Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Return of the King (1980)
Sometimes, animation can also be cheesy. It’s rare, to be sure, as the patience required for cheese gets cut in half when dealing with questionable animation techniques. But this weekend’s cheesy film, a 1980 made-for-TV movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, ends up becoming cheese not for its technical merits, but for its attempt to condense the conclusion of an epic trilogy into a 98-minute film.
Oh, and without telling the first two thirds.
While you might think you are familiar with the plot, The Return of the King makes some strange choices with it. As the film opens, characters like Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf (voiced by John Huston) and Elrond are gathered at the Last Homely House for a celebration of Bilbo’s 129th birthday. Also in attendance are Biblo’s nephew Frodo and his friends Samwise, Merry and Pippin. A sleepy Bilbo discovers Frodo has lost a magic ring he gave him years earlier and “the finger upon which it rode.” Much to Bilbo’s dismay, Frodo tells him the ring was evil. When Bilbo demands to know more, Gandalf calls upon the Minstrel of Gondor to sing the ballad he wrote about Frodo’s journey.
But that’s not the real beginning. The real beginning features narration from Gandalf, who tells us the story ends at a beginning and beings at an ending. He also quickly speaks of a Ring of Power and Sauron, an evil conquer bent on recovering the Ring for his own twisted ends. He also mentions Aragorn, a man fated to sit on the throne of Gondor … but only if the Ring is destroyed.
There’s also a third opening in which Gandalf discusses the predicament of Sam as he crossed into the land of Mordor. Separated from Frodo, he finds himself near the Tower of Cirith Ungol, sure that his master is inside and in great pain.
For those familiar with The Return of the King in its written or live-action forms, the choice to spend a good ten minutes introducing concepts over and over will look remarkably strange. Especially when one considers Glenn Yarbrough (as the Minstrel) keeps intruding with his song about Frodo. But Rankin/Bass Productions — the company behind the adaptation, a 1977 animated version of The Hobbit, and Christmas specials like Frosty the Snowman — used the three-part introduction in other projects with success. And in introducing something as complex as the resolution to The Lord of the Rings without the benefit of the first two parts, they needed to utilize every trick in their playbook. But why attempt this at all?
The company, for reasons I’ve never been able to pin down, negotiated the rights to the third book separately. The intention was to make it a direct sequel to their earlier Hobbit film. This strange choice allowed animator Ralph Bakshi to plan his own two-part feature film of The Lord of the Rings — as story for another time. Like their Hobbit, their planned sequel would condense large parts of the book, omit characters entirely (sorry, Faramir fans) and include something few ever take from the books: the singing.
The finished version ends up feeling like a Cliff Notes telling of the tale with key beats depicted. Sam saves Frodo from Cirith Ungol and they slowly make their way up Mount Doom. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields plays out as it does in the book and live action film, though it only introduces Aragorn into the action when he arrives with the Black Ships. The surviving Gondor forces march to Mordor to face Sauron. And while the amount of information will bewilder anyone not familiar with the story, the little differences will irk the Tolkien fan. Aragorn has no time for Gandalf or his belief in Frodo. Eowyn speaks in a faux-Shakespearean dialect while every other character tends to speak in a 1970s manner with the occasional “thou” thrown in. Pronunciation of Tolkien words are all over the place with Sauron referred to as “Sorrin'” and “Soar-on” within a few breaths of each other. For the obscure Tolkien trivia fanatic, “Cirith” is pronounced with a soft-C in the film.
But all of that is part of its strange charm. It’s just so ambitious that you forgive it for condensing so much. It also manages to do a handful of things better than the live-action version. The stand-off between the Witch King of Angmar and Gandalf — relegated to the Extended Edition release of Jackon’s film — is a key moment which manages to give the Witch King a chilling menace. Early on, we see the black ships in a the Steward of Gondor’s Palantir, setting up an on-going tension as first-time viewers never suspect Aragorn to be aboard one of them. The final scene at the Grey Havens also manages to be affecting thanks to Yarbrough’s adaptation of Tolkien’s poem, “Roads Goes Ever On.”
And since I’m finally getting to the singing, let me tell you about the best song in the flick. When Frodo and Sam are mistaken for Orcs, they join a war party doomed to sing this for all eternity:
As it happens, songs can also be cheesy and this is the prime example. It’s so bizarre, but also so entertaining at the same time. The other Orc song, “The Towers of the Teeth” has that same demented showmanship to it. They have a spirit in their own right, but feel at home in this condensed musical telling of The Return of the King. They’re also embarrassing productions, but the right kind of embarrassment is on display.
Somehow, having no knowledge of Tolkien when I first saw it, I was mesmerized by the things it got right: Gandalf, the Witch King, the Orc songs. Huston’s speeches about Sauron and his evil inspired a life-long fascination with The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s legendarium. Even Sam’s raid on Cirith Ungol compelled me to pick up the books for the first time. Which, I suppose, makes it a success despite so many glaring flaws. Perhaps, its cheesiness will inspire you as well.
The Return of the King (1980) is not available on streaming platforms, but is available on DVD.