The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Jackson
Produced byPeter Jackson
Barrie M. Osborne
Fran Walsh
Screenplay byFran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Based onThe Return of the King 
by J. R. R. Tolkien
StarringSee Cast
Music byHoward Shore
CinematographyAndrew Lesnie
Edited byJamie Selkirk
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release dates
  • 1 December 2003 (2003-12-01) (Embassy Theatre, Wellington premiere)
  • 17 December 2003 (2003-12-17) (United Kingdom)
  • 17 December 2003 (2003-12-17) (United States)
  • 18 December 2003 (2003-12-18) (New Zealand)
Running time201 minutes
  • New Zealand
  • United States
Budget$94 million[1]
Box office$1,119,929,521[1]
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This article is about the 2003 live-action film. For the book from which it was adapted, see The Return of the King. For other uses, see The Return of the King (disambiguation).
The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Jackson
Produced byPeter Jackson
Barrie M. Osborne
Fran Walsh
Screenplay byFran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Based onThe Return of the King 
by J. R. R. Tolkien
StarringSee Cast
Music byHoward Shore
CinematographyAndrew Lesnie
Edited byJamie Selkirk
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release dates
  • 1 December 2003 (2003-12-01) (Embassy Theatre, Wellington premiere)
  • 17 December 2003 (2003-12-17) (United Kingdom)
  • 17 December 2003 (2003-12-17) (United States)
  • 18 December 2003 (2003-12-18) (New Zealand)
Running time201 minutes
  • New Zealand
  • United States
Budget$94 million[1]
Box office$1,119,929,521[1]

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a 2003 epic fantasy film directed by Peter Jackson based on the second and third volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.[2][3] It is the third and final installment 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, with the aid of Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf summons the Army of the Dead to help him defeat Sauron. Still, it comes down to the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, to bear the burden of the One 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 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 and universal acclaim[4] and became one of the greatest critical and box-office successes of all time, being only the second film to gross $1 billion worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film from New Line Cinema, as well as the biggest financial success for Time Warner in general, until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 surpassed The Return of the King '​s final gross in 2011. The film was the highest-grossing film of 2003.

Notably, it won all 11 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, therefore holding the record for highest Oscar sweep. The wins included the awards for Best Picture, the first and only time a fantasy film has done so; it was also the second sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar (following The Godfather Part II) and Best Director. The film is tied for largest number of Academy Awards won with Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997).


In a flashback, the Hobbits Déagol and Sméagol are fishing near the Gladden Fields when Déagol accidentally goes overboard and discovers the One Ring in the river bed. Sméagol, immediately corrupted by the Ring, murders Déagol for it and is later exiled into the wilderness where he eventually becomes the creature "Gollum". In the present, Gollum is leading Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to an entrance near Minas Morgul.

King Théoden, Aragorn, Gandalf the White and the other heroes of Helm's Deep reunite with Merry and Pippin as Treebeard and the Ents have secured Isengard with Saruman a prisoner within his tower. In the extended edition, Saruman attempts to negotiate with Théoden and Gandalf for his freedom, but rejects Gandalf's conditional offer and shoots a fireball at him. Gandalf repels the attack and breaks Saruman's staff, taking away his powers. Meanwhile Gríma, fed up with Saruman's abuse, fatally stabs him from behind before he is killed by Legolas. A dying Saruman falls from the tower where he is then impaled on a spiked waterwheel. His palantír is quickly recovered by Pippin before Gandalf confiscates it.

Later that night, however, Pippin's curiosity for the palantír results with Sauron attacking the Hobbit's mind. But knowing Pippin would have a glimpse of Sauron’s plans, Gandalf deduces that he is planning to attack Minas Tirith, and rides there with Pippin. They find Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, full of grief for his lost son Boromir and paranoid over Aragorn’s claim to the throne. To compensate for Boromir's death defending him, Pippin swears service to Denethor. The armies of Mordor, led by the Witch-king and the Nazgûl, drive Faramir and his men from their final stronghold of Osgiliath. At Gandalf's instruction, Pippin secretly lights the distress beacon to signal Théoden to assemble the Rohirrim for battle.

On the way, Aragorn is informed by Elrond that Arwen did not go to the Undying Lands, and is now dying. He gives Aragorn the sword Andúril to acquire the service of the Army of the Dead, who owe allegiance to the heir of Isildur. Aragorn, with Legolas and Gimli, ventures into the Paths of the Dead and demands the loyalty of the King of the Dead. Théoden rides to war, unaware that Éowyn and Merry have secretly joined his forces.

After being sent by Denethor on a fruitless mission to reclaim Osgiliath, Faramir is mortally wounded as his horse drags his unconscious body back to Minas Tirith with Sauron's armies at its heels. Believing he has lost both sons, Denethor descends into madness with Gandalf forced to organize the city defenses. As the siege rages on, Denethor loses all hope for Minas Tirith and intends to burn himself and Faramir, expelling Pippin from his service when he tries to stop him. Pippin and Gandalf manage to save Faramir, but watch as a burning Denethor falls off a ledge to his death. Théoden's army arrives and decimates the Orcs before being overwhelmed by Haradrim riding on Oliphaunts while the Witch-king singles out and kills Théoden. Éowyn desperately stands before the Witch-King, but is overpowered by the Nazgûl as he proclaims that no man can kill him. However, Merry stabs him from behind and Éowyn slays him, causing him to be undone not by a man, but a woman and Hobbit. Finally, Aragorn arrives with the Army of the Dead and routs Sauron's forces, ending the battle. Aragorn frees the Army of the Dead and their souls go to the afterlife.

As the events occur, on the way to Minas Morgul, Sam overhears Gollum's plans to murder them and take the Ring yet Frodo refuses to believe him. Hoping to remove Sam as an obstacle as they climb up the cliff to the secret way to Mordor, Gollum manipulates Frodo into driving Sam off before leaving him at the mercy of the giant spider Shelob. Though Frodo manages to dispose of Gollum, he is paralyzed as Sam arrives to drive Shelob off. Believing Frodo to be dead, he takes Sting and the Ring, then learns of his friend's condition as he follows an Orc patrol that takes Frodo's body to the nearby watchtower guarding the entrance to Mordor. Taking advantage of the Orcs warring amongst themselves, Sam sneaks in and rescues Frodo while returning the Ring to him. The two continue the journey to Mount Doom.

Meanwhile, Aragorn leads his remaining men to the Black Gate of Mordor to distract Sauron’s forces for Frodo to reach Mount Doom. As Sam carries the weakened Frodo up the volcano, Gollum reappears and attacks them. Though Frodo succumbs to the Ring's power as he reaches the Crack of Doom, Gollum bites off the Hobbit's finger to reclaim the Ring. In the resulting struggle, Gollum falls into the lava while Sam saves Frodo as the Ring is destroyed. As a result, Sauron is obliterated and most of Mordor collapses while the surviving Orcs flee. Frodo and Sam are saved from the erupting volcano by Gandalf and the Eagles.

Soon after, Aragorn is crowned king and marries Arwen while the four Hobbits are honoured for their deeds. Four years after they return home to the Shire, Frodo departs Middle-earth for the Undying Lands alongside Bilbo, Gandalf and the Elves, bringing an end to the Fellowship while giving Sam his book detailing their adventures together.


Like the preceding films in the trilogy, The Return of the King has an ensemble cast,[5] and some of the cast and their respective characters include:

The following appear only 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 appear only in the Extended Edition. Jackson also has another unofficial cameo, as Sam's hand stepping into view when he confronts Shelob.[7] Sean Astin's daughter played Sam and Rosie's older daughter Elanor in the last scene of the film; in the same scene, Sarah McLeod's daughter plays their younger daughter. 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,[8] 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.[9] At the end of the film, during the closing credits, each cast member gets a sketched portrait morphed with the real photograph beside their name, which were sketched by Alan Lee, an idea suggested by Ian McKellen.[10]

Comparison with the source material[edit]

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, owing to Jackson's realigning events of the film to fit the timeline as described in the book's Appendices, rather than the main prose.[11] Saruman's murder by Gríma (seen only in the Extended Edition) is moved into the Isengard visit because of 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.[12]

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is altered: Faramir never goes on a suicide mission, and the conflict is a simplification of the siege of Osgiliath. With generals such as Forlong and Imrahil absent, Gandalf commands the defence of Minas Tirith owing 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 while 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 on the battlefield is unknown to the reader 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.[13] When hope seems lost, Gandalf comforts Pippin with a description of the Undying Lands, which is a descriptive passage in the book's final chapter.[11] 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 him 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.[11]

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.[11] 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 do not 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.[11]

In addition to the absent footage 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,[11] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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 screenwriters as anti-climactic.[11]

Extended sequences[edit]

Extra dialogue in Merry and Pippin's first scene at Isengard reuniting them with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli was added. There is also the final confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman, in which Saruman is stabbed to death by Wormtongue, who is killed by Legolas in turn. Saruman lands on a water wheel and drops the palantír. Edoras is extended, with the party containing a drinking game between Legolas and Gimli. Aragorn enters the Great Hall and has a conversation with Éowyn about a dream she had, about a great wave over a green countryside.

At Minas Tirith, Pippin explains to Denethor how Boromir died, and Gandalf explains to Pippin how Gondor fell into ruin. Frodo, Sam and Gollum discover a ruined and defaced statue at the Crossroads. When the Morgul signal for war begins, Sam warns Gollum about betrayal, eventually setting up the separation. When the Orcs cross the river it is shown the Gondorians were surprised, expecting an attack at Cair Andros. To further set up the battle, we also see Merry swearing loyalty to Théoden at Edoras after the lighting of the beacons. After Faramir arrives in Minas Tirith, there is a scene where Denethor confronts him for not taking the Ring, which includes his vision of Boromir. There is a friendly chat between Pippin and Faramir which sets up Pippin's later attempts to rescue him.

The Paths of the Dead sequence is heavily extended. A sequence involving an avalanche of skulls, and Aragorn's emergence from the mountain where the King of the Dead accepts his offer is integrated back into the film. This leads onto Aragorn attacking the Corsair ships, which includes a cameo by Peter Jackson as a character killed by Legolas. During the siege of Minas Tirith, the Orcs use a small battering ram on the gates before Grond arrives, and Gandalf confronts the Witch-king as he comes to rescue Faramir, when his staff is broken. Gothmog also chases Éowyn during the battle, and attempts to finish her off before he is killed by Aragorn and Gimli.

The scenes between the end of the Pelennor battle and Black Gate battle are extended. Pippin's search for Merry is digitally revised for a nighttime environment to give the impression he has been searching for almost the entire day. Éomer also finds Éowyn on the field and mourns when he thinks she is dead. Aragorn heals her and she falls in love with Faramir. Before the march to the Black Gate, Aragorn confronts Sauron in the palantír, however Sauron reveals to Aragorn an image of an unconscious Arwen, which frightens Aragorn into backing away, in which Aragorn drops the Evenstar and it shatters. Sam and Frodo get more time in Mordor: the fight among the orcs in the tower of Cirith Ungol is longer, and after Sam rescues Frodo, a sequence reveals a surviving Uruk sneaking off with Frodo's mithril shirt. Frodo and Sam are also diverted into the Orc march to the Black Gate and escape on a long journey, during which they throw away the last of their gear. Sam also sees a star through the clouds, symbolizing hope whilst Frodo merely rests with a burn on his neck. At the Black Gate, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, Merry, and Éomer are first confronted by the Mouth of Sauron, suggesting that Frodo is dead, providing additional meaning to Aragorn's line "For Frodo". There is a final line of dialogue in which Gollum admits he lied about protecting Frodo.


The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is unusual in that it was, up until the release of Jackson's prequel trilogy The Hobbit, the only series whose separate instalments were written and 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.[14] The Return of the King was originally the second of two planned films under Miramax from January 1997 to August 1998,[15] and more or less in its finished structure as the first film was to end with The Two Towers' Battle of Helm's Deep.[16] 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.


A wide view of Minas Tirith.
The city of Minas Tirith was built from parts of the set of Helms Deep, while the wide shots were from miniatures.

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, while 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 civilisation. 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, while 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.[17]

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 three-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,[18] while civilians wear silver and blacks as designed by Ngila Dickson, continuing an ancient/medieval Mediterranean Basin look.[19]

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 a wisdom tooth pulled out: in the same way, the Orcs have put their twisted designs on to a former Gondorian city.[20] Cirith Ungol was based on Tolkien's design, but when Richard Taylor felt it as "boring", it was redesigned with more tipping angles.[21] The interior set, like Minas Tirith, was built as a few multiple levels that numerous camera takes would suggest a larger structure.[17]

The third film introduces the enormous spider Shelob. Shelob was designed in 1999,[21] 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.[18] Shelob's Lair was inspired by sandstone and sculpted from the existing Caverns of Isengard set.[17]

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,[17] while their underground city is influenced by Petra.[20] 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.[18] 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.[21]

Principal photography[edit]

The Return of the King was shot during 2000, though 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.[7] 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, while interior scenes shot at Stone Street Studios in Wellington,[22] 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.[7] Also shared with the previous films was the Rivendell interior in May.

The Battle of the Black Gate was filmed in April[23] at the Rangipo Desert, a former minefield.[citation needed] New Zealand soldiers were hired as extras while guides were on the lookout 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.[7]

Scenes shot in June were the Paths of the Dead across various locations, including Pinnacles.[23] 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.[7]

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,[24] as were scenes in the city itself.[25] 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 from a Ringwraith under a tree, their last scene was the bluescreened reaction shot of the inhabitants of Minas Tirith bowing to them.[7]


The 2003 pick-ups were filmed in the Wellington studio car park, with many parts of sets and blue-screens used to finish off scenes, which the design team had to work 24 hours to get the right sets ready for a particular day.[17] 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 re-shoots given for the trilogy. Jackson took his time to re-shoot Aragorn's coronation, rushed into a single day under second unit director Geoff Murphy on 21 December 2000. Jackson also re-shot scenes in and around Mount Doom,[7] and Théoden's death, right after Bernard Hill was meant to wrap.[13]

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 re-shot, because of confusion from non-readers over whether or not Sauron was on the battlefield.[18]

With the positive response to Bloom, Legolas was given a fight with a mûmak,[26] and Howard Shore also appeared in a cameo during Legolas and Gimli's drinking game at Edoras.[27] 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 John Rhys-Davies burned his final Gimli prosthetic. Viggo Mortensen headbutted the stunt team goodbye.[7] Pick-ups ended on 27 June 2003.[26]

Scenes shot afterwards included various live-action shots of Riders for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and a reaction shot of Serkis as Gollum finally realises Frodo intends to destroy the Ring, shot in Jackson's house.[28] For the Extended DVD, in March 2004 Jackson created 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.[29]



Post-production began in November 2002, with the completion of the 4½ 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.[30] 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,[28] for appropriate intercutting and leaving out scenes such as the Mouth of Sauron, and the fates of characters like Legolas, Gimli, Éowyn and Faramir.[11] 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.[28] 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.[31] 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.[32] They would, however, later reconcile upon Lee's casting in Jackson's Hobbit films. 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 completed on 12 November 2003.[33] 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".[29]

Visual effects[edit]

Jackson's retelling of the Dunharrow sequence required an actor in prosthetics to play the King of the Dead, while the rest of the Army of the Dead were completely digitally constructed.

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.[34] Nevertheless they pressed on, soon delivering 100 shots a week, 20 a day, and as the deadline neared within the last two months, often working until 2 am.[33]

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,[18] 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.[34]

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.[34] 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.[17]

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.[20] 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.[33]

Sound effects[edit]

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, while the mûmakil is the beginning and end of a lion roar. Human screams and a donkey screech were mixed into Sauron's fall and 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.[35] The mixers finished on 15 November, after three months of non-stop work.[33]


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Written by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox, this selected song won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 76th Academy Awards. It also won a Grammy for Best Film Song.

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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,[27] and had to write seven minutes of music per day to keep up with the schedule.[33] 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.[27]


After two years of attention and acclaim since the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, audience and critical anticipation for the final instalment was extremely high. 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.[36]

Box office[edit]

The film earned $377,845,905 in the United States and Canada and $742,083,616 in other countries for a worldwide total of $1,119,929,521. Worldwide, it is the eighth highest-grossing film,[37] the highest-grossing 2003 film[38] and the highest-grossing instalment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[39] It was the second film in history to earn over $1 billion.

In the US and Canada, it is the twenty-first highest-grossing film,[40] the highest-grossing 2003 film,[41] and the highest-grossing instalment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[39] The film set an opening Wednesday record with $34.5 million.[42] This record was first surpassed by Spider-Man 2 and ranks as the seventh largest Wednesday opening.[43] The film opened a day earlier for a midnight showing and it accounted for about $8 million. 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. It went on to make an opening weekend of $72.6 million ($124.1 million with weekday previews).[44] Its Friday-to-Sunday opening weekend was a record-high for December (first surpassed by I Am Legend).[45] The film also set single-day records for Christmas Day and New Year's Day (both first surpassed by Meet the Fockers).[46][47]

Outside the US and Canada, it is the seventh highest-grossing film,[48] the highest-grossing 2003 film[49] and the highest-grossing film of the trilogy.[39] On its first day (Wednesday, 17 December 2003), the film earned $23.5 million from 19 countries[42] and, during the 5-day weekend as a whole, it set an opening-weekend record outside the US and Canada with $125.9 million.[50] It set opening-day records in 13 of them, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Scandinavia (as well as separately in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark), Mexico, Chile and Puerto Rico.[42][50] It set opening-weekend records in the United Kingdom ($26.5 million in five days), Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland. In New Zealand, where filming took place, the film set opening day, opening weekend, single-day, Friday gross, Saturday gross and Sunday gross records with $1.7 million in four days.[50]

The substantial increase in initial box office totals caused optimistic studio executives to forecast that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King would surpass The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in total earnings. If this proved to be true, then this would be the first blockbuster movie trilogy for each successive film to earn more at the box office than its predecessor, when all three films were blockbuster successes. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has helped The Lord of the Rings franchise to become the highest-grossing motion picture trilogy worldwide of all time with $2,917,506,956, beating other notable ones such as the Star Wars trilogies,[51] and surviving from being out-grossed by subsequent trilogies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter, despite ticket price inflation.

These figures do not include income from DVD sales, TV rights, etc. It has been estimated[52] 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).

Critical response[edit]

The Return of the King holds a 94% "Fresh" rating on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 245 reviews, with an average score of 8.6. The site's main consensus reads "Visually breathtaking and emotionally powerful, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a moving and satisfying conclusion to a great trilogy".[53] The film holds a score of 94 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews, indicating "Universal Acclaim".[54]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave three and a half stars out of four saying, ""Return of the King" is such a crowning achievement, such a visionary use of all the tools of special effects, such a pure spectacle, that it can be enjoyed even by those who have not seen the first two films."[55]Richard Corliss of Time named it the best film of the year.[56] 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."[57] There was also criticism regarding the Army of the Dead's appearance, rapidly ending the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.[58]

In February 2004, a few months following release, the film was voted as No. 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.[59] 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.[60]


The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Make-up, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. At the 76th Academy Awards in 2004, the film won all the categories for which it was nominated and it holds the record for highest Academy Award totals along with Titanic and Ben Hur.[61]

The film also won four Golden Globes (including Best Picture for Drama and Best Director),[62][63][64] 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.

The film was nominated for the 10th Anniversary Edition of AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies.[65]

Home media[edit]

The theatrical edition of the film was released on VHS and 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 seven-minute trailer of the entire trilogy.

The Return of the King followed the precedent set by its predecessors by releasing an Extended Edition (251 minutes) with new editing and added special effects and music, along with four commentaries and six hours of supplementary material, plus 10 minutes of fan-club credits. However, this set took longer to produce than the others because the cast and crew, no longer based in New Zealand for the trilogy, were spread all over the world working on other projects.[66] 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.

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 via satellite 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 release was released in the United States on 6 April 2010.[67] 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.[68] The Extended Edition was released in the United States on 28 June 2011.[69] It has a runtime of 263 minutes.[70]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 3 February 2009. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "'Lord' rings true / Tolkien's epic fantasy springs to wondrous life onscreen". The San Francisco Chronicle. 30 December 2001. 
  4. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Movie Reviews, Pictures, Trailers". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 24 March 2010. 
  5. ^ "With Tolkien's Help, a Holiday Record for Films". The New York Times. Associated Press. 29 December 2003. Retrieved 7 September 2008. 
  6. ^ "Craig Parker interview by SF-Radio". Craig Retrieved 6 November 2006. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Cameras in Middle-earth: Filming the Return of the King (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  8. ^ Dowling, Stephen (17 December 2003). "Tolkien relative's kingly role". BBC News online. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  9. ^ "Perry Miniatures". Retrieved 18 June 2007. 
  10. ^ Ian McKellen (2004). Cast Commentary (DVD). New Line Cinema. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Finding the Story: Forging the Final Chapter (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  12. ^ Sibley, Brian (2006). Peter Jackson: A Film-maker's Journey. London: Harpercollins. p. 345. ISBN 0-00-717558-2. 
  13. ^ a b Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (2004). Director/Writers' Special Extended Edition commentary (DVD). New Line Cinema. 
  14. ^ Lee, Alana. "Peter Jackson on The Return of the King". BBC Films. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  15. ^ Watkin, Tim (12 August 2001). "The 'Rings' movies, a potted history". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 20 October 2006. 
  16. ^ "20 Questions with Peter Jackson". Peter Jackson online transcript from Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved 24 October 2006. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f Designing and Building Middle-earth (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Weta Workshop (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  19. ^ Ngila Dickson (2004). Costume Design (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 
  20. ^ a b c Big-atures (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Cameras in Middle-earth: Filming the Fellowship of the Ring (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2002. 
  23. ^ a b "Tehanu" (11 October 2000). "One Year of Principal Photography". The One Retrieved 22 October 2006. 
  24. ^ Home of the Horse Lords (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  25. ^ Davidson, Paul (14 November 2000). "A Slew of The Lord of the Rings news". IGN. Retrieved 24 October 2006. 
  26. ^ a b Davidson, Paul (27 June 2003). "A new Return of the King poster". IGN. Retrieved 21 October 2006. 
  27. ^ a b c Music for Middle-earth (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  28. ^ a b c Editorial: Completing the Trilogy (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  29. ^ a b The Passing of an Age (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  30. ^ Sibley, Brian (2002). The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy. Harpercollins. 158. ISBN 0-00-713567-X. 
  31. ^ "Rings director cuts wizard scenes". BBC News online. 12 November 2003. Retrieved 17 October 2006. 
  32. ^ Wootton, Dan (30 April 2006). "I will never forgive Jackson, says LOTR actor". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 17 October 2006. 
  33. ^ a b c d e The End of All Things (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  34. ^ a b c Weta Digital (Special Extended Edition documentary) (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  35. ^ The Soundscapes of Middle-earth (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  36. ^ Mercer, Phil (1 December 2003). "How hobbits took over NZ's capital". BBC News. Retrieved 24 March 2010. 
  37. ^ All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses
  38. ^ 2003 Yearly Box Office Results
  39. ^ a b c The Lord of the Rings Movies at the Box Office
  40. ^ All Time Domestic Box Office Results
  41. ^ 2003 Yearly Box Office Results
  42. ^ a b c Gray, Brandon (18 December 2003). "'Return of the King' Rakes in $57.6M Worldwide on Opening Day". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  43. ^ "Opening Wednesday Records at the Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 15 June 2011. 
  44. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 15 June 2011. 
  45. ^ Top December Opening Weekends at the Box Office
  46. ^ Single Day Records: High Grossing Movies on Christmas Day
  47. ^ Single Day Records: High Grossing Movies on New Year's Day
  48. ^ All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses
  49. ^ 2003 Overseas Total Yearly Box Office Results
  50. ^ a b c Gray, Brandon (22 December 2003). "'King' of the World: $250M in 5 Days". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  51. ^ "Top Box Office Earning Trilogies Worldwide". Box Office Retrieved 10 February 2007. 
  52. ^ Lord of the Rings revenue statistics on Time Warner
  53. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Flixster. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  54. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Metacritic. Retrieved 2013-02-01. 
  55. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Roger Ebert's review". Retrieved 2013-02-01. 
  56. ^ Richard Corliss (18 December 2003). "The Best Movies". Time. Retrieved 9 November 2007. 
  57. ^ Joel Siegel (19 December 2003). "Jackson Brings Lord of the Rings to Historic Completion". ABC News. Retrieved 16 February 2007. 
  58. ^ "The best – and worst – movie battle scenes". CNN. 30 March 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2007. 
  59. ^ "The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire. 30 January 2004. p. 96. 
  60. ^ "Ten Greatest Films of the Past Decade". Total Film. April 2007. p. 98. 
  61. ^ "The 76th Academy Awards (2004) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  62. ^ Crean, Ellen (25 January 2004). "Golden Globe Spins For 'Rings'". CBS News. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  63. ^ "Hail to the 'King' at Golden Globes". MSNBC. 26 January 2004. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  64. ^ Armstrong, Mark (25 January 2004). "'Rings,' 'Translation' Rule the Globes". People. Retrieved 10 March 2011. 
  65. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  66. ^ Gary Susman (9 June 2004). "Hobbits for the Holidays". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 17 February 2007. 
  67. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Blu-ray: Theatrical Editions". Retrieved 18 February 2010. 
  68. ^ Calogne, Juan (23 June 2010). "Lord of the Rings Movies Get Separate Blu-ray editions". Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  69. ^ "Lord of the Rings Pre-order Now Available". 31 May 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  70. ^ "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". Retrieved 26 November 2012. 

External links[edit]