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PageSix Gossip | December 16th 2003

TOUR OF 'THE RINGS'
by Russell Scott Smith

So who is this king everyone's talking about? Unless you've just sat through a seven-hour viewing of the first two installments, you might need a refresher course before you watch "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which opens tonight at midnight.

LOTR director Peter Jackson (news) had to squeeze hard to compress J.R.R. Tolkien's 1,750-page epic into three 3-hour-plus movies.

Naturally, certain plot points were lost along the way, leaving even those who did read the books scratching their heads.

But don't despair! Here's The Post's spoiler-free "Return of the King" cheat sheet.

Where are we now?

At the end of the last LOTR movie, "The Two Towers," the forces of good were flying high, having defeated the evil wizard Saruman at the battle of Helm's Deep.

But the war is far from over: Frodo (Elijah Wood), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of the good guys must now face an even more powerful enemy, the archvillain Sauron - and he isn't hiding in a tiny "rat hole" near Tikrit.

In fact, Sauron (who has turned himself into a giant flaming eye) is massing tens of thousands of orcs in his Mordor fortress, ready to fight the free people of Middle Earth at their final stronghold, the city of Minas Tirith.

While Gandalf and the rest of the warriors (including Orlando Bloom as Legolas) prepare for their last stand, Frodo continues his secret journey into Mordor with his trusty pal, Sam (Sean Astin ), and their not-so-trustworthy guide, Gollum (Andy Serkis).

The trio is trying to sneak into Sauron's land to destroy the One Ring of Power - which all desperately covet - in the fires of Mount Doom.

Can Gollum be trusted?

Can you trust a schizophrenic? Probably not.

In "The Two Towers," we saw that Gollum has two distinct personalities inside his slimy head - the evil Gollum, who will do anything to survive, and the pitiable, sweet-natured Smeagol, who's been corrupted by the Ring of Power.

The "Return of the King" opens with a flashback explaining how Smeagol became Gollum - showing just how insidious the Ring can be.

Who is this returning king, anyway?

That would be Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the rightful heir to the crown of Gondor.

His family hasn't ruled this once-proud city for generations, and instead it is in the hands of a steward, the reprehensible Denethor (John Noble), who's gone mad.

Why is Denethor such a wuss?

Tolkien's books explain that he's being brainwashed by Sauron with a very dangerous telepathic communicator called a "palantir" stone.

Denethor is so messed up that he mistreats his younger son, Faramir (David Wenham) - never recognizing him as the loyal soldier that he is.

(His older son, Boromir, was killed at the end of "Fellowship of the Ring," and Denethor is still bitterly mourning his death.)

This father-son drama is set up in several scenes that you never saw if you only saw "The Two Towers" in the theater - Jackson cut these Faramir-Denethor scenes for time reasons, but included them in the extended DVD version of "Two Towers."

Keep an eye out for palantirs, by the way: The hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) finds one in "Return of the King," and that is not a good thing.

What happened to Saruman?

He was another victim of the cuts that Jackson had to make to keep his films' pace moving quickly.

Jackson filmed a long scene with second-string baddie Saruman (Christopher Lee) for "Return of the King," but cut it at the last minute.

And Jackson never intended to show the final end of Saruman, as Tolkien wrote it in his books.

As LOTR readers know, Saruman flees after his defeat at Helm's Deep to - of all places - the Shire, home of the hobbits.

He changes his name to Sharkey and uses his wicked powers to take over the peaceful land with his slimy flunky, Grima Wormtongue.

After they return from their big adventure, Frodo and Sam lead the hobbits in a revolt against Sharkey, and he is killed when Grima finally turns on him and stabs him.

Is it all just battle scenes and special effects?

No, there's also a love story to make all the girls swoon.

Aragorn and the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) have loved each other since they were young - but they've been separated for a long time, while he's been fighting the War of the Ring.

During "The Two Towers," Arwen argued with her father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving about giving up her immortality in order to marry him.

And Aragorn exchanged more than a few flirtatious glances with Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the princess of the kingdom of Rohan, setting up a bit of a love triangle.

But rest assured, by the trilogy's end, there are no broken hearts.