The Return of the King (ABC TV, 1980)
Directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. Featuring the Voices of John Huston, Roddy McDowall, Orson Bean, William Conrad, Casey Casem, Theodore Gottlieb, Theodore Bikel, Glenn Yarbrough, Paul Frees
“Listen as we speak of the fall of the Lord of Darkness, and the return of a King of Light.”
The novel The Lord of the Rings has had an important place in my life even before I actually read it in ninth grade. As a young child, I already loved monsters and tales of fantasy, and my parents were glad to feed my monster obsession. They both knew about the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (although neither had read them) and told me their pages were filled with dragons and trolls and all sorts of wonderful beasties; they showed me the Greg and Tim Hildebrandt calendars to whet my appetite. At age five, I had my first “Tolkien” experience with the television broadcast of the animated movie The Hobbit from Rankin/Bass. My mother then read the book to me. The moment I was old enough, I read it for myself. The enormity of The Lord of the Rings was still too far off, but there were movie versions to fill the gap. I was confused but somewhat dazzled by the odd, unfinished The Lord of the Rings film by Ralph Bakshi when it premiered on cable, but it was the 1980 animated television movie The Return of the King that really gave me a sense of what the epic novel was about.
At some point, a Tolkien fan has to confront these three animated films, their failings and successes, and odd connections to each other. With an enormous, epic trilogy of live-action films now behind me — movies which gobbled up money, awards, pop-culture attention, and re-shaped the blockbuster film business — what as a Tolkien fan do I think of the three smaller animated efforts?
In particular, at least for this article, what about the most unusual of them, The Return of the King, an adaptation of the last third of a novel intended as a sequel to an animated version of the prologue to the novel, and spiritually meant to cover the parts of the story covered in a commercially and stylistically unrelated theatrical movie made in the years between? (Whew! I am the very model of a modern Major General.)
For the benefit of any soul who wandered into this website unfamiliar with these movies, here’s the breakdown: The animation studio Rankin/Bass, responsible for many animated holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, did a traditional cell-animated version of The Hobbit for ABC Television in 1977 (my review of that here). In 1978, United Artists released to theaters an animated feature directed by Ralph Bakshi titled The Lord of the Rings, although it only covers half the story. Bakshi wanted the movie released with “Part One” in the title, as he was contracted to do two movies to tell the story, but United Artists didn’t think people would go see a film labeled “Part One.” As Bakshi expected, viewers were furious when the film appeared to stop dead center. Even though the film was profitable, United Artists did not move ahead with the finishing sequel. Rankin/Bass, looking to repeat the huge success they had with The Hobbit, stepped in to grab the final third of The Lord of the Rings not covered in the theatrical movie, promoting it as a sequel to The Hobbit with no reference to the Bakshi film, and using largely the same crew, cast, and style of the earlier television movie. A part of the story between where Bakshi’s movie stops and the start of the last third of the novel ended up falling into limbo, which means we wouldn’t see Shelob until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.
It’s easy to hate the Rankin/Bass Return of the King. And plenty of people do. But it’s equally easy to love, and this isn’t just nostalgia; there is a surprising amount of quality Tolkien and impressive designs in what is supposed to be a children’s movie. But the illusion of the purely “kiddie” movie continues today. The current DVD cover art is Disney-style rounded, bright, and cheerful. The actual movie looks nothing like this, even if it occasionally tries to act like it with campy musical numbers.
There’s a tug-of-war going on in The Return of the King ‘80 that makes it seem as if two separate crews worked on the film without consulting each other. The first crew consisted of standard Rankin/Bass team players, who dutifully tried to construct a child-friendly musical — part low-budget Disney, part Saturday morning cartoon. The other crew consisted of Tolkien fanatics who tried to jam as much literal words of the Oxford Professor into the story as they could. We end up with a movie that swings between singing Orcs and Casey Casem voicing Merry on the one side, and on the other side almost literal stagings of Éowyn confronting the Lord of the Nazgûl and Samwise’s square-off with Gollum on the slopes of Mount Doom — scenes that adapt the source material closer than Peter Jackson’s otherwise superior movies do.
Trying to make a complex story like The Lord of the Rings accessible to children, and starting at the two-thirds mark, means The Return of the King has to simplify to an unenviable degree. A framing story that occurs at Bilbo Baggins’s 129th birthday celebration in Rivendell (an A-frame house, for some reason) allows the “Minstrel of Gondor” (voiced by American folk singer Glenn Yarbrough) and Gandalf to narrate events and skip over six hundred pages of material.
These deletions are what most annoy Tolkien fans. Aragorn gets reduced to a walk-on; he’s waiting somewhere with a small band “to return and become king. But he could not triumph until the ring was destroyed. So went the prophecy.” Huh. Okay. It’s a little more complex than that, but we don’t have time and the six-year-olds probably wouldn’t understand it. Minas Tirith is already under siege. Merry has been sent to summon the Rohirrim to the aid of Gondor, but they might come too late. Orcs have captured Frodo and imprisoned him in the Tower of Cirith Ungol (no mention of Shelob), and the One Ring and the Elven sword Sting have conveniently fallen outside the gates of the tower for Sam to collect. Sam also has the Phial of Galadriel, which is explained as being unexplainable. And Gollum is wandering around somewhere. He still calls Frodo “master,” even though the movie never mentions that Gollum served as Frodo’s guide and then betrayed him. The Palantír is quickly dismissed as a “crystal ball to see the future.”
The structure is bizarre for anyone familiar with the novel. Sam and Frodo’s quest is drawn out so that it parallels the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which seems to rage for weeks. Frodo comes to the Cracks of Doom at the same time that Théoden dies on the field of battle, which means that Sam has to wander around the interior of Mount Doom for a couple days looking for Frodo — which has to be hell on his sun-tan — before Aragorn and his small force show up at Cirith Gorgor to demand the Black Lord to come forth for the big finish.
Much of this is clumsy, but there was little else the script could do to get over the television-movie problems and that it has to start at the two-thirds point of an intricate epic. The film is at its worst when trying to stumble through complex elements that it can’t explain effectively in a movie trying to be a sequel to The Hobbit and not a direct adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is almost non-existent as a character, and you won’t find Faramir, Legolas, Gimli, or Éomer anywhere. Merry and Pippin seem to exist for no other purpose than for exposition. Why they are present at Minas Tirith is never explained. Gandalf needs someone to talk to, so there’s Pippin. Merry needs to narrate who Éowyn is when she abruptly appears to confront the Lord of the Nazgûl. Pippin also get the most un-Tolkien line in the script, when describing Denethor’s madness: “He’s gone loony, I tell you!” That certainly didn’t come from the Tolkien-philes who were working on the other part of the movie.
But let’s walk over to the other side of the Rankin/Bass offices and visit those happy folks. While the children’s division was having Casey Casem clumsily describe Éowyn and making Orcs dance a happy jig when they see the Black Fleet arrive, these Tolkien-nuts were crafting a word-for-word construction of Denethor’s final mad speech (“The West has failed! It will go up in a great fire and all shall be ended!”), even though there really wasn’t any need to include Denethor in the story at all. But this is one of Tolkien’s greatest pieces of writing, so they put it in. The Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol, who don’t appear in the live-action films, also show up as exact Tolkien replicas.
The Great Scene of the movie, the one that so impressed me a child, is the showdown between Éowyn and the Lord of the Nazgûl over the body of Théoden. Because the movie paces out the Battle of Pelennor fields in a way that Théoden’s death happened a few scenes before this, there isn’t a strong build to this moment as in the book and the live-action film. But the face-off itself is almost word-for-word from the novel, including Éowyn calling the Witch-king a “foul dwimmerlaik.” A film aimed at children using the word “dwimmerlaik.” I really don’t know what to say about something that gutsy in a movie that otherwise has to simplify down to elementary school level. And — I’m about to get into trouble here — I think this scene is superior to its equivalent in the 2003 film, and that’s a damn good scene on its own. The animated film’s addition of a last statement from Éowyn not present in the novel — “Uncle, I have avenged thee!” — with a tear running down her face, is an emotionally packed moment.
The smashing down of the main gate of Minas Tirith and Gandalf challenging the Lord of the Nazgûl is another awesome moment with Tolkien’s dialogue intact. The shot of the battering ram Grond “drooling” is a spine-tingling bit. Aragorn’s meeting with the Mouth of Sauron is another moment that, although abbreviated, nails down Tolkien’s feel. There are enough striking bits such as this scattered throughout the movie to tell me that, even within the confines of budget and demographic concerns, the makers of The Return of the King knew they were working on something important, a great story that deserved as good a telling as they could give it.
I’ll step away for a moment from this hypothetical group of Tolkien adherents and look at the actual credits. Writer Romeo Muller turned in his masterpiece here. In a career centered mostly around writing holiday television specials, Muller pens impressive scenes even when he isn’t quoting directly from Tolkien. The narration that Gandalf provides for the story is excellent, although it does help having the voice of John Huston giving it. Gandalf’s description of Sauron is the finest piece of original writing in the teleplay:
Who causes the minutes to fall dead, adding up to no passing hour, bringing no change from day to night, as the unseen sun fails to filter into the ever-present shadows? Who is this Dark Lord who turns starless nights into sunless days? How does His piercing eye see through the ever-present darkness, seeing all—and nothing? The restless eye, in His Dark Tower, wearing a veil of protective shadows He has woven from fear. And yet He fears too. In the security of His protective realm He fear the winds of the world are turning against Him, tearing aside His veils and troubling Him, with tidings of bold spies that have passed through His fences.
That makes up for “He’s gone loony, I tell you.” Almost.
The script also attempts to grapple with Tolkien’s larger themes of the passing of Elves and the transition to the new age of Man. Gandalf’s narration helps shed light on this without making it explicit. For an hour-and-a-half animated movie that anticipates that a large part of its viewing audience will barely be able to read chapter books, this is audacious.
But, unfortunately, there was this budget … and kids were going to be watching … and … well, let’s wander back to the other side of the office and lodge a few complaints.
For all the great things that Muller’s script does when it adheres to Tolkien, it also falls into the “illustrated radio” trap of ‘70s animation: characters making explanatory speeches for the sake of the young ‘uns. Some of these scenes are groan-inducing, and they often fall in the middle of serious business.
I wish that the speculative “Tolkien Faction” had communicated with the vocal coach and the actors, because the film maddeningly mispronounces most of the names. Minas Tirith, Cirith Ungol, Gorgoroth, Pelennor Fields, Théoden, even Sauron… all are pronounced consistently wrong. (This is the opposite of Baskshi’s version, where the names are pronounced inconsistently wrong. Nobody seems to have any idea how to say “Saruman” or “Edoras” the same way twice.) There’s a nice pronunciation guide in the appendix of The Lord of the Rings. With all this verbatim Tolkien quoting, why did no one flip to the back to check to see if the “C” in Cirith Ungol is hard? (Answer: it is. “C” is always hard. Bakshi messed this up as well with the name “Celeborn.”)
The kiddie/Disney aspect of the film is strongest in the numerous musical numbers, with lyrics by Glenn Yarbrough, who also provides vocals: “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom,” “The Bearer of the Ring,” “The Cracks of Doom,” “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way,” “The Things I Can’t Do Without,” “Leave Tomorrow ‘Til it Comes,” “The Eye of the Storm,” “The End of the Ring,” and “The Road Goes Ever On.” The last, of course, comes from one of Tolkien’s most famous poems, one of the thematic backbones of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, although Yarbrough crafts some excellent additions of his own: “It’s so easy not to try, | Let the world go drifting by. | If you never say hello, | You won’t have to say goodbye.”
Tolkien’s writing is suffused with music, so adding songs make sense, but some of these pieces are intrusions and distractions. “The Things I Can’t Do Without” and “Leave Tomorrow ‘Til it Comes” are very pretty pieces and Yarbrough does well with them vocally, but they’re used for dream-sequence interludes that kill the pacing. (And it’s embarrassing watching Frodo and Sam share a pleasant wave with an Orc in some bucolic garden paradise.) “The Bearer of the Ring” serves as accompaniment to moments of One Ring-temptation, and composer Howard Shore in the Peter Jackson films had his own vocal equivalent of this, but here it overplays the moment when Frodo gives into the spell of the Ring at the Crack of Doom. “Eye of the Storm,” supposedly an Orc song chanted to intimidate Aragorn’s forces brought to the Morannon, isn’t the least bit threatening. “The End of the Ring” uses phrases from the song sung in praise of the Hobbits when they return to Minas Tirith, (“Praise them with great praise!”) but is flat-out the poorest and most childish song in the production.
The kiddie stuff does occasionally work. Not in a Tolkien way, but in charming Disney fashion. The sequence that everybody remembers is the singing Orc marching line, harmonizing to the tune “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way.” Why this didn’t turn into a regular hard rock cover, I’ll never understand. (I have found this cover, however, by World without Sundays.) Try to get this song out of your head, I dare you. It’s a nice encapsulation of the Orcs, creatures with no free will, laboring away under the only compulsion that can move them: violence. And it does have a source in the novel, from this line: “Where there’s a whip there’s a will, my slugs! … Don’t you know we’re at war?”
Maury Laws, who did a lot of work for Rankin/Bass, wrote the score for the film and it is very impressive for a television score. It lacks the lusher orchestrations that Leonard Rosenman had for the 1978 Lord of the Rings, but it’s more appropriate to Middle-Earth. The song melodies form many of the basic instrumental motifs, such as “The Bearer of the Ring” and “The Road Goes Ever On.” The Nazgûl have a eerie “swirling” motif on the strings that’s immediately distinctive, and Gollum’s low-key woodwind theme from The Hobbit returns. But the central motif of the movie is a five-note fanfare that can sound both heroic and defeated. It’s the first piece of music heard (listen to it at the start of this clip) and is one of the best pieces of music ever associated with Tolkien. That’s a big claim, but listen to a full version of Laws’s heroic motif and then compare it to “Theme from The Lord of the Rings” that Leonard Rosenman composed and the “Fellowship Motif” that’s the most common theme in the three scores Howard Shore wrote for the Peter Jackson films. Rosenman’s uptempo, bouyant march is good as an independent piece of music, but it’s completely wrong for Middle-Earth. Laws’s music, however, sounds similar in style to Shore’s: a sense of depth and strength without overstated cliché.
The voice talent pooled is impressive, top-lined with John Huston as Gandalf, an actor who would have done a superb job with the role in live-action. My first experience with the legendary director came through hearing his voice in The Hobbit and this. Orson Bean is adequate as Frodo, but Roddy Mcdowall overshadows him as Samwise. The relationship between the two characters is done very well, and makes the rotten version of it in Bakshi’s film look that much worse.
But Casey Casem as Merry? Sorry, way too Scooby-Doo and kitschy. That weird electronic effect for the Lord of the Nazgûl? Bit too ‘70s. (The voice actor for the Lord of the Nazgûl is not specified, but my educated guess is that it’s Don Messick, the voice of Scooby-Doo — and hence, another bad connection to ‘70s animated fare.) And, as much as I love Paul Frees as a voiceover artist, he’s too noticeable as a “famous cartoon voice” in his appearance as one of the Orcs and as Cyril Ritchard’s replacement as the beared Elrond. (Ritchard died in 1977, the same year The Hobbit telefilm was released.)
For most people my age — i.e. children when the movie was released — the voice of Gollum is eternally connected to Theodore Gottlieb, who is credited here as simply “Theodore,” and who usually acted under the name “Brother Theodore.” Gottlieb’s Gollum has less character-inflection than the two other men known for playing the character, Peter Woodthorpe (in the Bakshi film and the 1981 BBC radio play) and Andy Serkis (the Peter Jackson films), but it’s still a helluva voice — the most monstrous Gollum of all. The character’s appearance matches the voice, even if it doesn’t make sense from a Tolkien perspective; this is a frog-like monster with eyes half the size of his head, not a deformed and over-aged Stoorish Halfling. No matter: I’ll accept this cool-looking Gollum without hesitation. When I read The Lord of the Rings, the Gollum I still see in my mind’s eye looks close to the Rankin/Bass version, mixed with Alan Lee’s design from his Centennial Edition illustrations.
The animation of the film is middling, most of it done in Japan on a budget better than most Saturday-morning cartoons, but below the modest Disney films of the time. The battle scenes have jerky, choppy movements with repeated frames, and the effects animation is often poor, with very unrealistic fire and smoke. Sauron’s Eye “explodes” in laughable psychadelic fireworks. But the art design of the film is excellent, especially the backgrounds. Minas Tirith is damn-near perfect. Mount Doom has enormous and unrealistic verticle exaggeration, but it makes a striking black spike jutting from Mordor’s wastes, and the interior of the volcano is a beautiful red igneous hell.
The character models are very good as well, even if not everything looks close to Tolkien’s description. Pippin and Merry are a silly Mutt and Jeff contrast, but Frodo and Sam are spot-on. I’ve already mentioned Gollum, a case of going right and wrong at the same time. The Orcs are a strange bunch, seemingly inspired by Maurice Sendak, but they come in a wide variety of designs that give them the sense of being a real race and not just arrow-fodder. Lazier artists would have made them all look exactly the same.
The Return of the King concludes with Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, and Elrond departing over the seas from the Grey Havens, while Yarbrough sings his version of “The Road Goes Ever On.” The movie has almost no explanation for what is happening here — but the solemnity of the moment comes through. And the final shot of seagulls in the sky is an artistically perfect choice.
At the beginning of this article, I said it was easy to hate The Return of the King. Now I think I was wrong. When I first sat down to write this article, I imagined I would spend at least half the article complaining. But I found I had mostly praise to type after a second watching of the movie on DVD. It surprises me to have so much positive to say about it. Most of what doesn’t work comes out of the impossible nature of the project. But the people working on it obviously cared about the story. At the end of it all, despite some silly musical numbers, average animation, Casey Casem, and cramming the details of an epic into ninety child-friendly minutes, it’s recognizably J. R. R. Tolkien. There are personal reasons for liking it as well. For me the Rankin/Bass Return of the King was the beginning of falling in love with a great story, and for that I will ever thank it.
And if you have children too young for the novel or the intense Peter Jackson films, The Return of the King ‘80 is a great way to get them hooked on J. R. R. Tolkien — and epic fantasy.
“You look upon a woman. Éowyn am I, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless. For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author who knows Godzilla personally. He received the Writers of the Future Award in 2011 for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his story “The Sorrowless Thief” appears in Black Gate online fiction. Both tales place in his science fantasy world of Ahn-Tarqa. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, the prologue to the upcoming novel Turn Over the Moon, is currently available as an e-book. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.