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The Return of the Return of the King

December 20th, 2004

Last week saw the DVD release of the “extended cut” of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. As with the previous two films in Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy, King had been previously issued on home video in its theatrical release form, with a longer version arriving approximately half a year later.

While this is yet another example of the practice of “double-dipping”–releasing multiple versions of the same title, with each subsequent one ostensibly improved to encourage repeat buying by rapid collectors–at least Jackson and New Line Cinema have been upfront about their intentions since the beginning.

Watching the new DVD with its 50 minutes of additional footage was a vastly different experience than seeing King on opening night. In some places, it was practically a new film.

Although I felt that Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings flicks were greatly improved by their extended edits, this one seems like a bit of a wash. Neither version is quite right.

The theatrical release was lacking some key scenes, notably the final confrontation with the wizard Saruman. Jackson apparently believed that this scene was merely a leftover from The Two Towers that delayed entry into the new plot. Yet, Saruman was such a major villain in the earlier chapters that it was absurd to dismiss him with a single line of dialogue. The reinstatement of this showdown provides much needed closure.

Similarly, added scenes with Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing give those characters more satisfying storylines. Both disappeared about halfway through the original version, only to reappear in the closing coronation sequence with only a hint of their off-screen romantic bond.

Other welcome restorations include a face off between Gandalf and the Witch King; and another between Aragorn and the Mouth of Sauron. They aren’t strictly needed, but the former is an iconic moment from the book and the latter features an effective depiction of a memorable character.

On the other hand, the extended edit includes material which seems not only unnecessary, but redundant. The surprise attack of the Army of the Dead at Minas Tirith is spoiled by an earlier, almost identical scene. And was there any call for a Gimli/Legolas drinking game?

Finally, neither version includes a sequence I’d hoped to see: Sam overcoming the stone watchers at the gates of Cirith Ungol. It was shot but, according to Jackson’s DVD commentary, left out for pacing reasons. Pacing reasons? In a four-hour-plus movie? I’d thought that these extended films were meant to be the ultimate “fan service” videos. (Jackson hinted that the missing scene could show up in a future video release. Does that mean that years down the line we’ll get yet another version?)

Of course, none of these comments are meant to detract from the outstanding, monumental work of Jackson and Company. They made so many correct decisions that it’s silly to fault them very much for their handful of blunders. It’s just that, as one of those rabid fans for whom these films were intended, it’s also hard not to wish that they could be just a bit better…

I wonder, ultimately, which versions will be accepted as the “real” deal. I would not want to go back to the truncated edits, but on the other hand, the theatrical cuts were the ones that won all those Oscars.

Multiple versions of movies are nothing new. Many films have been cut down from their original release, either to “improve” them (I once saw a rerelease of Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks from which nearly all of the songs had been removed) or to fit them into a TV time slot. Others have been extended with additional/alternate scenes, and in this digital day and age, some have been completely reedited (notably Touch of Evil and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in order to fulfill their makers’ intentions.

Heck, we’ve reached the point at which it’s not at all impossible for viewers to reedit a film to their own liking. Perhaps in the future there will be no definitive version of a film; each will exist in thousands of possibilities to suit individual tastes.

In mine, Eowyn is naked and Frodo rides a dinosaur.

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