I had extremely high expectations for the extended DVD edition of The Return of the King. After all, the extended Two Towers had, in many ways, completely redeemed the film—nearly all its flaws were addressed by the forty-odd extra minutes. And while the theatricial release of ROTK was brilliant, it had its share of problems they all seemed like things that missing footage could address in a similar fashion. So it’s safe to say that part of me expected the ROTK extended edition answer all my complaints and quibbles. And of course it didn’t. The effect in this case is modest—it’s definitely an overall improvement, but one that leaves the overall structure of the film, flaws and all, intact.
(If you’re the sort of person who would consider an exhaustive treatment of the additional footage “spoilers,” then you should stop reading now.)
First of all, as with the previous extended editions, much of the new material comes in the form of a second or two added to a scene: the camera lingering slightly longer, an additional dialogue exchange, sometimes as little as a reaction shot. And these little moments never miss. They are all to the good. If anything, they make you question the editorial choices that went into cutting the movie down the way it was—it seems like keeping a lot of these small moments in the theatrical release and trimming down on some of the pre-battle speechifying would have been a much better move.
Most importantly, we get some actual closure with Saruman in this edition. It was just what I hoped they’d do, too—transplant Grima’s betrayal of Saruman from the Shire to the top of Orthanc. Much of Saruman’s dialogue is taken straight from the book, which is great, though it does tend to upstage the non-Tolkien dialogue around it. And Grima’s betrayal is a bit forced. It’s foreshadowed by the tear in his eye in Two Towers upon seeing the vast army of Uruk-hai, but there are no beats between there and here to complete his arc. And sure, he’s a minor character, but when they gave him that great speech to Eowyn (itself transplanted from the Houses of Healing chapter in ROTK), I thought they were going to emphasize him a little more. As it is, they only went halfway.
Speaking of the Houses of Healing—I think we can all agree that the cheesy music playing over the first Eowyn recovery scene was a big mistake. Worse, the scene is clearly misplaced, chronologically speaking—Faramir and Eowyn are up and walking and making eyes at each other long before Aragorn’s army has even left for Mordor. If I remember correctly, it’s even intercut with the aftermath of Pelennor Fields. Still, both Eowyn and Faramir’s arcs feel much more complete as a result of the H of H scenes, as well as the other added material earlier on. Faramir’s longer conversation with Denethor is pretty good, but Eowyn’s conversation with Merry before the battle (“We cannot turn the tide of battle, but we can fight for our friends,” etc.) is absolutely essential. Not only does it set up some of their lines later on, it’s a wonderful scene in its own right. Hard to understand why it was cut.
The Paths of the Dead are much improved by a few added details—reminders of Jackson’s background in B-grade horror movies, certainly. The cavalcade of skulls is something right up his alley. Some have argued that seeing our heroes take down the Corsair ships in the first place takes away from the surprise of their arrival later on, but I liked that addition nonetheless. It must have been painful for Jackson to cut his own death scene for the theatrical release.
By far the most radical change, thematically, was the confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-king in Gondor. In the book, Gandalf confronts him at the gate just after it’s been shattered, and holds him off through words/force of presence/making small talk until the cock crows and Rohan’s horns sound, which drives the Nazgul back to the battlefield to contend with the new threat. In the movie, of course, the gates are already breached and forces are surging in, which is a great choice for enhancing the tension of the battle. As a result the Witch-king confronts Gandalf while the wizard is on his way to the top of the city to contend with mad Denethor. But this time, Gandalf loses. Instead of an impasse, the Witch-king’s words of bravado have teeth—Gandalf’s staff shatters and he falls to the ground. As a result, the arrival of Rohan saves not only Gondor, but Gandalf as well.
Now, anyone who’s up on Middle Earth history and cosmology knows that, Tolkien-wise, that’s just plain crazy. Gandalf the White, a Maiar bearing (however modestly) an Elven Ring, is not going to be taken down by some undead Black Numenorean Nazgul, no matter how favored he is by Sauron. The only thing holding Gandalf back is himself, because of how keenly he understands the corrupting nature of power. Ain’t nothing in Middle Earth that could break his staff except maybe Sauron himself.
However, if we forgive Jackson et al this bit of license, the moment does work. Consider: from this point on in the movie, Gandalf is done. He’s already performed his last great deed—spurring the men of Gondor to fight rather than despair, as Denethor would have had them do. His next act will be to save a single man’s life—Faramir’s. But from that point on, he is just a fellow-traveler. He performs no more feats in battle. He has no role in Aragorn’s decision to confront Sauron using the palantir. He’s not the one who comes up with the plan to distract Sauron by marching on the Black Gate. He ceases being a manipulator or even an adviser. Thematically, all this dovetails nicely with the transition to the Dominion of Men. Gandalf is on his way out, and he knows it—the final acts of heroism are not performed by him, but by those who must remain to rebuild when he is gone. I fully expect to hear Fran or Philippa note in the commentary track that breaking the staff somehow increases the payoff when Eowyn defeats the Witch-king, but that’s a poor reason for the change—starting the process of moving Gandalf off the stage is a better one.
Aragorn does come into his own in the last part of the movie, and that process is accentuated by the additional material in the Paths of the Dead, as well as his use of the palantir in the throne room of Gondor. For a minute when I saw that I thought they were revealing that Denethor had a palantir (albeit not explaining it very well), but then I realized that it was more likely the one from Orthanc, sitting by the throne because it is Aragorn’s throne now, after all. It’s too bad, though, that we never get a satisfying resolution to Aragorn’s struggle with his own self-doubt. Making him unsure of himself, fearful of his own weakness, was a masterstroke on the part of the screenwriters—one of the places where they really out-Tolkiened Tolkien in the films. I had hoped that something in the extended edition would address that theme, but we’re still left with little more than that flicker of doubt on his face at the Black Gate before he charges to his (supposed) doom.
Speaking of the Black Gate—the Mouth of Sauron was creepily and brilliantly executed. It was another one of those scenes where Tolkien’s language upstaged the other dialogue, though. And the denouement—
Aragorn chopping off the guy’s head—was just juvenile. In the book they let him go because he’s a freakin’ emissary, and that’s what honorable people do. In the book the Mouth also provides surrender terms for the armies of the West, and Gandalf rejects them—in the film it would have made more sense for Aragorn to do the rejecting, which on the whole would have played for a little more depth instead of the cheap non-laugh. Also, big points off for Aragorn’s defiant “I don’t believe Frodo is dead” line after he kills the Mouth. It plays right against the the whole drift of that scene, which is that our heroes are fighting but they’ve lost all hope, so that when Mount Doom does go belly-up in the distance, and Barad Dur topples, the eucatastrophe is total.
But I’ve jumped ahead of one of the big problems in the theatrical release, which was the poor pacing of Frodo and Sam’s scenes, post-Shelob and pre-Mount Doom. Nothing that I could see was added to the prison tower scenes, and so they still feel rather rushed. That’s where some added material would have been most helpful. The new orc-march scene is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t fix the pacing problems as much as I’d like.
I’ve heard rumors on the wind that at some point in the future they’ll release another edition with even more footage. Goodness knows they probably have plenty more stuff that they shot, but I’m very skeptical as to whether such a thing would come to pass. A lot of that footage would probably require some postproduction work, to say nothing of the headache of scoring it all. Still, I’d be more than happy if such a thing did happen—we’re looking at twelve-plus hours of film in the trilogy now, and it’s still the case that the weaknesses in the story could be addressed by more footage, not less.
My question: when oh when will a local theater decide to screen all three extended editions back to back? OK, maybe with short breaks for using the bathroom. I would love to see what new insights would be gained through a total viewing—to say nothing of catching it all on the big screen again. I’m waiting . . .