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One film to rule them all: why ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ is the greatest film of all time

On February 29th, 2004, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won a record-tying eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It remains to this day the largest clean sweep in Oscar history and was the symbolic ‘cherry on top’ that cemented The Lord of the Rings as one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

But how did Return of the King achieve this? With a theatrical runtime of 3 hours 20 minutes, it seems almost impossible that a film this gargantuan could possibly be hailed as the greatest film of all time. Indeed, critics of the film point to the apparent ‘excessive’ amount of endings the film has (no less than seven). Yet it is the sheer scale of the film that proved so endearing to me upon my first watch, over ten years ago.

If I were to write an article detailing everything I love about this masterpiece, it would probably be longer than Tolkien’s original trilogy. So instead, I have picked three of my favourite moments from the film and will explain how these alone make The Return of the King the greatest film of all time.

You bow to no one

In one of the most influential scenes in the trilogy, Aragorn, after being crowned King of Gondor, turns to the four Hobbits of the Fellowship, who bow to the new King. In a moment of cinematic perfection, Aragorn simply proclaims – “My friends, you bow to no one.” The crowds of Minas Tirith, including the King, then all bow to our heroes, who all have looks of surprise on their faces.

For me, this scene is perfect. Four Hobbits from the humble and comparably insignificant Shire receive gratitude for the hardship and sacrifices they have endured across the last three movies. This is not only an incredibly poignant moment for Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin, but also for the audience.

We have watched the Hobbits be underestimated at every turn throughout the story by the Ents, Boromir, and even Gandalf himself (who seems dismayed when Frodo first offers to carry the Ring to Mordor). To see them finally get the recognition and applause that they deserve is a moment that resonates deeply with all who watch it. A necessary, satisfying, and emotional ending for our Hobbits’ long journey across Middle-Earth.

I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you

Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mount Doom, so close to their final destination, when Frodo collapses. The burden of the Ring is becoming too much for him to carry. Sam goes to his friend, desperate for him to stand up. In his desperation, he yells, “Come on Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”

This is yet another remarkable moment in the film. It reflects the themes of determination against all odds that have been building up to this point, such as with Aragorn’s charge at the Black Gate, or the “Death is not the end” speech that Gandalf gives Merry during the Battle of Minas Tirith.

It is a special moment and shows how much the characters have developed since we first met them in the Shire. There is no more naivety in Sam or Frodo’s mind. They know that they are facing certain death, and yet Sam continues to propel Frodo forward. It’s inspirational to watch and never ceases to elicit a smile from me, no matter how many times I rewatch it.

Yes, I wish that

Heartbreak punctuates this scene. Faramir asks his father, Denethor, if he wishes that he had died instead of his older brother, Boromir. Denethor responds, not making eye contact with his only living son, “Yes, I wish that.” It is a gut-wrenching moment. Faramir’s eyes fill with tears, the eyes of a son who just wanted to make his father proud.

What makes this scene so emotional is that it is easy for an ordinary viewer to relate to. Most people would hate to disappoint their parents, and although an extreme example of this is used in the film, the sadness that Faramir so visibly feels likely reflects the experiences of many viewers when their parents’ express disappointment in them.

The scene ends with Faramir leaving his father to fight an army of orcs, which he knows will result in almost certain death. Again, this is evocative of the themes of determination that Peter Jackson so effectively utilises throughout the film. Even at his lowest point, Faramir still agrees to fight the enemy, as he believes that he has lost all reason to come back alive.

Return of the King expertly balances the small, intimate, character-driven moments

A common theme that unites these three crucial moments in Return of the King is how much they stand out to me. In a film of this length and scale, it is easy for a viewer to get lost in the CGI or incredible fight scenes, and not pay attention to character development. However, unlike other famous 3+ hour films, Return of the King expertly balances the small, intimate, character-driven moments, such as Sam offering to carry Frodo up Mount Doom, with intense action scenes such as the charge of the Rohirrim.

To me, Return of the King will always hold a special place in my heart. Even from a young age, when I’m sure I did not appreciate nor understand the intricate plot points and emotional moments, I was still sat in awe as I watched The Lord of the Rings reach its conclusion.

It is a film which balances itself in such a way that it can appeal to all ages and demographics – youngsters can enjoy the overarching story and breathtaking action sequences and grow up to acknowledge the beauty of the screenwriting and elegant dialogue. That was my experience with Return of the King, and in my opinion, the greatest film of all time.

Comments (2)

  • the film’s balance between grand action sequences and intimate moments, making it an enduring masterpiece that appeals to a wide audience.

  • Read the book and you will understand why this is far from the ‘best film ever’ not even the best film of the three as strays too far from the source material.

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