feelings about the movies.

Two points can be handled in one shot. When Frodo and Sam look out on the southern peoples making their way to Mordor, just before Faramir ambushes them, Sam wonders why anyone would serve such evil. In the process (I don’t remember if Frodo or Sam says it) Tolkien suggests that many of the humans fighting for Sauron are not doing so willingly but as conquered, enslaved peoples. This deals with the issue of Islam and veils (if it’s not willing service, then it’s not an indictment of Islam) and the charge of moral flatness (it’s not straightforward evil).

In addition to all that, Denethor’s mixed motives, Theoden’s corruption, Boromir’s mixed motives, Radagast’s diversions, the elven isolationism, and even the dwarven origin story show shades of grey in Tolkien’s characters. This charge is just false.

The Saruman problem in movie 3 is supposed to be dealt with in the DVD, but it won’t be in the Shire. Apparently Wormtongue will do the same deed but in Isengard.

Comments on this entry are closed.