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Remember This Scene: 'Lord Of The Rings'

Jeremy Fuster |
November 18, 2014 | 2:23 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The Green Dragon was the core of hobbit innocence, and it's where Frodo and his friends realize how misplaced they are after their adventures in Middle-Earth (New Line)
The Green Dragon was the core of hobbit innocence, and it's where Frodo and his friends realize how misplaced they are after their adventures in Middle-Earth (New Line)
Every Tuesday, Jeremy Fuster analyzes a critical scene from a popular film. Join him every week as he delves into what exactly makes these critical scenes so memorable and successful.

Now that I've gotten the urge to talk about bizarre viral videos off my chest, let's talk about the greatest movie trilogy of all time: 'The Lord Of The Rings.'

It's so strange to realize that it's been a decade since those groundbreaking, industry-changing films came out and, in the process, won a combined 30 Oscars. The legacy that the LOTR films have left in film history cannot be overstated. This trilogy, combined with 'Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Spiderman,' became huge milestones for blockbuster films in the 21st century. LOTR and Potter came out less than three months after 9/11, and Spidey made his debut the following summer. America was in mourning, troops were headed to Afghanistan, and soon the nation would be mired in the controversy over Iraq. Moviegoers were more than ready for some escapism, and here come these films, celebrating soaring freedom and noble heroes and friendship and magic and unlimited possibilities. These movies normalized long running times, started the trend of studios searching for potential franchises that could ensure a horde of sequels that will bring in boatloads of cash, and in general created a hunger for fantasy and comic book adaptations that has lasted to this day.

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But while Spidey has the most tangible legacy in the form of the unstoppable monstrosity that is Marvel Films, and Harry has the honor of being the book and film series that defined an entire generation, it is LOTR that is the cinematic champion. The last film of the series is also the last film to both win Best Picture and be in the top 10 grossing films of its year. Only a precious few films since then -- namely 'Gravity' and 'Inception' -- have been nominated and made that list. They were the end of a golden age of CGI, blending digital and practical special effects seamlessly without overly relying on green screens. It had a beautifully written script. It had acting that emphasized the friendships and heroism that were the core of J.R.R. Tolkien's folklore while making the potentially silly stuff feel epic. Oh, and it had Gollum, the antithesis of Jar-Jar Binks.

I went through all three films to find a scene for this column, and what I settled upon isn't so much a single scene as it is a sequence. It is what is known as the "multiple endings" of 'Return of the King.' The ring has been destroyed, every man, woman, and child bows before the Hobbits, and then Frodo and his friends make their return to the Shire. It's been criticized in some corners for dragging on too long, robbing the audience of the natural feeling of resolution should come in a movie. For me, though, it is a deeply poignant sequence that shows the true impact that this journey has had on the four hobbit heroes and ends with a farewell that moved me to tears.

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And to be honest, it could have been much worse. In the book, the hobbits return to the Shire only to see that it has become a realm conquered by some guy named Sharkey and has been overrun by gangs. The four of them then set out to purge the evil from the Shire and find that Sharkey is none other than the evil wizard Saruman, who ends up getting killed by his servant Wormtongue. The whole chapter, called "The Scouring Of The Shire," would have made the feeling of false resolution and uneven post-climax descent even worse had it been in the film.

Instead, the film version does things so much better. Saruman gets his death at the hands of his former servant at the start of the film, and it's far more spectacular and gruesome. The Shire, meanwhile, remains exactly the way it was when Frodo left it. It is a realm of innocence and naiveté, priding itself in staying unconcerned with what happens outside of their little corner of the world. So how are our heroes supposed to readjust to a world that can never understand what they've been through? It's a textbook example of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." What happens when you are taken outside your comfortable little world and forced into a bigger world filled with dangers that change who you are?

To show this change, let's look at two scenes. The first is a clip from the extended cut of 'The Fellowship of the Ring.' It's the last scene before Frodo learns from Gandalf what the Ring is and how he has to get it out of the Shire, so this is the last little bit of hobbit sweetness we get to see before the excrement hits the fan. It's at The Green Dragon, where there's song, dance, and laughing dismissal of dangerous threats looming just outside the realm. The Green Dragon is Plato's Cave, the den of ignorance and a limited view of the world.

Now contrast that with this scene from the end of 'Return Of The King.' The Hobbits have returned home, and they sit down with some ales at The Green Dragon, just like old times. Only it's not like old times, which is perfectly clear given the looks on their faces. All four actors deserve props for acting this out so well. The sad smiles they give each other are so meaningful. They realize that they are surrounded by people who have no idea of the war that has been going on and how they were so close to soon being invaded by legions of orcs, and they are at a total loss of how they can carry on with their lives.

Of course, the experience isn't entirely negative. Sam now has the courage to go out with his dream girl, and they get married and get busy. But for Frodo, the man who had his soul ripped to shreds by the Ring, there is no such thing as a happy ending. It slowly and painfully becomes clear to him that he will not be able to return to a normal life, and the only way for his soul to heal is to leave the very thing he sacrificed so much to save. And so, Frodo departs with Gandalf to The Grey Havens, never to return to Middle-Earth.

Oh, this scene. This. Scene. It's such a painful goodbye, and not just in the sense of this story. It is the point that we all realize that this is the end of the story. The end of a movie saga that captivated moviegoers the world over for two straight years. And it doesn't end with the four buddies growing old together. The last time we see the four hobbits together is when they are giving tearful goodbyes. The damage done to Frodo that we saw when he was carrying the Ring is more than just a way to jack up the drama. It had a real effect on him, to the point that he had to give up his home and friends for any chance of peace. It is only after he gets on the boat that he shows the kind of smile that he sported before the Ring fell into his possession. But the only way we could really understand Frodo's pain is if the film took the time to show it play out after his quest came to an end, and how he is trusting his friends to carry on his story simply by living their lives and telling his tale to those they love.

The multiple endings may leave some wondering when we're finally going to see the words "The End" on the screen, but it's important to the story that it goes that long. The quest to Mordor required pain and sacrifice, and the only way to show that sacrifice is to show how it took its toll on those that make it. Battle trauma doesn't just go away the moment victory is reached. It persists. It drains. It hurts, and it's nice to see that a film trilogy that went a combined nine hours to reach its climax decided to not abruptly end with everyone living happily ever after. Most blockbusters do that, but masterpieces go even further.

Find other "Remember This Scene?" posts here.

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