I saw The Return of the King for a second time with my sister yesterday. It was more enjoyable than my first viewing, maybe because I had already identified my major nitpicks and could move beyond them. What affected me most this time was the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Yes, there is some undeniably romantic subtext there (“There are times when […] you want to stand up and shout, ‘Kiss him already!'” — Stephen Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer in this review), but to me the strongest element of their friendship is the bond of war buddies who have been through hell together.
There is a moment near the end of the movie when Frodo and Sam are sitting exhausted on the side of Mount Doom, waiting to die as fireballs shoot over their heads and explode on the rocks below. “That could as well be artillery fire,” I thought. The similarity is entirely appropriate, as I am sure the director knew. Tolkien fought in World War One, and I have always thought his descriptions of battle conveyed a real sadness and dread mixed in with the heroics. In this way, he reminds me of Richard Adams, whose Watership Down was another major influence on me as a child. Recently, I found a chapter title from Watership Down popping into my head: “You Can’t Imagine It Unless You’ve Been There”. (The chapter relates one character’s experience of being trapped in Efrafa, which as described seems very like the rabbit equivalent of a German prison camp. Incidentally, Adams also served in the British military, in his case WW II.) The final scenes between Frodo and Sam — when Frodo awakens in Minas Tirith, and when he says goodbye at the Grey Havens — are filled with the sadness and recognition of shared trauma. As with soldiers who are the only survivors of a horrible battle, no one else can know what it was like for them in the final stages of their journey. “You can’t imagine it unless you’ve been there.”
Even though whole stretches of this movie (and the other two) really annoy me, the depiction of Frodo and Sam’s friendship makes up for a lot. Sam comes out a lot better in the movies than the book, largely because his overpoweringly folksy speech and deference to Frodo are kept to a minimum. Master/servant relationships are just not fashionable in films these days — unless they’re S&M films, that is — and I have a feeling that’s a good thing. (For an amusing take on this theme in the book, see this Usenet post by Chad Orzel.)