The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

It’s pretty easy to see that there’s an underlying theme of father/son or things that remind me of my father within my writings on here so far. While there’s no doubt that’s going to continue in the future, this one is for my mom, who’s thankfully still around, doing fine, and was recently confused to being a similar age as me. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a story she shared with me as she read that and The Lord of the Rings when she was a child. I recall checking out a large print edition of the book from the library and reading it with her. Then, being an assistant manager at Blockbuster Video, she brought home the 1977 Rankin & Bass animated version. I was hooked and it’s one of the many films I had her bring me often over the years. I loved everything about it. I can still sing along with “The Greatest Adventure” to this day. I tried The Lord of the Rings, also from Rankin & Bass, but that one didn’t stick with me as well. I was perhaps too young for it. Maybe I didn’t like Frodo as much as I liked Bilbo. Either way, I would eventually move onto something else like all kids do, but I’d always watch The Hobbit if I would see it airing on TV.

Skip ahead many years and I heard rumblings that someone was making The Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of movies. I was intrigued. I loved what I had experienced of Tolkien’s world and I figured that now would be a good time to finally try reading The Lord of the Rings. So, in 2001, I did just that. I started with The Hobbit. I even found a similar copy to the one I had checked out as I child, though we had moved to a different city by that time. Then I tackled The Lord of the Rings. I’ll freely admit that it took me a little while to get through The Fellowship of the Ring, but I was able to breeze through The Two Towers and The Return of the King very easily. But how could they make these books into movies? Animation, I could see. After all, I still very much enjoyed Rankin & Bass’ The Hobbit, but live action? The trailers gave me hope, but it was still a monumental task in my mind.

There I was, like many of you presumably, sitting in a movie theater in December 2001 for The Fellowship of the Ring and…I was blown away. I didn’t know how they did it. I didn’t even want to know how they did it. But they had accomplished it and I couldn’t wait for an entire year for The Two Towers and then yet another year for The Return of the King. What Peter Jackson and company gave to the world was nothing short of amazing. It was grand, the effects were astonishing, and they did the books justice. These are, quite frankly, three of the best films ever made and I’m hard pressed to think of a time when that will no longer be the case.

That’s not what we’re here to talk about, however. We’re here to talk about how it makes me weep. Of the three films, The Return of the King is my favorite and when it comes tear inducing moments, this one has quite a few. But, in this, I can only pick one and I do so without any hesitation: the Ride of the Rohirrim. To understand this moment, we have to go back to The Two Towers. King Theoden (Bernard Hill) has been placed under a spell by fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). The ruler has exiled his nephew Eomer (Karl Urban), along with those loyal to the idea of Rohan, and has sat, wasting away, as Saruman’s legions of Uruk-hai lay waste to the land. With the help of Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen), the spell is broken, but now Rohan is about to feel the full wrath of Saruman and his Uruk-hai. 

To best protect his people, he takes them to Helm’s Deep: a centuries old fortress which has never fallen to assault. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) suggests that should Theoden call for help. The King of Rohan scoffs at the idea of dwarves and elves coming to their aid. He gets angry when Gondor is brought up, listing out times when Rohan needed help and Gondor was nowhere to be seen. More on that later. Theoden is incredibly stubborn at times, but he surmises that Rohan is on its own, perhaps not unjustly given his experience. Elves do arrive at Helm’s Deep to provide assistance, much to the surprise of the king. While they end up being slaughtered as the Uruk-hai warriors work their way deeper and deeper into the fortress, their sacrifice has granted Rohan valuable time. As Theoden mounts his final charge, Gandalf returns with the formerly banished Eomer and his men to turn the tide just as the Ents are attacking Saruman himself at his empty Isengard stronghold.

Triumphant, Theoden rejects Aragorn’s notion that they must continue on to Gondor. Again, where was Gondor? Well, Gondor is having its own issues being so close to Mordor and Sauron himself. With the earlier death of his son Boromir (Sean Bean), Denethor II (John Noble) falls into depression, forces his younger son Faramir (David Wenham) into a suicide mission. While Gandalf arrives to sway Denethor, it’s far too late. Faramir falls, badly wounded. Denethor dies as he tries to cremate his still very much alive son. It now falls to Gandalf to try to keep Sauron’s army out of Minas Tirith. One thing Gandalf is able to do is light the emergency beacon, a series of signals going all the way back to Rohan. When Theoden sees it, he’s forced to acknowledge the oath between the two nations. At this point, the reluctance is gone from Theoden’s eyes. Rohan will come to Gondor’s aid. And they still do so when Aragorn, the true leader of men, leaves them for a quest. 

And here is the moment. Sauron’s army of Ringwraiths, evil men, orcs, and all sorts of foul creatures is making its way through Minas Tirith. Warriors are dying left and right. Towers and walls are collapsing all over. The call to get the women and children out of the city has been made. Gandalf encounters the Witch-king of Angmar, the leader of the Nazgul. He is soundly defeated. It looks like the end for the White Wizard, much like for Gondor itself, when…a horn is heard. The Rohirrim has arrived at Pelennor Fields battleground. What they see is thousands and thousands of enemies, dwarfing their formidable yet depleted army. Theoden gives his lieutenants their commands and turns to his soldiers. He rallies them, honoring those in front by touching his sword to their spears as rides pass, as the music rises with their courage, best exemplified by Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and the hobbit Merry (Dominic Monaghan):

“Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken! Shields shall be splintered! A sword day! A red day! Ere the Sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending! Death! Death! Death!”

The final cry of “death” which all the soldiers call back to him is the most important part. These are, mostly all, men who have just saved their homeland, despite being seemingly forsaken by their closest ally and at large expense to their population. Yet, here they are, making good on an ancient oath. They know that in all likelihood they will not be surviving this battle. The orcs’ numbers are far too great, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is standing up in the face of evil and doing the right thing in this case: fighting. Fighting against all odds. Fighting for all good people. Fighting for their right to live. Fighting for the entire world. 

The battle horns are blown again. Theoden leads them straight into the heart of the rear of Sauron’s massive army. Howard Shore’s beautiful and familiar score begins, juxtaposing to the bombastic music playing during Theoden’s speech. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with crane shots showing the vastness of the coming battle and iconic shots of a crazed looking Eomer. They charge on their horses. We see many taken down by orc archers. They pick up speed. There’s no stopping them and to whatever destiny awaits them. Death? Almost certainly, but they will greet it should that be their fate. By the time they break the orcs’ line, it’s one of the most heroic scenes you will ever see on film. The Ride of the Rohirrim is a moment that had two films worth of build up. It’s pure movie magic, full of bravery and hope. That hope is found deep within their sacrifice for the greater good. 

And it makes me cry every single time.