“The Return of the King” – 20 Years of Transcendent Magic

On February 29th, 2004, The Return of the King won a record setting 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film accomplished something no film in history ever has before. It received 11 nominations, and it won 11 awards. Only two other films, Titanic and Ben Hur, have won as many Oscars as The Return of the King. For fans of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and more specifically, fans of the fantasy genre, that night was a glorious mixture of joyous celebration and contented gratefulness.

We were grateful because we felt that the entire world of fantasy storytelling that we loved so much was at long last getting the respect and admiration it justly deserved. After decades of feeling like outsiders, we finally had a seat at the table. This weird and wonderous thing was not only accepted but was recognized as an important piece of culture. Many films had chipped away at the artificial barrier that kept fantasy storytelling at arm’s length, but The Return of the King knocked it down for good. It was a cinematic moment of historic proportions.

That’s a look at the big picture; the cultural significance of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I would rather devote my time and energy to the personal significance of these films. I followed the making of the films from the very beginning, based on my love of the books. In a way, these films are part of my DNA; a central piece of who I am at my very core.

On that February night, I sat there with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and pride. Personally, I didn’t care much about being accepted by culture at large. I’m mostly ambivalent towards cultural accolades. What I did want, and what the night gave me, was the feeling that this world I loved so much, created by J.R.R. Tolkien and adapted by Peter Jackson, had deeply resonated with so many other people.

To truly understand the personal impact and import of The Return of the King dominating that evening, we need to back up a bit. Back to the late 90’s.

The Return of the King and me.

The Return of the King

When “The Lord of the Rings” films were announced, I was 19 years old and in the middle of my college experience. Like many others, my time in college was foundational to who I am today. I made lifelong friends in college – many of whom are part of Rambling Ever On. I learned so much, and not just in the classroom at Welch College. I learned by observing the faculty and staff as they lived their lives, always pointing us to the truth and Jesus.

I also met, courted, lost, re-courted, and eventually married my wife during my time in college. (To be technical, we got married two days after I graduated but she was still in college so I think the point stands.)

During that time, I was figuring out what I believed, what mattered most to me, and what I wanted my life to look like going forward. When you are in that sort of heady mix of self-discovery and worldview building, and some crazy filmmaker from New Zealand decides to adapt your favorite novel into an epic trilogy of films, you can’t help but incorporate all of these touchstones of importance into your very essence. At least, I couldn’t.

Obsessively following the making of these films became a deeply rooted and important part of my identity. Spending every day, from 1997 until that evening in February of 2004, living and breathing all things Lord of the Rings, made the Oscar triumph of The Return of the King all the sweeter.

All about The Return of the King.

The Return of the King

Enough about me. Let’s spend the rest of our time talking about this glorious film. I don’t think most people realize how unlikely The Lord of the Rings film trilogy actually is. It shouldn’t have worked. No studio wanted to make it. At least not as a trilogy. I won’t bore you with the details but the fact that these films even exist is miraculous. The fact that they are as good as they are feels downright providential. Maybe that’s borderline heretical or religious in tone, yet in some ways it feels accurate. The Lord of the Rings feel like films that were meant to be made, just as they are.

While the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, has always been my favorite, The Return of the King was essential to the legacy of the trilogy. If the final film in the trilogy didn’t work, the rest of the trilogy would suffer as a result. Triumphantly, The Return of the King succeeds on just about every level. It is not a perfect film, and Peter Jackson does give into a few too many extravagant impulses at times, but taken as a whole, it is a near pitch-perfect conclusion to the greatest trilogy ever made.

The improbable rightness of The Return of the King.

The Return of the King

The flaws of the film are there for those who wish to look. To me, those flaws are rendered meaningless when compared to both the sheer scope of the film as well as to the essential “must get right” moments of the story. The Return of the King works so well because it understands that even in the midst of unprecedented visual splendor and an unparalleled cinematic assault on the senses, the entire thing lives or dies on the moments of intimate connection. Without those, the whole series falls apart. It is “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

It is clear that Peter Jackson and company understood this on a deeply personal level. It’s why moments like Sam carrying Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom exist. It is why Pippen and Gandalf’s conversation about what comes after death hit so hard. And it is why everyone bowing to the four brave hobbits stirs our hearts in a way we could not have anticipated.

Yes, The Return of the King is a visual and cinematic marvel. It changed the game. The Ride of the Rohirrim is like something out of a dream. A scene so big, so bold, so unreservedly earnest that we were left with our mouths wide open, and our hearts pierced with something too wonderful for words. Howard Shore’s transcendent score makes it all the more powerful, filling every corner of our hearts with a melody that feels at once immediate yet eternal. When it comes to sheer spectacle, The Return of the King is THE King. It takes a backseat to no one.

But it bears repeating, none of that spectacle would matter without the spirit of the thing being there for everyone with eyes to see and hearts to feel. Frodo saying goodbye to Sam, Pippin, and Merry at the Grey Havens is a non-negotiable moment, but one that could have been fumbled by lesser filmmakers or skipped entirely because of artificial time constraints or lack of vision. “For Frodo” is a meme now, but it only holds that ubiquitous pop culture position because that quiet moment, seconds before a furious final battle begins, felt so real and honest. We were all Aragorn in that moment.

The Return of the King worked because it understood all of this. Courage, honor, bravery, sacrifice all matter. They mean something. They are virtues we need to live out daily, for the good of the world as well as for our own souls, but we lose sight of them so often. Films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy remind us, in a language we can all understand, why these virtues matter and why we must do everything in our power to extol them.

Final thoughts about the legacy of The Return of the King.

The Return of the King

20 years ago, The Return of the King descended on the world and captured the hearts of millions. I am convinced we will never see another series like this again. New fans are being made every day, when children of those who first watched it in the theater show it to their kids. These are films that will outlive us all. Their legacy and spirit will continue to shape who we are. They will challenge us to be better. To be braver. To love more sacrificially. To look beyond ourselves and our needs and to stand against evil.

Yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy are only stories – books and films. And yes, they are but mere reflections of the ultimate Truth. But even in that reflection, there is power and something worth celebrating. Today, so near the anniversary of the release of The Return of the King, we celebrate it and everything it means. And we retrain our eyes to focus on the things the film valued most. Love, beauty, light, courage, selflessness, honor, and fellowship. These things can never be taken from us, no matter how dark the world becomes. Let us celebrate that.

Phill Lytle
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Phill Lytle

Phill Lytle loves Jesus, his wife, his kids, his family, his friends, his church, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, 80s rock, the Tennessee Titans, Brandon Sanderson books, Whiteheart, Band of Brothers, Thai food, the Nashville Predators, music, books, movies, TV, writing, pizza, vacation...

2 thoughts on ““The Return of the King” – 20 Years of Transcendent Magic

  • December 15, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    A powerful personal – and collective – memory. A tribute to a splendid piece of filmmaking. Your story…our story…the story of millions, no doubt. Thanks for the memories, and the deeper meaning behind them. We’re all deeply enriched by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

  • December 15, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Great tribute and excellent writing!
    “When it comes to sheer spectacle, The Return of the King is THE King. It takes a backseat to no one.”
    I think I see what you did there.


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