Hobbit, Battle of Five Armies missing from THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
There is a hilarious joke near the end of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It goes “Based on a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien”. With his final “Hobbit” film, Jackson completes his descent into self-parody, and we see the once great director now as a pitiful, Gollum-like creature. Yet, as with Gollum, there are occasional moments of goodness that break through, and we see Jackson again as he used to be, as he could be. These moments are, sadly, too few, and often end abruptly with a descent to Jackson’s new style of directing adventures in Middle-Earth. They are not enough to save this movie, but insomuch as they are good, they are very good, and worthy of praise.
First, we have Smaug’s vengeance upon Laketown. This scene really should have come at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, replacing the ridiculous “melt-the-fire-breathing-dragon” set piece. Tonally and pacing-wise, it fits far better in that space. Placement aside, this scene is done wonderfully. Smaug is a terrifying force of fire and fury, and you feel every attack he unleashes on Laketown. Bard climbs heroically to the highest point in Laketown, the bell tower, and rings his defiance at the dragon. Smaug descends, and boasts and gloats in a most dragonish fashion, and then…and then…Well, actually, rewind a moment. There’s a small earlier moment of unnecessary cruelty on the part of either Bard of the filmmakers (it’s unclear) towards the avaricious Master of Laketown. Is he a terrible person? Yes. Will he get his just desserts? Yes. But pseudo-hanging him first? That’s just petty. Back to the present, Bard’s slaying of Smaug is almost perfect, save the filmmakers’ decision to make the Black Arrow not an ancestral weapon symbolizing the righteous retribution of Laketown, but rather the last of an industrially-produced series of anti-dragon harpoons. That cannot be fired from a normal bow. That can only be fired from a large mechanical crossbow (you know, like orcs use), or, in this case, a broken bow jury-rigged into a large crossbow. The slaying works fine, but it lacks the mythical imagery and resonance of the lone bowman smiting his accursed foe from the skies with the never-failing dart of his forefathers. Alas. But, Smaug is excellent. If these films were good for nothing else, they are good for one of the best dragons brought to life in the cinema.
Next up, we have the White Council springing Gandalf from his imprisonment in Dol Guldur, guarded by the nine Ringwraiths, here in the form of ghostly suits of armor. As a fan of ICE’s Middle-Earth CCG, which also depicted The Nine this way, I approved wholeheartedly, and was excited to see Jackson’s take on The Nine. Jackson’s one talent that did not fail him throughout these films was his creative vision of what Middle-Earth could look like. The Ringwraiths menacingly encircle our band of heroes, and we get a brief glimpse of each of them. They. Look. Awesome. The fight between the White Council and the nine Ringwraiths is, regrettably, choreographed and filmed in such a frenetic, choppy manner, that it is impossible to appreciate all of the awesome design work that went into The Nine’s costumes, or the awesomeness of actually seeing the White Council cut loose on worthy enemies. This scene could have been so awesome that I would have forgiven it for not actually being the all-out siege from the original, but instead it’s a blur of ghosts and swords and wizard-fu, terminating in Galadriel going all creepy-like (one of Jackson’s few visual missteps from LOTR), and facing off with an over-the-top, bombastic Necromancer, who fills the whole screen as the blazing Eye of Sauron before being driven back by Galadriel pointing her wand at him as hard as she can.
Third, we have one of the few scenes in the film that is just plain good, unmarred by anything. It is Bard’s parley with Thorin at the entrance to the Lonely Mountain for his rightful claim of the treasure. It is well-shot, well-written, and well-acted. We see the dragon-sickness taking full effect on Thorin, a subplot that is one of the few things the movie executes well. Shortly after, the battle begins. Now, up until this point, the movie is actually pretty good. It’s only once battle is joined that things really start to fall apart.
My first intimation of where this film was headed came with Billy Connolly’s Dain Ironfoot shouting for Thranduil’s elves to “Just sod off!”, and for his own army to “Hammer the bastards!”. Vulgarity does not become Middle-Earth, and the precious spell suspending my disbelief was broken. I was no longer in Middle-Earth; I was in, well, if The Desolation of Smaug was The Hobbit as a tabletop roleplaying game, The Battle of the Five Armies is The Hobbit as a video game. At first an RTS, but later, a fighting game. Anyhow, after Dain’s reminder that we are in Westeros, not Middle-Earth, we are jarred to another location as
Great Makers wereworms burst out of the arms of the mountain aaaaand…go back underground. Apparently they are peace loving creatures who merely do contract tunnel construction work for Sauron and his servants. Not that I wanted to see them join the battle as a sixth army, but seriously, why would you bother introducing them as terrifying monsters, only to have them conveniently vanish? With the tunnels bored, the orcs (here again I must praise the visual design) emerge from the mountain side, causing men, elves, and dwarves to unite.
For a very brief moment, my heart soared as the Iron Hills dwarves charged the orc line as an impenetrable shield wall bristling with pikes. This lack of real-world tactics among the similarly armed Gondorians in The Return of the King was disappointing to me, and I was excited to see the dwarves executing such an effective strategy. Surely the elven host would then swing around to the orc’s flank and utterly smash them, as the hammer to the dwarves’ anvil. Oh, wait, nope, they’re leaping over two or three deep ranks of dwarves to take the orcs head on, leaving themselves nowhere to retreat save the pikes of their dwarf allies, and completely breaking up their own battle-line in the process. No wonder they all get slaughtered by the end(as elves tend to do in Jackson’s Middle-Earth, when they’re not Legolas).
Then, a contingent of orcs breaks off to attack nearby Dale. Now, this is not, if I recall correctly, mentioned anywhere in the book, but I did not expect the film to slavishly follow the battle as laid out by Tolkien, as long as they kept to the spirit of it and did something cool. This could have been a cool addition to the battle. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this film is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to do with The Battle of Five Armies, and Dale is part of that problem. From a tactical point of view, the orcs attack Dale to force the good guys to split off forces to stop them from killing the civilians. Fair enough. The problem comes from the way in which the battles are shot and edited. What should be a clear situation—our heroes must split their forces, disadvantaging themselves—is muddied by the fact that not only are the maneuverings of the two battles unclear, but the strategic relationship between the two battles is unclear. What does each army need to do to win? Which battle is more important to win? Why? How will one battle’s result affect the other’s? We never learn, so we mostly watch as orcs hack away at dwarves, elves, and men, wondering what we should be hoping to see the heroes pull off.
Also, somewhere during all of this, Legolas and Tauriel ride all the way to Mt. Gundabad and back, although they place they scout out looks and sounds a lot more like Carn Dum.
And then, something really cool happens! Thorin snaps free of the dragon-sickness, rallies the beleaguered dwarves, and leads a frontal charge against the orc ranks, smashing into them with all the power of a dwarf-lord in his wrath. Thranduil had an awesome moment like this a bit earlier in the film, but it was soured at the last minute by a cheesy multiple-simultaneous decapitation. He probably got an Achievement Unlocked for that though.
And then something really stupid happens! Thorin and company summon large mountain goats, fully barded in gear of dwarf-make, from out of nowhere. It’s cool and all, but seriously, where did the goats come from? Inside the mountain? Are all the dwarves dual-classed as Bards with Summon Animal Companion? A clip from the trailer shows a large host of dwarven goat cavalry charging down a ridge, a scene that is nowhere in the film, so perhaps the goats’ existence was established in a scene that was later deleted. Still, it’s very distracting, even if it’s a cool idea.
Then, Thorin, Fili, Kili, and Dwalin decide to go after Azog, commanding his legions from the top of rocky cliff. This starts the part of the film where the writers completely ignore the Battle of the Five Armies to focus on a series of duels between the main characters, except of course the hobbit from whom the movie takes its name. Welcome to Super Smash Dwarves: Melee! Did you like how in LOTR, the fights maintained a realistic tone, and individual heroics usually occurred in the context of larger battles, and you understood what effect they would have? Too bad! These duels are ostensibly about killing Azog, but we’re never told how this is going to stop the first large orc army and the approaching second large orc army from crushing the outnumbered free peoples, even without their general (they seem to be doing fine with minimal leadership as it is). During these fights, we also see nothing of what is going on in the larger battle the movie is named after, except that that second orc army is approaching at a fair clip. Are there any dwarves, elves, or men left to fight them anyway? Who knows? Oh, and why bother with realistic fight choreography, when it’s so much more fun to shoot these scenes like it’s a wuxia picture? Who doesn’t want to see Legolas riding mecha-trolls into towers to make a bridge, then jumping up the collapsing stones like stairs to throw his sword into an orc? Or riding a Gundabad bat like Link holding a Cucoo? And to top it all off, not only did this third act of the movie completely break tone with LOTR, and the feeling of Middle-Earth in general, in favor of fighting game antics, but it robbed me of a scene I had been looking forward to since these films were announced: Thorin’s fall in battle; Fili and Kili’s heroic, sacrificial defense of his body; and Beorn’s epic vengeance against Bolg, wherein he scatters and slays the elite goblin guard. Heck, this movie is so focused on the duels and not the battle that when the Eagles show up near the end, instead of it being an awesome moment of hope unhoped for as it was in The Return of the King, it’s basically a deus ex machina to save the battle (since nothing the heroes are doing will certainly effect that), and it’s not even that emotionally affecting, since there are still duels going on and that’s what the movie wants you to care about, not the battle.
There are three scenes near the end done quite well, and one that could have been great. The latter is Thorin’s dying farewell to Bilbo. His words are truncated, removing the reference to the “hall of waiting” and cutting his final line: “But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”. As a Tolkien fan, the power of this scene was diminished by the lines cut, but it is still a strong scene. As for the three well done scenes, they capture the old spirit that animated The Lord of the Rings films: the dwarves kneeling on a frozen waterfall around their fallen king, Bilbo’s farewell to the dwarves, and Bilbo’s returning to Bag End to find himself presumed dead and his belongings being auctioned off.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, had precious little hobbit, or battle of five armies in it, substituting in their place several poorly presented battles of less than five armies, and several ridiculous duels. The few good moments are not enough to overcome the overwhelming mehness of the rest of the film, resulting in a disappointing ending to a disappointing trilogy. I can’t even laugh at this film like I could Desolation of Smaug; it just takes its ridiculousness too seriously. I need to go rewatch Rankin & Bass’s excellent animated adaptation now, to remind myself that The Hobbit can be done well as a film (and mayhaps a review of that will be forthcoming soon too).