The third and final Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, won 11 Oscars last night, including best picture, best director, and best original score. In honor of the movie's "clean sweep" we present this Last Call to all the armies of men, from the February issue.
Director Peter Jackson spent seven years of his life planning, shooting, and editing the Lord of the Rings movies, so one day of mine didn't seem like too much to ask. The crowd that usually reclines at my Virginia townhouse -- a smattering of economists, college students, and eccentric editors of right wing magazines -- held an all day Festival of the Ring, leading up to the opening of the third and final installment at midnight.
No expense was spared. We bought tickets weeks in advance, carted in an extra television and fiddled with wires so that we could simulcast in the kitchen and living rooms, stocked up on vittles and beverages, and had pizza flown in from Giordano's in Chicago. In the days leading up to the occasion, we wrestled with the vexing question that must have confronted all Rings purists: theatrical releases or extended versions? Charity and brevity won out. Some of the likely guests hadn't seen the first two movies, and the prospect of tacking on another hour to them, already a six hour stretch, sounded less…festive than what we were trying for.
But, as I discovered midway through the first movie, even the shorter version wasn't going to do it for me. I'd seen the films too many times: most of the twists and turns had been burnt permanently onto my brain. Of all the scenes, the only one that was anywhere near as powerful as the first half dozen viewings was the standoff at the footbridge leading out of Mines of Moria, where a very tired Gandalf (played by Sir Ian McKellen) plants himself and his ancient staff in front of the Balrog demon and makes it understood ("You shall not pass!") that this is far enough, buddy. And even this scene is robbed of some of its impact by knowing the monster will drag the old wizard down into the abyss. It would take a new movie to bring some of that old magic back.
My group arrived at the theatre over two hours early and the line already stretched out and around the side of the building. The multiplex kept expanding the number of screens until 14 of the 22 were sold out for a showing, in the middle of the week, that would stretch past three in the morning. The concession area was a pandemonium, and the theatres were heated several degrees warmer than usual -- near as I can tell, to keep the audience from rioting. In my auditorium, at least a half dozen people sported elf ears; there were a few white, flowing Arwen costumes, and one guy down in the eye-blur section had a tee shirt with the lettering "Frodo Lives."
A cheer went up when the nearly endless previews finished and The Return of the King began. At the risk of scotching any future movie critic cred: wow. The opening scene was annoying and the end dragged on a bit but Jackson really made Tolkien's tale come to life. As Frodo (the very youthful Elijah Wood) wanders through Shelob's forest of spider webs and bodies, your fingers feel acrid and sticky. When the signal flares are lit, stretching hundreds of miles through mountain passes and summoning aid to Gondor, you want to cheer. And when the bruised, winnowed army of men marches from Gondor to the gates of Mordor, in a suicide mission to buy the hobbits more time, you hope, in spite of yourself.
We exited the theatre to face rains every bit as nasty as those before the muddy siege of Helms Deep, and parking lot that took ages of men to empty out. On the drive home, we tried the usual uber geek post-game analysis (e.g., the stunt doubles were less than satisfactory, and, uh, what was with those subtitles?) but mostly circled around the movie. We simply weren't up to digesting that large a spectacle so early in the morning.