Weekly Video Picks

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

It's hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in the third and final chapter of The Lord of the Rings. To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration; it might also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best-realized Hollywood trilogy of all time.

The Return of the King also displays some of J.R.R. Tolkien's most overtly Catholic themes and motifs. Certainly it's Jackson's Lord of the Rings as much as it is Tolkien's. Yet the spirit of Tolkien's work is honored — imperfectly but brilliantly, from the Shire to Gollum's emaciated frame and spidery gait, from the Nazgûl to the wonderful strangeness of Treebeard and the Ents.

One bit of creative license at an extremely crucial moment is bound to be controversial among purists. Fortunately, what matters most about the scene as Tolkien wrote it holds true in Jackson's version.

The films will never replace the books. But the films also are irreplaceable. More than merely honoring Tolkien, their glorious imagery has for me forever enriched the experience of reading Tolkien. This film, and this trilogy, is a gift to be treasured.

Content advisory: Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs, goblins and other “fell creatures.”

On the Waterfront (1954)

Elia Kazan's great masterpiece On the Waterfront is one of those few films that could reasonably have been honored on the Vatican film list in any of the three areas of Religion, Values or Art.

While its listing under Values is probably most appropriate, the film's “values” are given a remarkably religious angle by fiery Father Barry Malone (Karl Malden), whose moral crusade against mob corruption in a local dockers union offers a striking contrast to the “safe” issues with which Hollywood priests in the 1930s and '40s generally concerned themselves (often saving some church building or school).

Father Barry seeks to foster solidarity among the laborers and empower them to resist their oppressors. Better still, instead of simply moralizing, he explicitly connects the oppression of “the least of these” to Jesus' own passion in his great “sermon on the docks.”

The Christological significance of this mob oppression impacts Marlon Brando's startlingly unmannered performance as Terry Malloy, an unreflective, inarticulate has-been prizefighter who works for mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Shaken by an unexpected act of retribution, Malloy gradually develops a conscience through the graces of the dead man's sister (Eva Marie Saint) and Father Barry, and ultimately faces his own passion and via dolorosa.

Content advisory: Some street violence; recurring menace and intimidation.

Shane (1953)

Shane defined the archetypal Western hero who is not a cowboy or a sheriff but a wandering gunslinger who comes upon oppression in a lawless frontier and sides with the oppressed. If the Western is the quintessential American mythology, Shane is the Western's great knight-samurai archetype — stern in battle, mild with women and children, siding with the wronged, honoring marriage.

Shane is self-consciously mythic, in part because the story is seen through the eyes of a young boy, the son of a homesteader couple beleaguered by a ruthless cattle baron.

We see Shane as Joey does, but we're also aware that Shane sees how Joey sees him, highlighting the disconnect between a boy's hero worship and what a man knows himself to be.

The depiction of violence in Shane warrants mention. While an extended barroom brawl (eagerly witnessed by Joey from a safe hiding place) is ultimately as cheerfully romanticized as any in the genre, the film takes a notably different view of gun violence. Shane is overtly critical of the romantic view of guns in many Westerns — an attitude Joey exemplifies. The number of bullets actually fired in the film is remarkably small, especially compared with the number of punches thrown in the brawl scene, and each bullet has enormous impact.

Content advisory: Recurring fistfight-brawl-style violence; brief deadly gunplay; discreet romantic complications.