The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Promotional poster
Directed by Peter Jackson
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on The Return of the King by
J. R. R. Tolkien
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Andrew Lesnie
Editing by
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Release date(s) 1 December 2003 (2003-12-01) (Wellington premiere)
17 December 2003 (2003-12-17) (United States)
18 December 2003 (2003-12-18) (New Zealand)
Running time Theatrical:
201 minutes
Extended Edition:
251 minutes
Language English
Budget $94 million
Gross revenue $1,129,219,252[1]

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a 2003 epic fantasydrama film directed by Peter Jackson that is based on the second and third volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. It is the concluding film in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, following The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Two Towers (2002).

As Sauron launches the final stages of his conquest of Middle-earth, Gandalf the Wizard, and Théoden King of Rohan rally their forces to help defend Gondor‘s capital Minas Tirith from the looming threat. Aragorn finally claims the throne of Gondor and summons an army of ghosts to help him defeat Sauron. Ultimately, even with full strength of arms, they realise they cannot win; so it comes down to the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, to bear the burden of the Ring and deal with the treachery of Gollum. After a long journey they finally arrive in the dangerous lands of Mordor, seeking to destroy the One Ring in the place it was created, the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.

Released on 17 December 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King received rave reviews[2] and became one of the greatest critical and box-office successes of all time. Notably, it won all eleven Academy Awards for which it was nominated, an Oscar record (tying Ben-Hur and Titanic). It also won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only time a fantasy film has done so.



The film begins with a Stoor named Sméagol killing his relative Déagol to possess the One Ring. His possession eventually transformed him into the creature Gollum. Gollum takes Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to Minas Morgul. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Théoden and Éomer meet up with Merry, Pippin and Treebeard at Isengard, now under the Ents‘ control, where Gandalf concludes Saruman will pose no further threat. They also recover a palantír from the ruins. The group returns to Edoras, where Théoden holds a feast in celebration of the victory at Helm’s Deep. Pippin’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he looks into the palantír, where he sees a vision of a dead white tree; he is seen and mentally interrogated by Sauron, though Pippin tells him nothing regarding Frodo and the Ring. From this, Gandalf deduces Sauron is planning to attack Minas Tirith, and he rides off there with Pippin. In the meantime, Arwen, on her way to the Undying Lands, has a vision of her son by Aragorn and convinces Elrond to reforge the sword Narsil that cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger at the Last Alliance. Sam overhears Gollum’s treacherous plans to murder them and take the Ring for himself, but Frodo does not believe him. Gollum plays on this, trying to turn Frodo and Sam against each other.

Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith to find the steward Denethor mourning his son Boromir, and Pippin swears loyalty to him, as Boromir had saved his life at Amon Hen. Gandalf warns Denethor that Sauron is now ready to strike and urges him to call Rohan for aid. Denethor declines, fearing Aragorn and Gandalf plan to depose him. That night, Gandalf and Pippin witness a pillar of green fire rise from Minas Morgul, where the Witch-king of Angmar sends off his army, heralding the start of the war. Frodo, Sam and Gollum begin climbing the Cirith Ungol stairway. The Morgul army, led by the Nazgûl, drives the Gondorians out of Osgiliath. Denethor orders his youngest (and least favored) son Faramir out on a suicide mission to reclaim the city. Faramir and his knights are apparently killed by the masses of Orcs waiting in the ruined city. Meanwhile, Gollum persuades Frodo that Sam wants the Ring for himself, and Frodo angrily tells Sam to go home. Back in Minas Tirith, Pippin has begun the long line of beacon signals to Edoras, where Théoden and Aragorn lead the Rohirrim to Dunharrow to prepare for battle. At Dunharrow, Legolas tells Gimli of the legend of the haunted mountain Dwimorberg, which overlooks the camp, as Éomer says, “that mountain is evil”. Aragorn also meets Elrond, who informs him that Arwen is dying and her “fate is now tied to the fate of the Ring” and warns him they are outnumbered by Sauron’s army. He also warns him of a fleet of Corsair Ships, that are approaching Minas Tirith secretly from the south. Elrond presents Aragorn with the newly reforged Andúril and tells him to brave the Paths of the Dead, where he may acquire the help of the cursed Army of the Dead, who owe allegiance to the Heir of Isildur. Éowyn tries to convince him not to go, confessing her love for him, but Aragorn, knowing that Arwen has sacrificed her immortality to be with him, wishes her well and bids her goodbye. Along with Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn ventures into the Paths of the Dead and meets the Army of the Dead at Dunharrow. Aragorn gains the loyalty of the King of the Dead and his men by brandishing the sword Andúril, proving himself as the heir of Isildur. The trio then capture the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar, who had intended to launch a surprise attack on Minas Tirith. At Dunharrow, Théoden rides off to war with over 6,000 Riders, unaware Éowyn and Merry are part of the army too.

Sauron’s armies begin the siege of Minas Tirith. The Witch-King and Gothmog lead the Orcs, while Gandalf leads the defenders. The Orcs launch catapults, destroying several of the buildings. The Gondorians return fire and destroy several of Sauron’s catapults and siege towers. The Nazgul arrives at the battle and destroy several of Gondor’s trebuchets and also kill several Gondorian soldiers. The Orcs take heavy casualties but manage to scale the walls. A fierce battle ensures on the defensive walls. The Orcs take down the gate at night fall, and thousands of Orcs swarm through. The Gondorians fight bravelly, but the attack is overwhelming, and they abandon the lower levels of the city. Denethor, meanwhile, has gone mad and prepares to burn Faramir and himself alive. Gandalf and Pippin ride to the rescue of Faramir. Just then, Theoden’s army of 6,000 appears at the cracks of dawn. Theoden rallies his men, and they charge into the Orc armies. Gandalf and Pippin save Faramir, and Denethor commits suicide. The Orcs take heavy losses and are on the verge of defeat, but the Haradrim then arrives on the battlefield. The Orcs and the Haradrim charge the Rohirrim. Theoden rallies his army again, and then themselves charge. The Haradrim inflict serious losses on the Rohirrim, even though Eomer kills the Hardrim leader. As the battle rages, the Witch-King attacks Theoden and fatally wounds him. The Witch-King prepares to finish off Theoden, but Eowyn blocks his way. Eowyn duels with the Witch King and kills him with Merry’s help. Despite the Witch-King’s death, the Rohirrim are on the verge of defeat, until Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive with the Army of the Dead. In the last stages of the battle, Aragorn and Gimli kill Gothmog and the Army of the Dead annihilate Sauron’s forces, ending the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in a costly Gondorian/Rohirrim victory. Theoden then dies with Eowyn at his side. Aragorn frees the Army of the Dead and their souls go to the afterlife.

Meanwhile, Frodo is betrayed by Gollum, who flees and leaves Frodo to be attacked by a giant spider named Shelob. Shelob paralyzes Frodo, but Sam saves him in the nick of time and, thinking Frodo is dead, takes the Ring from him. An Orc battalion captures Frodo and reveals that he is alive as they take him to a nearby tower. Sam rescues Frodo from the tower, mostly empty following a fight among the Orc garrison over the mithril shirt, and they begin the journey to Mount Doom. Gandalf realises that over 10,000 Orcs stand on the road between Cirith Ungol and Mount Doom, that would make Frodo’s journey impossible. Aragorn leads all the men who survived the battle to the Black Gate to distract Sauron and to call out his armies. Sam carries Frodo up to Mount Doom but Gollum reappears and attacks them, just as the Men of the West furiously battle the Orcs. Frodo, at the Crack of Doom, succumbs to the Ring’s power and refuses to destroy it. Gollum, who been following them, attacks Frodo and bites off his finger, seizing the Ring for himself. Frodo attacks him to get it back, and they both fall over the cliff; Frodo grabs the ledge just in time, but Gollum falls into the lava below, taking the Ring with him. Sauron is defeated once and for all, and the destruction of his form creates an immense shockwave that kills most of the Orcs; the rest perish as the whole of Mordor is wracked by intense earthquakes, leaving the Men of the West unharmed.

Frodo and Sam are stranded until Gandalf arrives with the Eagles, and they awake in Minas Tirith, finally reuniting with their friends. Aragorn is crowned King, heralding the new age of peace, and is reunited with Arwen. When Aragorn meets the Hobbits, who bow before him, he stops them and says, “You bow to no one”. He and the whole of Minas Tirith bow to the Hobbits in honour of their heroics. The Hobbits return home to the Shire, where Sam marries his childhood sweetheart, Rosie Cotton. Frodo, however, has suffered too much in his quest to return to his old life, and leaves Middle-earth with Gandalf, Bilbo, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel at the Grey Havens, leaving his account of the story to Sam. Frodo bids goodbye to his friends before boarding the ship, which sets sail for The Undying Lands. The three remaining Hobbits head back to the Shire and Sam is seen greeted by Rosie and his eldest daughter, Elanor. He says the film’s final line: “Well, I’m back”.


Like the preceding films in the trilogy, The Return of the King has an ensemble cast,[3] and some of the cast and their respective characters include:

The following only appear in the Extended Edition

There are also cameos from Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, Gino Acevedo, Rick Porras and Andrew Lesnie on the Corsair ship, although all of them but Jackson only appear in the Extended Edition. Jackson also has another unofficial cameo, as Sam’s hand stepping into view when he confronts Shelob.[5] Sean Astin‘s daughter played Sam’s daughter Elanor in the last scene of the film. Jackson’s children also cameo as Gondorian extras, while Christian Rivers played a Gondorian soldier guarding the Beacon Pippin lights, and is later seen wounded. Royd Tolkien cameos as a Ranger in Osgiliath,[6] while in the Extended Edition Howard Shore appears as a celebrating soldier at Edoras. Additionally, four of the designers of The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game are featured as Rohirrim at the Pelennor.[7] At the end of the film, each cast member gets a sketched portrait by Alan Lee, an idea suggested by Ian McKellen.[8]

Comparison with the source material

The film contains major scenes that occurred in the middle portion of the novel, The Two Towers, but were not included in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, such as Shelob and the palantír subplot, due to Jackson realigning the timeline as described in the book’s Appendices, but not in the main prose.[9] Saruman‘s murder by Gríma (seen only in the Extended Edition) is moved into the Isengard visit due to the cutting of the Scouring of the Shire. In the film, Saruman drops the palantír, whereas in the book Gríma throws it at the Fellowship, unaware of its value. While the parting of Gandalf from Théoden’s company in “The Two Towers” occurs hastily at Dol Baran with the appearance of a Nazgûl on a winged steed, here he leaves from Edoras after the entire company arrives there to recuperate after the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

The muster of Gondor is absent from the film, and the major captains and generals, including Imrahil and the Knights of Dol Amroth, are not present.

Denethor, the Steward of Gondor was a more tragic character in the book. The film only focuses on his overwhelming grief over the death of Boromir as to ignore Sauron’s threat (in the book he already lights the beacons), and is driven over the edge by Faramir’s injury. The film only hints at his use of the palantír which drives him mad, information revealed in the Pyre scene, which is more violent than the book. Jackson also has Denethor jump off the Citadel in addition to burning himself on the Pyre, one of the earliest changes.[10]

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is altered: Faramir never goes on a suicide mission, and is a simplification of the siege of Osgiliath. With generals such as Forlong and Imrahil absent, Gandalf commands the defense of Minas Tirith due to Denethor’s despair. While Denethor gives command to Gandalf in the book, in this film Gandalf forcibly takes control as Denethor tells the men to flee rather than fight. The Orcs also never get into the city in the book. The Witch-king enters and stands off against Gandalf before the Rohirrim arrive, but in the film Orcs invade the city after Grond breaks the Gate. The confrontation takes place whilst Gandalf journeys to save Faramir in the Extended Edition, during which Gandalf has his staff broken in the film (but not in the book). A subplot in which the Rohirrim are aided by the primitive Drúedain into entering the besieged Gondor is also excised. The Red Arrow brought by a messenger from Gondor to ask for aid is absent. Éowyn’s presence to the reader on the battlefield is unknown until she takes off her helmet, but in the film the audience is aware, as it would have been difficult to have Miranda Otto playing a man.[11] When hope seems lost, Gandalf also comforts Pippin with a description of the Undying Lands, which is a descriptive passage in the book’s final chapter.[9] The film depicts the Army of the Dead fighting in the Battle, whereas in the book they are released from service prior to this, after helping Aragorn defeat the Corsairs of Umbar at the port city of Pelargir in Lebennin; Aragorn’s reinforcements are merely more Gondorians, and the Dúnedain, Aragorn’s people (the rangers of the North). An unstoppable and invulnerable force, the Dead wipe out Sauron’s forces. The film also cuts out several supporting characters, such as: Halbarad, a friend of Aragorn’s, who helps lead the Dúnedain, Beregond, a member of the Citadel Guard of Gondor, whom Pippin befriends, and Elladan and Elrohir, the twin sons of Elrond who deliver Aragorn’s banner and accompany to the Pelennor Fields. Elladan and Elrohir are replaced by Elrond in the film, instead delivering Andúril, and then returning to Rivendell. The film also altered the circumstances of Théoden’s death; his death speech, in which he names Éomer the new king in the book, is trimmed and delivered to Éowyn instead, with an earlier scene in the Extended Edition even implying that she is next in line for the throne. Théoden’s rallying cries before the initial charge are in fact spoken by Éomer in the book upon his realisation that Éowyn is also apparently dead.

In the film Aragorn leads the entire remaining force of Rohan and Gondor’s men to the Black Gate without incident. In the book tactics are discussed, forces divide and fight smaller skirmishes in Anórien and Ithilien before the army (only a fraction of the full remaining strength of the nations of men) reach the Morannon.

The romance that develops between Éowyn and Faramir during their recoveries in the Houses of Healing is also largely cut, presumably to keep the focus on Aragorn and Arwen; the subplot is only briefly referenced in the Extended Edition with a scene where the two hold hands.

Sam and Frodo’s major rift in their friendship, due to Gollum’s machinations, never takes place in the book, but was added by the writers in believing that it added drama and more complexity to the character of Frodo. Frodo enters Shelob’s lair alone in the film, whereas in the book he and Sam entered together. This was done to make the scene more horrific with Frodo being alone, and Sam’s rescue at the last minute more dramatic. Also, in the film we don’t know that Sam has the Ring until he gives it back to Frodo, whereas in the book the reader knows that Sam has the Ring. Gollum’s fall into the lava of Mount Doom was also rewritten for the film, as the writers felt Tolkien’s original idea (Gollum simply slips and falls off) was anti-climactic. Originally, an even greater deviation was planned: Frodo would heroically push Gollum over the ledge to destroy him and the Ring, but the production team eventually realised that it looked more like Frodo murdering Gollum. As a result, they had Frodo and Gollum struggle for possession of the Ring and both slip over the edge by accident.[9]

Also absent from the film are the other major attacks by Sauron on various regions of Middle-earth, referenced only briefly in the main text of The Return of the King, and expanded upon in the Appendices; the invasion of Rohan by the orcs of Moria, the attacks on Lothlórien and the Woodland Realm of Thranduil by the forces of Dol Guldur, and the attack on Dale and the Lonely Mountain by a force of Easterlings.

There are several changes in the Battle of the Black Gate: Merry is not present there in the book, Pippin does not kill a troll as he does in the novel, the eagles fight and defeat some of the mounted Nazgûl (while Frodo putting on the One Ring distracted the Nazgûl, who raced away to Mount Doom in the book before a confrontation could occur), and Aragorn kills the Mouth of Sauron in the extended edition of the film but not in the book. There was an even larger change planned: Sauron himself would come out in physical form to battle Aragorn, who would only be saved by the destruction of the Ring. Jackson eventually realised it ignored the point of Aragorn’s true bravery in distracting Sauron’s army against overwhelming odds, and a computer generated Troll was placed over footage of Sauron in the finished film. The ending is streamlined so as not to include the Scouring of the Shire, which was always seen by the writers as anti-climactic.[9] It is referenced, though, in Frodo’s vision of the future in Galadriel‘s mirror in The Fellowship of the Ring.


The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is unusual in that it is, to date, the only one whose separate instalments were written and then shot simultaneously (excluding pick up shoots). Jackson found The Return of the King the easiest of the films to make, because it contained the climax of the story, unlike the other two films.[12] The Return of the King was originally the second of two planned films under Miramax from January 1997 to August 1998,[13] and more or less in its finished structure as the first film was to end with The Two Towers’ Battle of Helm’s Deep.[14] Filming took place under multiple units across New Zealand, between 11 October 1999 and 22 December 2000, with pick up shoots for six weeks in 2003 before the film’s release.


Middle-earth as envisioned by Jackson was primarily designed by Alan Lee and John Howe, former Tolkien illustrators, and created by Weta Workshop, who handled all the trilogy’s weapons, armour, miniatures, prosthetics and creatures, as well as the Art Department which built the sets. Richard Taylor headed Weta, whilst Grant Major and Dan Hennah organised the planning and building respectively.

The city of Minas Tirith, glimpsed briefly in both the previous two films is seen fully in this film, and with it the Gondorian civilization. The enormous soundstage was built at Dry Creek Quarry, outside Wellington, from the Helm’s Deep set. That set’s gate became Minas Tirith’s second, whilst the Hornburg exterior became that of the Extended Edition’s scene where Gandalf confronts the Witch-king. New structures included the 8m tall Gate, with broken and unbroken versions, with a working opening and closing mechanism, with its engravings inspired by the Baptistry of San Giovanni. There were also four levels of streets with heraldic motifs for every house, as inspired by Siena.[15]

There was also the Citadel, the exterior of which was in the Stone Street Studios backlot, using forced perspective. It contains the withered White Tree, built from polystyrene by Brian Massey and the Greens Department with real branches, influenced by ancient and gnarled Lebanese olive trees. The interior was within a 3 story former factory in Wellington, and colour wise is influenced by Charlemagne’s Chapel, with a throne for Denethor carved from stone and polystyrene statues of past Kings. The Gondorian armour is designed to represent an evolution from the Númenóreans of the first film’s prologue, with a simplified sea bird motif. 16th century Italian and German armour served as inspiration,[16] whilst civilians wear silver and blacks as designed by Ngila Dickson, continuing an ancient/medieval Mediterranean Basin look.[17]

Minas Morgul, the Staircase and Tower of Cirith Ungol as well as Shelob’s Lair were designed by Howe, with the Morgul road using forced perspective into a bluescreened miniature. Howe’s design of Minas Morgul was inspired from the experience of having wisdom teeth pulled out: in the same way, the Orcs have put their twisted designs on to a former Gondorian city.[18] Cirith Ungol was based on Tolkien’s design, but when Richard Taylor felt it as “boring”, it was redesigned with more tipping angles.[19] The interior set, like Minas Tirith, was built as a few multiple levels that numerous camera takes would suggest a larger structure.[15]

The third film introduces the enormous spider Shelob. Shelob was designed in 1999,[19] with the body based on a tunnelweb spider and the head with numerous growths selected by Peter Jackson’s children from one of many sculpts. Jackson himself took great joy in planning the sequence, being an arachnophobe himself.[16] Shelob’s Lair was inspired by sandstone and sculpted from the existing Caverns of Isengard set.[15]

The Return of the King also brings into focus the Dead Men of Dunharrow and the evil Haradrim from the south of Middle-earth, men who ride the mûmakil. The Dead Men have a Celtic influence, as well as lines and symmetry to reflect their morbid state,[15] whilst their underground city is influenced by Petra.[18] The Haradrim were highly influenced by African culture, until Philippa Boyens expressed concern over the possibility of offensiveness, so the finished characters instead bear influence from Kiribati, in terms of weaving armour from bamboo, and the Aztecs, in use of jewellery. Also built was a single dead mûmak.[16] Other minor cultures include the Corsairs, with an exotic, swarthy look, and the Grey Havens, Elven structures adapted to stone, with influence from J. M. W. Turner paintings.[19]

Principal photography

The Return of the King was shot during 2000, though Sean Astin’s coverage from Gollum’s attempt to separate Frodo and Sam was filmed on 24 November 1999, when floods in Queenstown interrupted the focus on The Fellowship of the Ring.[5] Some of the earliest scenes shot for the film were in fact the last. Hobbiton, home of the Hobbits, was shot in January 2000 with early scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring, with the exterior shot at a Matamata farm, whilst interior scenes shot at Stone Street Studios in Wellington,[20] shared with the Grey Havens sequence. Due to the high emotions of filming the scene, the cast were in despair when they were required to shoot it three times, due to a continuity flaw in Sean Astin‘s costume, and then negatives producing out-of-focus reels.[5] Also shared with the previous films was the Rivendell interior in May.

The Battle of the Black Gate was filmed in April[21] at the Rangipo Desert, a former minefield[citation needed]. New Zealand soldiers were hired as extras whilst guides were on the look out for unexploded mines. Also a cause for concern were Monaghan and Boyd’s scale doubles during a charge sequence. In the meantime, Wood, Astin and Serkis filmed at Mount Ruapehu for the Mount Doom exteriors. In particular, they spent two hours shooting Sam lifting Frodo on to his back with cross-camera coverage.[5]

Scenes shot in June were the Paths of the Dead across various locations, including Pinnacles.[21] In July the crew shot some Shelob scenes, and in August and September time was spent on the scenes in Isengard. Monaghan and Boyd tried numerous takes of their entrance, stressing the word “weed” as they smoked pipe-weed. Christopher Lee spent his part of his scene mostly alone, though McKellen and Hill arrived on the first day for a few lines to help.[5]

Edoras exteriors were shot in October. The Ride of the Rohirrim, where Théoden leads the charge into the Orc army, was filmed in Twizel with 150 extras on horseback. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields has more extensive use of computer-generated imagery, in contrast to the more extensive use of live action in the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the second film. Also filmed were the attempts by Faramir to recapture Osgiliath,[22] as were scenes in the city itself.[23] At this point production was very hectic, with Jackson moving around ten units per day, and production finally wrapped on the Minas Tirith sets, as well as second units shooting parts of the siege. Just as the Hobbit actors’ first scene was hiding under a Ringwraith, their last scene was the bluescreened reaction shot of the inhabitants of Minas Tirith bowing to them.[5]


The 2003 pick ups were filmed in the Wellington studio car park, with many parts of sets and bluescreens used to finish off scenes, which the design team had to work 24/7 to get the right sets ready for a particular day.[15] The shoot continued for two months, and became an emotional time of farewells for the cast and crew. The film has the most extensive list of reshoots given for the trilogy. Jackson took his time to reshoot Aragorn’s coronation, rushed into a single day under second unit director Geoff Murphy on 21 December 2000. Jackson also reshot scenes in and around Mount Doom,[5] and Théoden’s death, right after Bernard Hill was meant to wrap.[11]

There was also the new character of Gothmog. This was a major new design addition for the film, as Jackson felt the Mordor Orcs were “pathetic” compared to the Uruk-hai of the second film after watching assembly cuts, and thus Weta created grotesque new “über Orcs” as antagonists for the audience to focus on. Christian Rivers also redesigned the Witch-king and all of his scenes were reshot, due to confusion from non-readers over whether or not Sauron was on the battlefield.[16]

With the positive response to Orlando Bloom, Legolas was given a fight with a mûmak,[24] and Howard Shore also appeared in a cameo during Legolas and Gimli’s drinking game at Edoras.[25] The final scenes shot were Aragorn escaping the Skull avalanche, and Frodo finishing his book. The cast also received various props associated with their characters, although in the case of John Rhys-Davies, he burned his final Gimli prosthetic. Viggo Mortensen headbutted the stunt team goodbye.[5] Pick-ups ended on 27 June 2003.[24]

Scenes shot afterwards included various live-action shots of Riders for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and a reaction shot of Andy Serkis as Gollum finally realises Frodo intends to destroy the Ring, shot in Jackson’s house.[26] For the Extended DVD, Jackson shot in March 2004 a few shots of skulls rolling over for the avalanche scene; this was the final piece of footage ever shot for the trilogy, and Jackson noted that it must be the first time a director had shot scenes for a film after it had already won the Oscar.[27]


Post-production on The Return of the King began in November 2002, with the completion of the 4 1/2 hour assembly cut of the film that Annie Collins had been completing over 2001 and 2002, from 4 hour dailies. For example, Théoden leading the charge went from 150 minutes of takes to a finished 90 seconds.[28] Jackson reunited with longtime collaborator Jamie Selkirk to edit the final film. Like The Two Towers, they would have to deal with multiple storylines, and Jackson paid attention to each storyline at a time before deciding where to intercut. Most importantly they spent three weeks working on the last 45 minutes of the film,[26] for appropriate intercutting and leaving out scenes such as the Mouth of Sauron, and the fates of characters like Legolas, Gimli, Éowyn and Faramir.[9] The film inherited scenes originally planned to go into the second film, including the reforging of Narsil, Gollum’s backstory, and Saruman’s exit. But the Saruman scene posed a structural problem: killing off the second film’s villain when the plot has Sauron as the main villain.[26] Despite pick-ups and dubs, the scene was cut, causing controversy with fans and Saruman actor Christopher Lee, as well as a petition to restore the scene.[29] Lee nonetheless contributed to the DVDs and was at the Copenhagen premiere, although on the other hand he says he will never understand the reason for the cut and his relationship with Jackson is chilly.[30] Jackson only had a lock on 5 out of 10 reels, and had to churn out 3 reels in 3 weeks to help finish the film. It was finally done on 12 November 2003.[31] Jackson never had a chance to view the film in full due to the hectic schedule, and only saw the film from beginning to end on 1 December at the Wellington premiere; according to Elijah Wood, his response was “yup, it’s good, pretty good”.[27]

Visual effects

The Return of the King contains 1,488 visual effect shots, nearly three times the number from the first film and almost twice that of the second. Visual effects work began with Alan Lee and Mark Lewis compositing various photographs of New Zealand landscape to create the digital arena of the Pelennor Fields in November 2002. Gary Horsfield also created a digital version of the Barad-dûr during his Christmas break at home by himself, for the film’s climax. In the meantime, Jackson and Christian Rivers used computers to plan the enormous battle up until February 2003, when the shots were shown to Weta Digital. To their astonishment, 60 planned shots had gone up to 250, and 50,000 characters were now 200,000.[32] Nevertheless they pressed on, soon delivering 100 shots a week, 20 a day, as the deadline neared within the last two months, often working until 2 a.m.[31]

For the battle, they recorded 450 motions for the MASSIVE digital horses (though deaths were animated), and also had to deal with late additions in the film, such as Trolls bursting through Minas Tirith’s gates as well as the creatures that pull Grond to the gate,[16] and redoing a shot of two mûmakil Éomer takes down that had originally taken six months in two days. On a similar note of digital creatures, Shelob’s head sculpture was scanned by a Canadian company for 10 times more detail than Weta had previously been able to capture.[32]

Like the previous films, there are also extensive morphs between digital doubles for the actors. This time, there was Sam falling off Shelob, where the morph takes place as Astin hits the ground. Legolas attacking a mûmak required numerous transitions to and fro, and Gollum’s shots of him having recovered the One Ring and falling into the Crack of Doom were fully animated.[32] The King of the Dead is played by an actor in prosthetics, and his head occasionally morphs to a more skull-like digital version, depending on the character’s mood. The Mouth of Sauron also had his mouth enlarged 200% for unsettling effect.[15]

The Return of the King also has practical effects. In the Pyre of Denethor sequence, as the Steward of Gondor throws Pippin out of the Tomb, John Noble threw a size double named Fon onto a prostrate Billy Boyd, who immediately pushed his head into camera to complete the illusion. A few burning torches were also reflected off a plate of glass and into the camera for when Gandalf’s horse Shadowfax kicks Denethor onto the pyre. Because of Jackson’s requirement for complete representation of his fantasy world, numerous miniatures were built, such as 1:72 scale miniature of Minas Tirith, which rises 7m high and is 6.5m in diameter. 1:14 scale sections of the city were also required, and the Extended Edition scene of the collapsing City of the Dead has 80,000 small skulls, amounting in total to a single cubic meter.[18] The miniatures team concluded in November with the Black Gate, after 1000 days of shooting, and the final digital effects shot done was the Ring’s destruction, on 25 November.[31]


The music was composed by Howard Shore, who previously composed the first two parts of the trilogy. Shore watched the assembly cut of the film,[25] and had to write seven minutes of music per day to keep up with the schedule.[31] The score sees the full introduction of the Gondor theme, originally heard during Boromir’s speeches at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring and at Osgiliath in The Two Towers Extended Edition. Actors Billy Boyd, Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler also contributed to the film’s music. Boyd sings on screen as Faramir charges towards Osgiliath, Mortensen sings on screen as he is crowned King, and in the Extended Edition Tyler sings as Aragorn heals Éowyn.

Renée Fleming, Ben Del Maestro and James Galway also contribute to the soundtrack. Fleming sings as Arwen has a vision of her son and when Gollum recovers the One Ring. Del Maestro sings when Gandalf lights his staff to save fleeing Gondorian soldiers from Osgiliath as the Nazgûl attack. Galway plays the flute as Frodo and Sam climb Mount Doom. The end title song, “Into the West“, was composed by Shore with lyrics by Fran Walsh. Annie Lennox (formerly of Eurythmics) performed it and also received songwriting credit. The song was partially inspired by the premature death from cancer of a young New Zealand filmmaker named Cameron Duncan who had befriended Peter Jackson.[25]

The Sound department spent the early part of the year searching for the right sounds. A tasmanian devil was Shelob’s shriek, which in turn gave inspiration for Weta’s animators, whilst the mûmakil is the beginning and end of a lion roar. Human screams and a donkey screech were mixed into Sauron’s fall, and to avoid comparison with 9/11, broken glass was used for the collapsing sounds. For missile trading during Minas Tirith’s siege, construction workers dropped actual 2 ton stone blocks previously lifted by a construction crane. Mixing began at a new studio on 15 August, although unfinished building work caused some annoyances.[33] The mixers finished on 15 November, after three months of non-stop work.[31]


After two years of attention and acclaim since the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, audience anticipation for the final instalment of the trilogy had reached fever pitch when the film was complete. The world premiere was held in Wellington‘s Embassy Theatre, on 1 December 2003, and was attended by the director and many of the stars. It was estimated that over 100,000 people lined the streets, more than a quarter of the city’s population.[34]

Critical reception

The film garnered near-universal acclaim from critics; The film has a 94% rating of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Richard Corliss of Time named it as the best film of the year.[35] The main criticism of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, was its running time, particularly the epilogue; even rave reviews for the film commented on its length. Joel Siegel of Good Morning America said in his review for the film (which he gave an ‘A’): “If it didn’t take forty-five minutes to end, it’d be my best picture of the year. As it is, it’s just one of the great achievements in film history.”[36] There was also criticism regarding the Army of the Dead’s appearance, rapidly ending the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.[37]

In February 2004, a few months after release, the film was voted as #8 on Empire‘s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, compiled from readers’ top 10 lists. This forced the magazine to abandon its policy of only allowing films being older than 12 months to be eligible.[38] In 2007, Total Film named The Return of the King the third best film of the past decade (Total Film‘s publication time), behind The Matrix and Fight Club.[39]

Box office

The film’s first day saw a U.S. box office total of $34.5 million — an all-time single-day record for a motion picture released on a Wednesday, until Spider-Man 2 grossed $40.4 million.[40][41] The film opened a day earlier for a midnight showing and it accounted for about $8 million. Whereas The Return of the King opened around Christmas time, Spider-Man 2 opened in the middle of summer. This was nearly twice the first-day total of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (which earned $18.2 million on its opening day in 2001), and a significant increase over The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as well (which earned $26.1 million on its debut in 2002). Part of the grosses came from the Trilogy Tuesday event, in which the Extended Editions of the first two films were played on 16 December before the first midnight screening.

The final box office takings were $1.1 billion, of which $377 million was from North America.[1] It was the second film in history to earn over $1 billion in box office revenue in its initial release (the first being Titanic in 1997). This compares favourably to the first two films of the trilogy: in their first 35 weeks of theatrical release in North America, the gross income in the United States of the first two films was $313,364,114 and $339,789,881 (total gross income for the other two films are $870,761,744 and $925,282,504, respectively). The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, has helped The Lord of the Rings franchise go on to become the highest-grossing motion picture trilogy worldwide of all time, beating other notables such as the Star Wars trilogies.[42]

These figures do not include income from DVD sales, TV rights, etc. It has been estimated[43] that the gross income from non-box office sales and merchandise has been at least equal to the box office for all three films. If this is so, the total gross income for the trilogy would be in the region of $6 billion following an investment of $300 million ($426 million including marketing costs).

Awards and nominations

On 27 January 2004, the film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards: Academy Award for Best Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Song, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-up, Sound Mixing and Film Editing. On 29 February, the film won all the categories for which it was nominated.

The film also won four Golden Globes (including Best Picture for Drama and Best Director),),[44][45][46] five BAFTAs, two MTV Movie Awards, two Grammy Awards, nine Saturn Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture, the Nebula Award for Best Script, and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

Home media

The theatrical edition of the film was released on DVD on 25 May 2004. The DVD was a 2-disc set with extras on the second disc. The theatrical DVD sets for the two previous films were released eight months after the films were released, but Return of the King’s set was completed in five because it did not have to market a sequel (the previous films had to wait for footage of their sequels to become available for a ten minute preview). However, it contained a 7 minute trailer of the entire trilogy.

The Return of the King followed the precedent set by its predecessors by releasing an Extended Edition (266 minutes) with new editing and added special effects and music, along with four commentaries and six hours of supplementary material. However, this set took longer to produce than the others because the cast and crew were spread all over the world working on other projects.[47] The set was finally released on 10 December 2004 in the UK and 14 December in the U.S. The final ten minutes comprises a listing of the charter members of the official fan club who had paid for three-year charter membership.

New scenes such as: Eowyn’s Dream, The Voice of Saruman, The Decline of Gondor, The Wizard’s Pupil, Crossroads of the Fallen King, Merry’s Simple Courage, The Witch-King’s Hour, The House’s of Healing, The Mouth of Sauron, The Corsairs of Umbar & Sam’s Warning, are added to progress the story and give it, as well as the characters depicted, more depth. Along with the new scenes, additional footage as been added to the battles in Osgiliath, Minas Tirith & Pelennor Fields. Likewise, more footage has been added to the Paths of the Dead, Edoras, as well as the time spent at Minas Tirith.

A collectors’ box set was also released, which included the Extended Set plus a sculpture of Minas Tirith and a bonus 50-minute music documentary DVD, Howard Shore: Creating The Lord of the Rings Symphony: A Composer’s Journey Through Middle-earth. The DVD has a DTS-ES soundtrack. The DVD also features two humorous Easter Eggs, one where Dominic Monaghan plays a German interviewer with Elijah Wood over a phone, and another where Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller attempt to convince Jackson to make a sequel, originally shown at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards. Both can be accessed via a Ring icon on the last page of both Disc 1 and 2’s scene indexes.

On 29 August 2006, a Limited Edition of The Return of the King was released. This Limited Edition contains two discs, the first is a two-sided DVD containing both the Theatrical and Extended editions of the film. The second disc is a bonus disc that contains a new behind-the-scenes documentary.


The theatrical Blu-Ray version of The Lord of the Rings was released in the United States on 6 April 2010.[48] The individual Blu-Ray disc of The Return of the King was released on 14 September 2010 with the same special features as the complete trilogy release, except there was no digital copy.[49]

Peter Jackson has said that the Extended Editions were in development for Blu-ray and would be released in conjunction with the planned theatrical release of The Hobbit.[50] In July 2009, Jackson announced that the Blu-ray version of the Extended Editions might include newly created special features.[51]

See also

Book: The Lord of the Rings film trilogyWikipedia Books are collections of articles that can be downloaded or ordered in print.


  1. ^ a b “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)”. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 3 February 2009. 
  2. ^ “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Movie Reviews, Pictures, Trailers”. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 24 March 2010. 
  3. ^ “With Tolkien’s Help, a Holiday Record for Films”. The New York Times. Associated Press. 29 December 2003. Retrieved 7 September 2008. [dead link]
  4. ^ “Craig Parker interview by SF-Radio”. Craig Retrieved 6 November 2006. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Cameras in Middle-earth: Filming the Return of the King. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  6. ^ Dowling, Stephen (17 December 2003). “Tolkien relative’s kingly role”. BBC News online. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  7. ^ “Perry Miniatures”. Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  8. ^ Ian McKellen. (2004). Cast Commentary. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Finding the Story: Forging the Final Chapter (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  10. ^ Sibley, Brian (2006). Peter Jackson: A Film-maker’s Journey. London: Harpercollins. p. 345. ISBN 0-00-717558-2
  11. ^ a b Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. (2004). Director/Writers’ Special Extended Edition commentary. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 
  12. ^ Lee, Alana. “Peter Jackson on The Return of the King”. BBC Films. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  13. ^ Watkin, Tim (12 August 2001). “The ‘Rings’ movies, a potted history”. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  14. ^ “20 Questions with Peter Jackson”. Peter Jackson online transcript from Ain’t It Cool News. Retrieved 24 October 2006. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f Designing and Building Middle-earth (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  16. ^ a b c d e Weta Workshop (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  17. ^ Ngila Dickson. (2004). Costume Design (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 
  18. ^ a b c Big-atures (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  19. ^ a b c Russell, Gary (2004). The Lord of the Rings: The Art of the Return of the King. Harpercollins. ISBN 0-00-713565-3
  20. ^ Cameras in Middle-earth: Filming the Fellowship of the Ring. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2002. 
  21. ^ a b “Tehanu” (11 October 2000). “One Year of Principal Photography”. The One Retrieved 22 October 2006. 
  22. ^ Home of the Horse Lords. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  23. ^ Davidson, Paul (14 November 2000). “A Slew of The Lord of the Rings news”. IGN. Retrieved 24 October 2006. 
  24. ^ a b Davidson, Paul (27 June 2003). “A new Return of the King poster”. IGN. Retrieved 21 October 2006. 
  25. ^ a b c Music for Middle-earth. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  26. ^ a b c Editorial: Completing the Trilogy (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  27. ^ a b The Passing of an Age (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  28. ^ Sibley, Brian (2002). The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy. Harpercollins. number = 158. ISBN 0-00-713567-X
  29. ^ “Rings director cuts wizard scenes”. BBC News online. 12 November 2003. Retrieved 17 October 2006. 
  30. ^ Wootton, Dan (30 April 2006). “I will never forgive Jackson, says LOTR actor”. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 17 October 2006. 
  31. ^ a b c d e The End of All Things (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  32. ^ a b c Weta Digital (Special Extended Edition documentary). [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  33. ^ The Soundscapes of Middle-earth. [DVD]. New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  34. ^ Mercer, Phil (1 December 2003). “How hobbits took over NZ’s capital”. BBC News. Retrieved 24 March 2010. 
  35. ^ Richard Corliss (18 December 2003). “The Best Movies”. Time. Retrieved 9 November 2007. 
  36. ^ Joel Siegel (19 December 2003). “Jackson Brings Lord of the Rings to Historic Completion”. ABC News. Retrieved 16 February 2007. 
  37. ^ “The best — and worst — movie battle scenes”. CNN. 30 March 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2007. 
  38. ^ “The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time”. Empire. 30 January 2004. p. 96. 
  39. ^ “Ten Greatest Films of the Past Decade”. Total Film. April 2007. p. 98. 
  40. ^ “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Daily Box Office Results”. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 3 February 2009. 
  41. ^ “Spider-Man 2 (2004) – DAily Box Office Results”. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 3 February 2009. 
  42. ^ “Top Box Office Earning Trilogies Worldwide”. Box Office Retrieved 10 February 2007. 
  43. ^ Lord of the Rings revenue statistics on Time Warner[dead link]
  44. ^ Crean, Ellen (25 January 2004). “Golden Globe Spins For ‘Rings'”. CBS News. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  45. ^ “Hail to the ‘King’ at Golden Globes”. MSNBC. 26 January 2004. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  46. ^ Armstrong, Mark (25 January 2004). “‘Rings,’ ‘Translation’ Rule the Globes”. People.,,627488,00.html. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  47. ^ Gary Susman (9 June 2004). “Hobbits for the Holidays”. Entertainment Weekly.,,649118,00.html. Retrieved 17 February 2007. 
  48. ^ “The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Blu-ray: Theatrical Editions”. Retrieved 18 February 2010. 
  49. ^ Calogne, Juan (23 June 2010). “Lord of the Rings Movies Get Separate Blu-ray editions”. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  50. ^ Dreuth, Josh (16 April 2009). “Lord of the Rings Pre-order Now Available”. Retrieved 16 April 2009. 
  51. ^ Weintraub, Steve ‘Frosty’ (24 July 2009). “Peter Jackson News – THE HOBBIT, LORD OF THE RINGS Blu-ray, DISTRICT 9, THE LOVELY BONES”. Retrieved 28 July 2010. 

External links

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v · d · eThe Lord of the Rings film trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) · The Two Towers (2002) · The Return of the King (2003)
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v·d·eThe Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Production and reception
Related works
Frodo · Sam · Merry · Pippin · Bilbo · Gandalf · Aragorn · Legolas · Gimli · Boromir · Sauron · Saruman · Arwen · Elrond · Glorfindel · Galadriel · Celeborn · Théoden · Éomer · Éowyn · Wormtongue · Faramir · Denethor · Beregond · Gollum · Witch-king · Gothmog · Treebeard · Tom Bombadil
Adaptations and other derivative works
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) · The Return of the King (1980) · The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) · The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) · The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) · The Hunt for Gollum (2009) · Born of Hope (2009)
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