Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Return of the King 

I saw The Return of the King last night. A few of my initial thoughts:

It is as visually magnificent as one could hope for. The view from Meduseld, Minas Tirith upon Mindolluin, the Black Ships landing at the Harlond, the muster of Rohan, the mumakil--all these scenes are conveyed with a true artist's brush. And the beacon-fires racing from Mindolluin to Edoras are a spell of enchantment that for a brief moment call you into in a world limited by the speed of a horse, where the swiftness of the signal-fires is a wonder of great worth.

That said, for all its grandeur of scenery, the film felt quite cramped for time. So much takes place in The Return of the King, including several scenes from Fellowship or Two Towers that the filmmakers chose to postpone, that even major cuts--the Scouring of the Shire, the arrival of the Dunedain, the Druadan Forest all failed to appear--could not make the three hours seem less rushed. This was most noticeable after the Battle of the Pelennor, when a week's march to the Black Gate and Frodo and Sam's journey across Gorgoroth seemed to happen in an afternoon.

And there lies another weakness of the film: it loses sense of time and place. There were valiant attempts to keep that sense. They wisely chose to put Osgiliath and the walls of Mordor within sight of Minas Tirith, and maps inobtrusively yet helpfully caught long seconds of screen time once or twice. Yet after explicitly hearing that Gondor is three days' ride from Edoras, we see Denethor wondering the same day the beacons are lit why Theoden has not come. Aragorn had just warned Theoden that the time was short, but the horses fled from the Paths of the Dead and he, Legolas, and Gimli entered them on foot; one wonders how the long leagues beyond in the south were covered. And most disconcerting to me was the absence of the Dawnless Day; little could substitute for that shadow of gloom and the glimmer of rising hope when the wind changed.

Most of the characters came off better in this film, I deem. Pippin and Merry become far more than comic relief, and even Gimli gets the short end of the stick less often. Aragorn, doomed by the screenwriters to pass through so much brooding introspection first, finally grows into his kingship. Faramir too, having passed the test of the Ring, now acts with the nobility we expect. We see well how the Ring has changed Frodo, even when it is gone, so that his heart will never be at peace in Middle-Earth.

The disappointing character of the film was Denethor. If the silent nobility and might deeds of Aragorn and Faramir needed to be augmented by "character development" for the screen, it is hard to understand why the subtle greatness and madness of Denethor was flattened out. The man who walked and slept in mail lest age make his body soft here becomes almost a glutton; the watchful Steward who made firm his defenses (though took no offensive action), calling upon Rohan, sending the women and children to safety, laying in stores for a siege, and desiring the Ring to save his City here becomes neglectful, refusing to take action at all, save for sending Faramir off to his near-death. Madness with greatness is dramatically powerful; madness without greatness is merely grotesque.

The dialogue in this film, more than in the other two, showed a sorry divide between Tolkien's own prose and the lines newly written. Too few of the short phrases put in characters' mouths rose above ordinary Hollywood fare; the words of Aragorn at his crowning, "Let us rebuild this world in peace," discouragingly so. Yet even recast and abridged, the power of the Professor's own words sings, as in Theoden's verses to the Riders--"A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!"

And though many little flaws, of the sort that the extended editions have healed, remain--we see none of the aftermath of Merry's wound, nor the tale of Faramir and Eowyn, nor Aragorn and Eomer meeting and embracing "though all the hosts of Mordor lie between"--nevertheless many heart-stirring scenes remain: the army of the West surrounded by the hosts of Mordor; Eowyn removing her helmet; Sam taking Frodo upon his back. Sam and Rosie's wedding; Eldarion playing in Aragorn's arms; and little Elanor running to her father.

These films, shaped by moderns of matter wrought by a Catholic, have always been a spiritual experience for me. I still recall falling into deep prayer during the battle scenes at the opening night of Fellowship. In this third picture, the most moving and prayerful moment came as Aragorn rallied his men before the Black Gate, challenging and uniting them as "Men of the West." In an age when Western culture is under attack day by day, from without but even more from within, when "dead white men" are shunned and mocked, this movie dares to risk those snobbish criticisms and (even if unwittingly) call Tolkien's own audience, the English-speaking West, to remember and defend its heritage, a heritage not only human but divine. Gondor was indeed a human culture, shaped and lived by men, but they were the Men from the Sea, the Numenoreans given great gifts by the Valar who taught and enlightened the men of Middle-Earth, who lived in the shadow of the Enemy. Even so the West today, Europe and her children, unworthy and weak as we are, have amidst our tongues and arts and ales the greatest Gift of Iluvatar. "Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe," Hilaire Belloc once wrote to much misunderstanding. Of course not all the Church is or ought to be European; but all the world ought to serve Christ, and for nineteen hundred years it is Europe, West and East, which has been entrusted with His Name to be spread to all the nations. Our weaknesses and failures, especially this last century, are great, and the downfall of Westernesse is a lesson for us. Perhaps, as Philip Jenkins argues, the West will one day soon go the way of Syria and Antioch, until Berlin, Paris, and Westminster are sees in partibus infidelium. But for those with ears to hear, however unintentionally, this film is a horn-call and trumpet-blast to say with Aragorn, "But that day is not today."

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