The Return of the King - soundtrack review

As is to be expected, the third movie is tying together all of the plot lines and finishing up with the characters' roles. So few really distinctive themes are introduced. The only main character not already introduced musically in the theatrical release is Denethor, the father of Boromir and Faramir. And the only peoples not really visited in depth yet are the Gondorians of Minas Tirith, and the land of Mordor. But the music for these elements are not distinctly new. The album returns throughout to the earlier themes of Frodo's Shire, the duel between evil and good (most powerfully introduced during the wizard duel between Gandalf and Saruman in TFOTR), the White Rider, the grand Fellowship theme, Rohan's theme and Aragorn's and Arwen's love theme. All three albums, like the movies themselves, are really one continuous medley/story, and cannot be adequately appreciated taken alone.

Track One (2:51) "A Storm is Coming." In fact this is very peaceful, if a bit pensive. The opening strains are the LOTR (One Ring) theme which opened TFOTR - the bit about the Ring and the end of the Second Age. This is the main recurring theme of Track One. Then it gets boisterous, and we hear the theme music of the Tower of Barad-dur.

Track Two (1:45) "Hope and Memory." A little of the Shire, White Rider, Fellowship themes interwoven.

Track Three (3:37) "Minas Tirith." New music, but rather grinding and ploddy at first, swelling into a massed vocal that seems to recall the past glories of Gondor's chiefest city, now sunk into a semi-decayed state, though still strong enough to fight for survival. Renée Fleming's gorgeous soprano carries this music. (Is this the same voice which we have heard before - especially the Orthanc scene when Gandalf speaks to the moth ?)

Track Four (3:25) "The White Tree." Opens slowly and quietly. Vocals and swelling strings play out a theme not heard before, rather formless but evocative of tension. Then a Rohirric-like inclusion (booming brass) helps the theme climax grandly.

Track Five (3:53) "The Steward of Gondor." Pensive quality here, and new music again: high wordless vocals holding a long note while a reedy flute/whistle plays; then solo brass again with muted, measured cadence from the percussion; increasing tempo and volume to an abrupt fade. Then a solo male voice sings in English: Billy Boyd (Pippin) singing to Denethor; his voice is used as a backdrop to Faramir riding off on his suicide mission. (The words are taken from early in The Fellowship of the Ring book - from the chapter "Three is Company" - written originally by Bilbo: the passage goes:

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
We'll wander back to home and bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade ! Away shall fade !
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed ! And then to bed !

The altered-shortened use of it here is more forboding, reflecting Pippin's doubts.) Dissonant strings counterpoint the sudden end of the solo piece.

Track Six (1:57) "Minas Morgul." Crashing opening with a variation of the Barad-dur theme. Repeats, and basement-brass with a segue into unfinished disonant strings.

Track Seven (2:08) "The Ride of the Rohirrim." Naturally, we hear the sighing of that Swedish violin, though not in the foreground (Eowyn - Dernhelm - is riding with the Riders in disguise). Faintly we hear the Rohan theme repeated throughout.

Track Eight (3:28) "Twilight and Shadow." Harping and voices mingle, an ethereal strain. The stirring Renée Fleming again. Soaring strings take up center stage. Drop to cellos, then the voices resume. The soprano solo is reminiscent of the love theme of Aragorn and Arwen from "The Two Towers."

Track Nine (1:44) "Cirith Ungol." Very muted piece: opens with the Ring theme, low strings and solo brass (a snatch of the Shire), picking up into a finish with a loud single refrain of the Barad-dur theme.

Track Ten (2:35) "Anduril." The Rivendell theme opens this quietly, then suddenly soars into a full-bodied variation of the whole piece. Chords reminiscent of the Argonath - and prescient of "into the West" - tease into it.

Track Eleven (4:07) "Shelob's Lair." The scene everyone has been waiting for. It is new music and very tense; formless, discordants build with volume, suddenly cut-off. Plodding growling basso: sawing cellos and jumping violins, building into a chase sequence and battle. All of this music seems new, as it should be. (There is only ONE Shelob, and this is her dreadful moment.)

Track Twelve (3:25) "Ash and Smoke." Nope: NOT Morder: it is the burning of Minas Tirith and Denethor's funeral pyre. There is a cadenced, inevitable forward quality to this theme, and it is mostly new music. Haunting high voices keen like a lost wind. Deep kettle drums mutter in the background all the while. The last bit signifies a change of focus; it sounds rather like an encounter of some kind - and I will have to see the film again to pin it down. Then a refrain of the White Rider theme; I think it's for when Gandalf confronts Denethor and rescues Faramir.

Track Thirteen (3:25) "The Fields of the Pelennor." Tentatively Rohan's theme opens and builds into battle music: punctuated with marching drums: then building brass and sudden massed vocals - the confrontation theme again (Saruman versus Gandalf: Sauron at the battle of Mount Doom variation), discordant. Then a triumphant entrance of brass and we end abruptly.

Track Fourteen (2:20) "Hope Fails." Growling basso in the brass, picked up by lovely woodwinds and strings, a melancholy procession which limps, and drops slowly down - then brassy dissonant chords and crescendo of pounded gongs, etc. Abrupt cut-off.

Track Fifteen (4:01) "The Black Gate." Sounds like Gondor and Rohan approaching the Black Gate, then a refrain of the Fellowship theme, taken over by a faint fluting that almost wants to become Frodo's Shire theme. Brass and strings increase in pitch, joined by massed voices ascending. The flute/whistle resumes and climbs, but still doesn't quite pick up the Shire theme. Then a new theme comes in, ("Into the West"), played briefly by the brass. Abrupt cut-off.

Track Sixteen (5:12) "The End of All Things." Massed vocals and crashing percussion, groaning strings: the voices climb in a confrontation theme variation again. Suddenly cut off, replaced by that haunting soprano solo again, backed by low vocals and muted strings. A brief refrain of the One Ring theme; then the massed vocals take over again - much like the theme of the trashing of Isenguard. The voices descend in volume and cadence to a lower level, then a resolved chord drawn out finishes with a sudden crescendo and resuming brass. Renée Fleming enters again, with the vocals backing and a cello section underscore. End.

Track Seventeen (10:14) "The Return of the King." Opens on a long drawn high violin note, then harp, cellos, lower violins build, woodwinds enter: the effect is like release. Woodwinds pick up more emphasis, strings are the foundation, then a chorus of brass and strings refrain the Fellowship theme, which segues into Frodo's Shire theme (a flute solo). A lengthy piece of "formless" mood music for the tying up of plot ends (reunions and the like). Then we hear another strange, very muted, male solo, Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) singing/chanting in elvish (in the houses of healing ?): we're not going to know what the application is until we see the movie; it is brief. The female solo voice we know so well brings us a variation of Arwen's theme (as when she aided Frodo when he was wounded in TFOTR). Frodo's Shire theme takes over, full-bodied and measured; followed by the flute/whistle solo of the same. Then we hear a variation of the theme that introduced us to the Shire when Gandalf first came there in TFOTR (the "on location" theme, not Frodo's Shire); a the Grey Havens.

Track Eighteen (5:59) "Grey Havens." A haunting whistle solo introduces this new theme; naturally the Shire and Fellowship themes figure prominently as friends part forever in Middle-earth: the breaking of the Fellowship theme has a variation here. Muted massed vocals underscore the finale, which is the whistle/flute solo again playing a variation (along with violins) of Frodo's Shire theme. The Grey Havens theme sounds briefly; then strains from the chorus of the "into the West" theme fade (forming an intro for the last track).

Track Nineteen (5:50) "Into the West." Annie Lennox renders a melancholy and liberated ending solo.


Continue on only if you want to read spoilers.

Review of The Return of the King movie.

OK, the *four* things I disliked first:

My word, "shoot me full of arrows, 'cause I don't know that I have a shield hanging across my back or from my saddle." How stupid is that ???!!! Rohirrim charging into most of the orc archers in the known world, and I didn't see one of them using his shield: that looked plain stupid: and the charge of the Rohirrim was my favorite part visually - that is known as IRONY, children. (I've seen the film again: and I won't ever be able to ignore all those hanging, bouncing, useless shields; but it also won't ruin my over all enjoyment.)

I disliked the way Frodo and Gollum tussled (again) after Gollum bit off Frodo's finger and got his "Precious" back again. What's wrong with just letting the little dirtbag jump in ecstacy until he misses his step and falls in: having Frodo hanging on to the edge of the cliff by his one good hand looked positively dorky. (But after seeing this now-expected scene again, I don't mind it nearly as much as after the first go: Sam's words are what saves it.) And the way Gollum sort of sinks outta sight in all that lava was really dumb looking, especially the first time around: I thought he should have been vaporized instantly on contact: but after a second viewing, I didn't find it so ludicrous: the One Ring had to make him tougher, and he actually has a stunned, rather frozen expression as he sinks out of sight. (I still think the cartoon handled the destruction of the Ring better.)

I STILL REALLY dislike the way PJ trashed Denethor's character: Gandalf had to beat this guy to make him behave. There was no dignity, not even when eating. Denethor was thoroughly demeaned, in my eyes: he doesn't do squat to prepare Gondor for war: won't even light the beacon fires, so he's a totally useless guy: I didn't like the way they ruined his character without giving any reason for it: no Palantir confrontations with Sauron: not even in the EE DVD. And his wearing a hauberk even at meal times makes no sense, because he never explains, as he does in the book, that he wears one constantly to prevent the advance of physical weakness from old age. (Subsequent viewings make me accept the "movie" Denethor as at least consistent: rather like another individual's opinion of Denethor's character: exaggerated faults as though by someone who resented or hated his memory.)

I was disappointed in the ending stuff at Minas Tirith. I wanted the formal "Praise them with great praise" shout from the whole gathered host of men. That would have been awesome: sort of like the hobbits receiving Gondor's "Medal of Honor". The crowning of Aragorn scene was cheesy: Aragorn's speech was pitched at room level: he should have shouted it out (like Boromir does in the EE TTT upon the retaking of Osgiliath). But the real sillines was his surprise upon finding Arwen in the crowd: give me a break, the king is going to know when his bride is coming: anyone ever heard of "affairs of state?" These matters are not "done in a corner." (Arwen's character was supposed to be dying, then she suddenly shows up by surprise: it would have been better had we seen at least a couple of heart-wrenching scenes of her getting worse, and then when the Ring gets melted down, she begins to recover at once. Oh well, a minor detail I guess.) But a grand marriage and coronation of Elessar and Evenstar, with their names proclaimed with loud honorifics, would have been cool. (After a second viewing, I still find the ending somewhat tepid, but not as much so: I especially enjoyed the look of the White Tree - which I noticed this time, though it remains somewhat distant. And having everyone bow to the hobbits in honor of them, even the king and his soon-to-be-queen, is OK for the movie version: I will still enjoy the "praise them with great praise", the old formality feel, of the story as the book tells it, on the field of Cormallen.)

I have already said this before: I think Gondorian bowmen in plate look stupid. (And they will always look stupid, no matter how many times I see this film.)

Oh yeah: I didn't like seeing Faramir being dragged back into Minas Tirith by one stirrup. What would have been wrong with having him manhandled by a Nazgul as he forms the rearguard, so's his troops can make their escape back to the city? That way Gandalf could ride out and rescue him as he did in the book (altho we miss Imrahil and the knights of Dol Amroth). The quick cheesy way Faramir gets back in is just stupid looking. (And this will always look bad, no matter how many times I see it: "boo ! hiss !".)

I can talk about the things I hoped the EE would do:

I hoped they will show Eowyn, Merry and Faramir being healed by Aragorn, and we did see Eowyn getting healed, but the hobbits don't even get a mention. Eomer holding his sister's body and sobbing on the battlefield (like in the trailer) was really effective, but too hurried and kind of out of place after everything was already over. Having her and Faramir beside each other as they recover, and sharing a few "let's get together yeah yeah yeah" lines would have made their getting together feel more convincing, but they only get a few seconds on a parapet as the army marches off to confront Sauron; out of sequence and too short. I looked forward to Gandalf and the witch king facing off first, but again, the scene was too hurried, and having Gandalf's staff get shattered was not necessary, imho. Sam really needed to have his longer moment to consider his options, when he thinks Frodo is dead, but he didn't get it: he needed to take the Ring and Sting and get ready to march into Mordor alone, but none of that happened. And my hope that the ending would be augmented to fix the points I mentioned above that I disliked: including a scene showing the renewal of the White Tree by Aragorn, got nothing; we saw a new leaf starting to form on a dead twig, and I have to be satisfied with that.

Now things I really liked:

I think PJ is the absolute master of cinematic "eye candy." From TFOTR to the grand finale I am agog, almost out of breath at times, over the visual impact of these movies. TROTK is the best, with tons of stupendous action, down to the little details, and wonderful expansive scenes of "Middle-earth", like during the beacon lighting sequence, which is one of my favorite dramatic moments that is simply stupendous photography and music combined. Incredible: I have never seen anything like this in my life. I have to get back to it as soon as possible.

To say that I liked the action is a massive understatement.

I loved PJ the way he stayed true to the story throughout the trilogy of films: he did some things I don't like, but over all he succeeded beyond my expectations.

I loved the death of king Theoden.

I enjoyed the paths of the dead; and thought having the dead help win the battle of the Pelennor fields was a brilliant way of simplifying the story: until I realized that how Peter Jackson handled their power actually is a deus ex machina taken way too far. Tolkien handled this well: he had the dead clear the Black Fleet of the baddies, and then Aragorn released them. The southern Gondor forces got aboard and they rowed up the river (with the help of a freshening ocean breeze) and saved the City just in time. Peter Jackson would have us believe that the dead can kill: that they can slay an entire army of tens of thousands in minutes. That means that king Theoden's death was unnecessary: and the arrival of the Rohirrim is not exactly in the nick of time: the City is still stubbornly holding out, retreating level by level behind their gates: and so they would have been when the dead arrived. (The extended edition of ROTK didn't make the timing more acceptable; I remain unsatisfied with the way PJ exploited the Rohirrim needlessly.)

I liked the Eowyn and the witch king scene: except: Merry didn't have a special weapon, which is the logic in the book that makes his attack from behind work at all. Eowyn's trimmed line "I am no man" worked OK, then she stuck her ordinary sword into his face and he crumpled. I wish that there had been a cool, trailing, wailing disembodied voice go shuddering up into the air and across the battlefield when he died, but oh well, it was done OK - it just could have been better.

I thought Sean Astin's Sam was superb acting: if he doesn't get nomination for best actor or best supporting actor I shall be miffed. When he thinks Frodo is dead, his grief is utterly devastating.

Shelob: well, YEAH. Nothing could have been better there: she was nasty nasty nasty. Just like in the book, she get's hoist on her own petard and scuttles off mewling.

Summing up: The Lord of the Rings is epic literature, apocalyptic in focus; with the characters forced to decide which side they are going to be on, or whether to try and hide: the unfolding plot makes it obvious that the latter tactic is hopeless: you cannot run away from evil: you must band together and fight it, even when victory seems remote or unattainable. And in the end, right and light do triumph, after great sacrifice and personal cost. It is worth it, because the good things are worth fighting for and preserving; life in a free world is worth fighting for. Sam says it very well at the end of the second film; his words are straight out of Tolkien, as are all the great lines, preserved (though often transposed) in all three films. I really feel (nay, believe) that forces for good were at work upon Peter Jackson and company to produce this excellent Trilogy of films: so the story is given a widely received expression of the Spirit of Tolkien's master work. And a good reason for this belief of mine is based on my personal conviction that our modern world NEEDS stories like The Lord of the Rings as much as food: things are coalescing into another world-wide confrontation between the forces of darkness and light. Watching films like these, based on the much better original books, cannot help but inspire viewers to try and be more courageous and true in their individual lives.