THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003)

In 2004, the 76th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2003, and December 31, 2003, the awards were held on February 29. For the eighth time, the ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal. For the first time since 1942, the awards were held in February. The Academy claimed this was to help boost sagging ratings, but many in the industry speculated it was also to decrease the length of the pre-season to quell campaigning and lobbying, which many felt was getting out of control. The ceremony remains in late February/early March to this day.

After the controversy surrounding Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “wardrobe malfunction” at Super Bowl XXVIII, three weeks prior to the ceremony, ABC implemented a five-second telecast delay to ensure any profanity or obscenity could be cut from the live broadcast. This marked the first time in Oscars history the ceremony was not broadcast 100% live. This delay remains in place to this day.

With her nomination for Best Director for Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola became the first American female and third female overall to be nominated in this category. Coppola would lose to Peter Jackson, but was victorious in the Original Screenplay category. With both her father, Francis, and grandfather, Carmine, being previous Oscar winners, Sofia became the second third-generation Oscar winner in history, after Anjelica Huston in 1986.

With her nomination for her performance in Whale Rider, at only 13-years-old, Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest actress to be nominated for Best Actress. With their respective wins for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Mystic River, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins became the fourth pair of male actors to claim both categories for the same film.


Unsurprisingly, leading the way this year with 11 nominations was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King aka the closing chapter to Peter Jackson’s epic saga. In the biggest clean sweep in Oscars history, the film would win all 11 categories it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Director for Jackson, equalling the record set by Ben-Hur and Titanic as the most awarded film in Oscars history. The film stood as only the second sequel (after The Godfather Part II) and the first fantasy film to win Best Picture. The film became only the tenth in Oscars history to win Best Picture with no acting nominations.

The nominees:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Lost in Translation
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

The winner:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Based on the second and third volumes of J. R. R. Tokien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King is the defining chapter in one of the most successful trilogies in cinema history. The final battle for Middle-earth begins as Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Austin), led by Gollum (Andy Serkis), continue their dangerous mission toward the fires of Mount Doom in order to destroy the One Ring. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) struggles to fulfil his legacy, as he leads his outnumbered followers against the growing power of the Dark Lord Sauron, so that the Ring-bearer Frodo may complete his quest.

Why did it win?
One of the most commercially-successful and universally-beloved film franchises in history comes to a close, and its chance to finally receive Academy Awards glory had arrived. No one is quite sure who it was that first decided it was best to wait to award Best Picture until the third film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Somehow, it just became the accepted and inevitable notion of industry types and Oscar pundits. We all just knew this would happen. It made sense. No one even stopped to consider the possibility of the final film being terrible or unworthy of the top prize. Perhaps it’s due to Peter Jackson’s bold and daring feat of filming the entire trilogy at the same time. If the first two films were great (and they were), we all made the assumption he couldn’t possibly mess up the concluding chapter. Thankfully, we were right.

Much like Titanic, the question posed going into Oscar night wasn’t so much “will The Return of the King win Best Picture?”, but rather a case of just how many other Oscars it would ultimately take along with it. Nothing stood a chance in the Best Picture race. Even before the single frame of the film was seen, it was all but an inevitability The Return of the King would take home Best Picture. Part of me thinks the film could have been disappointing, and it still would have been the victor. The trilogy deserved recognition, and there was no better way to honour Jackson’s entire saga than gifting its final film with the title of Best Picture.

There’s a reason it took 65 years to bring Tolkien’s beloved book series to the big screen – many felt it was simply impossible to produce. With its epic length and immense array of characters, lands, and intertwining stories, it seemed it was just too difficult to successfully translate into a film or even a series of films. But Peter Jackson was determined. He had begun considering bringing Tolkien’s words to life as far back as 1995, but work officially began in 1997. It would take over a year just to finish the initial 290-page script, which was originally for two films. From there, the now-trilogy would require 438 days of filming (not including re-shoots/pick-up filming) plus a full year of post-production, 150 locations plus multiple soundstages, dozens of actors, hundreds of extras, 19,000 costumes, 48,000 pieces of armour and weaponry, 2,730 visual effects shots, and a production budget of $280 million. To call this the largest production in film history would be an understatement.

Frankly, Jackson’s ability in successfully navigating this hellish and exhaustive production schedule is reason enough for the final film to win Best Picture. What he managed to achieve is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. The trilogy stood as one of the greatest in film history. The quality only seemed to improve with each picture – something you don’t often say with film franchises. With both a deep visual and emotional impact, The Lord of the Rings was a genuine masterpiece, typified by its glorious and tear-inducing final instalment.

You probably don’t need reminding of the public’s reaction to The Return of the King. The entire trilogy was a global box-office phenomenon, but the final film outdid them all. Thanks to heavy repeat-viewership, The Return of the King would earn $377 million at the U.S. box-office to naturally end the year as the highest grossing film of 2002. The film added a further $742 million internationally to bring its worldwide figure to a staggering $1.1 billion, making it only the second film in history to cross $1 billion worldwide. It stood as the second highest-grossing film of all time and, with a total trilogy gross of $2.9 billion, the most successful trilogy in film history.


Adding to the film’s incredible box-office success, The Return of the King received widespread critical acclaim, with many calling it a fitting and effective conclusion to the saga. The New York Times called the film a “product of impressive craft and energy,” Entertainment Weekly hailed it as “passionate and literate, detailed and expansive, it’s conceived with a risk-taking flair for old-fashioned movie magic at its most precious,” and USA Today simply stated it was “the jewel in the crown of the masterful trilogy.”

It should come as no surprise to hear The Return of the King all but swept the precursor season before it swept the Oscars. The film won Best Picture with the critics’ groups of Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Florida. It won four Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director for Jackson. It took the PGA, DGA, and SAG Ensemble award. Its only hiccup was losing the WGA for Adapted Screenplay to American Splendor. Yeah, I can’t explain that one. It was one of the most unstoppable contenders in modern Oscars history, and there are few who could deny it richly deserved every award which came its way.

Did it deserve to win?
Yes. Yes, it did. Is there much of a point in writing a big rambling explanation as to why? Does anyone in their right mind even consider The Return of the King an undeserving winner of Best Picture? If you fall into this category, please sit down, watch it again, and get back to me. I’m sure this will upset Star Wars fans, but The Lord of the Rings is the greatest film trilogy of all time.

Yes, I love Star Wars too, but Return of the Jedi was a mess. Sorry, but it was. Therefore, it’s not a solid example of three terrific films. The Lord of the Rings may peak with its second film (or maybe even its first), but each film is downright phenomenal, and Jackson closed his epic undertaking in terrific fashion with The Return of the King.

The narrative. The acting. The battle scenes. The score. The visual effects. The cinematography. The production and costume design. The makeup. The sound. That ending. There is not one aspect of The Return of the King that isn’t a true masterpiece of cinema. It’s a gripping and captivating work of art which still stands as one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of all time. With a sprawling scope and running time, epic barely begins to describe this film. What Peter Jackson endured to achieve his vision is perhaps unlike anything any director has experienced in the past. Even if the film was somewhat decent, you’d have to stand and admire his work and commitment to this project. But the fact its narratively cohesive, genuinely enthralling, emotionally affecting, and visually stunning takes the film to a whole new level.

Nothing came close to being anywhere near as deserving as The Return of the King this year. Much love for Mystic River and Lost in Translation, but no. Not this year. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a landmark moment in modern cinema. A trilogy that will stand the test of time and still be admired, enjoyed and revered for decades to come. The trilogy deserved to be acknowledged by the Academy. If they weren’t prepared to give each film a Best Picture prize (honestly, would that have been so bad?), they simply had no choice but to award Best Picture to the film’s concluding chapter. An inevitability, maybe, but a richly deserved one. I feel blessed to have lived in the time of this saga (The Hobbit trilogy, not so much), and I feel blessed to have seen The Return of the King be honoured with the Best Picture prize it was destined to receive.