It has been nearly 17 years since the greatest modern cinematic trilogy came to a close with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Now, perhaps more than ever amidst multiple disappointing ends to fantasy stories, it is worth looking back fondly on Middle Earth. In a recently revealed diary entry, Ian McKellen recalls the last day of filming on The Lord of the Rings. The iconic actor who played Gandalf wrote:
I finished mid-afternoon standing in front of a green screen close to the camera, filming a close-up of Gandalf as he battled with unseen (indeed non-existent) forces - orcs probably, although I confess I'm never too sure. It can be surprisingly tiring in heavy robes twisting and turning even only on the spot, stabbing and slicing the air as a sedentary director watching a TV monitor of the action a few yards away shouts encouragement ‘More vicious! Behind You! Again - hit him again! It's an effort! It's exhausting! One last effort!’ Then blessedly after a couple of minutes when my arms feel they are about to drop off, it's ‘Excellent Ian! Alright?’ as Peter levers himself up from the reinforced armchair and hurries to shake my hand. ‘And that is a wrap on Ian McKellen!’
Ian McKellen’s last day of filming on The Lord of the Rings in July of 2003 was not an easy one. Rather than a quiet conversation scene, Gandalf finished with a flourish: in ferocious battle with some orcs, or as Ian McKellen refers to them, ‘non-existent forces.’ But for enemies that didn’t actually exist, they sure put up a fight and took quite the effort to vanquish.
This final scene was particularly exhausting for Ian McKellen because of the cumbersome and heavy costume he was wearing as Gandalf. He was swinging his sword and had to be as intense as possible, and all the while Peter Jackson sat stationary nearby and shouted for him to put more into it.
But then, just when he felt like he couldn’t go any longer, Peter Jackson cut. It sounds like a personal training session where the coach pushes and pushes until you’re about to break only to stop right before your body gives out. It’s a hell of a way to go out on a massive epic like The Lord of the Rings. Then, following this physically draining final scene, Peter Jackson let everyone know that was a wrap on Ian McKellen as Gandalf.
A few hours later, all the members of the cast and crew came together to celebrate the last day of filming for Ian McKellen and Billy Boyd, who played Pippin and also wrapped that day. They gathered around the Minas Tirith set, and from the battlements, Peter Jackson said a few words about each of them. As Ian McKellen wrote in his blog post on McKellen.com, after Peter Jackson’s remarks, he received a tribute and a special gift:
Barrie Osborne, with his widest grin, presented me with Gandalf’s magnificent sword and then, screened on a white sheet, a four minute video presentation of the Grey and the White, high spots from the movies and low spots too, me forgetting my lines, me swearing, me peacocking at Gandalf’s original screen test to see how the costume and make-up would work onscreen. By this time, I felt it. Still there was no need for tears. I would be back for the world premiere on 1 December. I couldn’t say goodbye to everyone; I had a plane to catch. Up before dawn next day I settled into my seat and tried to catch sight of the studios as we took off and then I realized - I’d forgotten to bring Gandalf’s sword with me!
What a grand sendoff! Producer Barrie Osborne had something of a tribute video played for Ian McKellen that included footage of his magnificent work in the films, as well as some behind-the-scenes flubs. It was a retrospective on years worth of work on the trilogy from the beloved actor.
That wasn’t all. We often hear about actors who finish up work on a film or a long-running TV show, and how they will take something from the set as a souvenir of the experience. Well, Ian McKellen didn’t need to secret away any trinkets to bring back home to commemorate his time on The Lord of the Rings. Barrie Osborne gave the actor who played Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White the sword belonging to Middle Earth’s most meddlesome wizard.
That’s right, on his last day of filming The Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian McKellen was given a weapon befitting a wizard and knight: Glamdring, the Foe-hammer. That is extremely awesome. Unfortunately, when he left New Zealand the next day, Ian McKellen forgot the sword. Hopefully he eventually got it sent to him or maybe he picked it up when he returned to the role for The Hobbit films.
Ian McKellen’s description of his last day of filming on The Lord of the Rings makes it all sound like an incredibly emotional and tear-jerking experience. That’s pretty fitting for a trilogy that ends in such bittersweet fashion, with no shortage of tears for characters and audiences alike as they say goodbye.
But although Ian McKellen felt the emotion as the reality that the experience was coming to an end set in, he managed to keep a stiff upper lip. He knew that the final goodbye wouldn’t happen until the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
While we await that, check out our 2020 Release Schedule to see what movies are hitting theaters this year.