It’s that time again, or more precisely it’s that time again, again… as with my rambling thoughts on the second instalment of the Hobbit Trilogy things took a little longer than expected. I meant to get round to it last year, but life and times got in the way. However, this week marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Fellowship of the Ring at the cinema, and the altering of the filmic landscape and industry in ways rarely seen in decades. Fantasy overnight became a renewed genre in Hollywood and around the world and billions of new eyes were opened to the joys of Tolkien and Middle Earth. So what better time for me to get my act together and write something up?
I have rewatched the movie, recently and have previously watched the entirety of the making of special features on the Extended Edition DVD, which gives a great insight into the severely troubled production during the conception and execution of the trilogy, as well as the rewrites, redesigns and general “running to catch-up” feeling that runs through this movie. But more on that later, first, let’s dive into the final instalment of the Hobbit, and also the last part of Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth film saga.
A Shortcut to Mushroom Clouds
First off the bat, I want to make clear that despite the clear fact that TBOTFA is certainly the weakest in all of the Middle Earth films, it’s by no means a terrible film. It is however a misguided one, but one I’ve grown to like more as I’ve revisited it and, as is standard, by watching the extended cut, which helps fill in a lot of essential details and flavours missing from the theatrical cut.
The first thing that’s apparent when watching The Battle of the Five Armies, (henceforth shortened to “Battle”, because… just, no) is that the story opens with a brand new, chronologically correct scene. Straight off the bat, this is discombobulating.
Consider this, Fellowship & Unexpected Journey both begin with voice-over narrations of history. With Galadriel, or Bilbo retelling a fragment of some long forgotten battle or calamity, Two Towers begins with a flashback to Gandalf fighting the Balrog in free-fall in Khazad Dum, Return of the King has the origins of Gollum, whilst The Desolation of Smaug begins with Thorin and Gandalf meeting in Bree some time before the start of the quest. In each case the film eased you back into the tale with some thematically pertinent aside, to either shed new light on a situation, or character, before you got back into the story.
In Battle, there’s no such easing in. The opening shot is both a chronological and cinematographically direct continuation of the end of Desolation. Where Smaug’s flight towards Laketown is well under way and the smallfolks of the village are frantically fleeing the town, as even Stephen Fry’s Master is frantically loading gold into a gondola and setting off to safety. It’s a hard cut into the story, joining it in media res where not only have we missed the first stirrings, the sense is we’ve somehow missed something important. Why do I bring this up at all? Because for me, this is the first misstep in the film, and a clanging one at that. It’s got its benefits, the breathless rushed feeling it imparts suits the frantic peril, but the problems that remain are that the audience is left feeling ill at ease. A feeling that only begins to abate when things begin to calm down about 20 minutes in. Interestingly however, it is lessened severely by simply watching the film IMMEDIATELY after the end of the previous film. (or in the form of a fan edit, of which there are multitudes in existence, many setting out to solve various problems in the cut)
There’s still a lot I thoroughly liked about that sequence, and again more details come out in the rewatchings, although as some aspects grow rosier, some get more grating, as is certainly the case with the massively pantomimic performance of Ryan Gage, as Alfrid Lickspittle, the Master’s sidekick. Now whilst Gage is a fine actor, his schtick suited the calmer more gleeful extravagance of Desolation, but in the case of a genuine catastrophe, it feels ever more misplaced. But this is classic Peter Jackson, with “the silly” popping up. Not that I imagine Guillermo Del Toro would have fared much better, as his tendencies towards melodrama and off the wall humour effectively ruined the great potential of Crimson Peak and Hellboy 2 for me.
That Old Dwarf-Boy Meets Elf-Girl Story..
Another side effect of the harried start of Battle, is that the amusingly sweet nature of the Dwarf/Elf romance subplot is largely ruined, as last we saw Kili lying delirious and professing his love for Tauriel while she looks on, both touched and confused. The story then picks up with him fully conscious, her organising their escape, and with only one brief moment of him awkwardly trying to broach the subject. Then picking things back up on the beach, where again, the conversation is stymied, this time by the interruption of the chubby-cheeked and jealous Legolas. It’s a mildly frustrating choice, and one which only underlines how underwritten the love triangle subplots of Kili & Tauriel & Legolas actually are. Now while Leggy’s story is mercifully tied into the far better story of his angst towards his mildly psychotic rockstar Elf Prince Dad, and the burgeoning war between… everyone, his attachment to Tauriel never feels genuine. Meanwhile Tauriel’s story gets a paucity of screentime, and Kili’s side of it is literally reduced to that one beach scene and a few glances during the final fatal skirmish upon the plateau watchtower of Ravenhill.
It’s a weak payoff to what was a good idea, and a necessary injection of both another female character and a little romance into the “boy’s own” story that the Hobbit otherwise is. Evangeline Lilly and him off Poldark both turn in decent enough performances, but in the end we never really get enough justification for her utter broken state at his somewhat unfortunate demise. A demise that is made all the more meaningless when Legolas has to step in and do various feats of ridiculous CGI work to avenge Kili, and save Tauriel. It’s not even as if it’s the sort of love triangle where you assume that later on she and Leggy might get together, as we all know he’s off to have epic bromances with Aragorn and later Gimli a few decades down the line.
Kingly Subplots and Sub Standard Schemes
Of course, some of the various characterised subplots don’t fall quite so flat. The story of Bard, from well-liked poacher-cum-smuggler who becomes a Dragonslayer and then the Mayor/Gov/Chieftain of the peoples of Esgaroth, who presumably resettled the city of Dale, rather than going back to the lake. It’s a good turn by Luke Evans, who unfortunately ends up carrying the front half of the film almost entirely himself. However as mentioned previously, this is beset with the ever-greater cringe brought about by the pantomimic grandstanding of Ryan Gage. Some you win, some you don’t. Bilbo on the other hand has a wonderful turn of fretting for most of the movie, as he keeps secrets from Thorin; and this is really where I start to have issues with the film as an adaptation.
Now the great trouble of The Hobbit, as I mentioned in the previous blogs, is that it really isn’t all that well suited to film. The story is meandering, it flits between drawn out pages of dry talky scenes, and one sentence depictions of exciting events. It’s also got the added issue that this final movie is a 250 minute extravaganza built out of a mere 50 pages of a 280 page novel, half of which is based on a battle the main character never saw, the main events of which are retold in a single page. So while I applaud the fact that they managed to make something of the story by drawing on the background, fleshing out characters and relationships into more plausible and entertaining scenes and arcs, it still ends up being a bit limp all round. Yet after spending two long movies almost entirely in the company of the 13 Dwarves and Bilbo, it’s difficult to resolve yourself with the fact that the third film is far more interested in Bard, Gandalf, the various Elves than it is with the joyful fellowship of wee daft dwarves. So what else appear has a definite sense of giving people “something to do”. The other aspect of that is the rushed feeling given to these sub-plots and side-stories, or in once case… just a feeling that no-one knew what they were doing.
Dragon Sickness… The Ecstasy of Gold
While the whole of Lord of the Rings is preoccupied with the drug-like addictive power of… well.. power. The ring itself gives incredible power to the bearer, while slowly eating away at their mind and body but keeping them supernaturally younger than their years. Similarly the gold in Smaug’s lair is cursed with “Dragon Sickness”, which we see through the not so gradual erosion of Thorin’s sanity once they take the Kingdom of Erebor back. In fact, almost immediately that they arrive, Thorin begins to break down and lose his mind, obsessed with the search for the Arkenstone, (which may or may not be a Silmaril in the movie version)
An aspect of the adaptation I rather enjoyed is that we see Thrain and Thror in the film, and the “Dragon Sickness” could justifiably argued was in fact some form of hereditary mental illness that plagues his bloodline, also evidenced in Kili & Fili’s similar strange reactions to seeing the mountains of gold coin & gilt trinkets. The film does a credible job of setting up Thorin’s madness and turning the screw to the point where he alienates himself even from his closest allies, hiding himself in his throne room as the battle wages outside the keep. It’s in the delivery of the redemption that the film fumbles the delivery.
Now a side note on this, it’s very clear from the extra features and commentaries on the DVD that this was one of the last things left in the myriad of messy plot lines and scrambling for completion at the end of production, and Jackson himself has admitted that they simply shot a few hours of coverage of Richard Armitage looking frantic and paranoid and thrashing around on a greenscreen then cut it into something usable later on. Which is probably why the scene of him being swallowed in an ocean of gold not only looks like a mediocre students 1st year project with Blender, but also feels hugely unfulfilling. He still sells it fairly well, as the cascading voices overlap and the cuts of him being literally consumed by the gold inter-cut with him staring vacantly in horror do impart a good sense of someone coming out of a fever dream.
The Gang Back Together
The return of Thorin’s senses marks various key things in the movie, it’s more or less the midpoint in the film, and it’s the point where Bilbo & company return to being the key focus of the story. As a result it’s the next point which returns the viewer to comfort, as the story begins to feel complete again. Instead of a few moments of snatched conversation with Bilbo, and brooding shots of Thorin looking ever-more mental, we get the motley crew of Dwarves back forefront, not only back in their old clothes, but charging straight into the fray and laying waste to thousands of Orcs and Goblins.
This is also where the Extended Editions really shine. The addition of a whole myriad of crazy action scenes turn the titular Battle into a jolly romp. Moreover, they prove to be the glue that holds the company together, further cementing the film as their story. Sure, the frozen-river chase is somewhat ridiculous, as is the scene of the axe getting pulled out of Bifur’s head, but they’re also charming and fun, in a familiar way that is missing from the first half of the film, where it’s all Bard and burning towns. The chariot sequence also gives a proper progression to how Thorin’s warband make it to Ravenhill, and where they got the Goats from, although neither is a big question, they are a nagging thought.
This does however bring me to a serious wee irk, one that is a nagging leftover from the Goblintown scenes in Unexpected Journey. The overuse of CGI orcs, and more pressingly the overuse of THE SAME FACES. All throughout the battle, there is a continual re-use of the same CGI faces on some of the orcs, which wouldn’t be a big issue, were it not that most of them are fairly recognisable. One in particular is the face of a Troll, with a flattened & broken boxer’s nose. He’s a set-piece villain that we see attacking Bard’s kids and is despatched by the bowman in elegant wagon-riding fashion; remember the scene? Good. Remember the face…? Hope not, because if you do, you’ll now start seeing it ALL OVER THE MOVIE.
I started to think I was imagining it, but no, they’ve just reused the same face on a load of Orcs throughout the film, with slight variations in skin tone, and costume, but it’s clearly the same face. Now in a movie, with actors in make-up this wouldn’t happen. A 3rd AD would be trying to make sure the same extras and stunt actors weren’t being overused in close-up. However in Battle, this Orc face gets chucked in over and over and over again, most prevalently in the additional scenes from the Extended Edition. It’s a damn shame, and something that could likely have been avoided, but it wasn’t, so there you go. It just gives this movie that computer game feeling that the LOTR trilogy never had.
On a similar note, it drives me to distraction that they thought it was a good idea to clad both the Orcs and the Dwarves in silver and grey plate armour. Meaning on the battlefield it’s hard to distinguish the rank & file troops of either side. Again, this feels like something that could have been avoided, at least in LOTR, the Moria orcs wore greenish armour, Uruk-Hai black and the Mordor troops wore mail, animal hide, skins and bone armour. The variety worked, and sure, the technical designs of Azog’s minions was good, as were the barely shown armies of Gundabad, but it could have been more obvious, something that all good designers should think about.
Despite the qualms I’ve mentioned, I do thoroughly enjoy the action and warfare in Battle of the Five Armies. Peter Jackson is a war movie fan, and it shows. The action in Battle makes sense to anyone watching (certainly if you see the extended edition) as the sweeping sky shots of the battlefield and plains outside Erebor keep it clear in viewer’s minds how the geography of the landscape works, while the opposing armies move around the city, the plains and the gate of the keep. Another great stroke is that Azog commands from the parapets of Ravenhill. Using a system of horn blasts and flags, he commands his regimented armies. Azog’s troops aren’t the undisciplined rabbles of goblins seen in Unexpected Journey, they’re more akin to the Uruk-Hai and the battalions of Saruman. It gives an element of intelligence to Azog that is hinted at in previous films, but never quite come to fruition until the end when you understand that he is supposed to be a military genius who has planned his attack to the nth degree, only failing as a result of his being distracted from commanding his troops by Thorin, and the surprise appearance of the Eagles at the 11th hour.
In a film that is ostensibly about a Battle, it’s cheering to see the battle done well, rather than as an afterthought. More than that, the aftermath of the battle is all viewed through the eyes of Bilbo, who comes to, just in time to make peace with the dying Thorin, and afterwards has one of the best moment in the film.
There’s a moment in the original LOTR trilogy, during the final scenes, where we see the four Hobbits sitting in the Green Dragon, silently looking amongst each other, happy but each changed, grown older, wearier and altered by the adventures and horrors they’ve seen. It’s almost a nod to the scene in The Deer Hunter, when the young and exuberant wedding party meet the silent brooding GI in the bar.
In Battle, we instead get a touching moment when Gandalf finds Bilbo sitting in silence on the steps of Ravenhill, and sits down beside him, then begins to tap and scrape out the bowl of his pipe. Bilbo looks round and starts as if to say something then stops, and they sit in silence. What’s fascinating is that without dialogue, this little act of normality hammers home the value and weight of simply being alive after such an ordeal, it cements their friendship and makes a down payment for the scene in Fellowship, where the pair sit smoking outside Bag End the night before the “Long Expected Party”. What’s doubly interesting is that originally Gandalf was supposed to have dialogue in the scene but Ian McKellen thought the scene would be better done in silence. Good call, Ian.
Grumpy Old Gits
Speaking of Gandalf, it’s probably worth mentioning that the tying up of the Dol Guldur sequence in first act of Battle. After the frippery daftness of the Council-meeting in Unexpected Journey, and my thoughts on that, it pleased me to get to see Elrond, Galadriel and especially Saruman the White, showing their great powers off properly. Especially as it hints at the incredible powers lying beneath the subtle exteriors of the Istari. Moreover, the extended version of this scene brings into play mention of Gandalf’s own ring of power, and a fleeting glance of Nenya on Galadriel’s hand; all of which builds up to the reveal of the ringwraiths and Sauron himself.
And it’s a beautiful reveal, as the booming voice of Sauron (as rendered by Benedict Cumberbatch, who must have finished his dragon work by this point) echoes out across the ruined fortress, and the Nazgul surround the heroes, in their true wraith forms, bedecked in their ancient armours and weapons. All seems lost, until Elrond and Saruman appear, followed by Radagast, who whips Gandalf away on his sled, and leaves the rest of the council to fight off the evil minions.
It’s a shame then that this scene is somewhat short, and as a result, it’s all but impossible to really appreciate the fine work that has gone into distinguishing the nine kings of old, each with unique armour designs, signature weapons and fighting style, and yet, due to them being translucent and rarely shot in close-up they seem somewhat of a blur. Pity that. It’s also unfortunate that Cate Blanchett just looks odd when Galadriel power-levels up and goes sort of … green and drippy. It doesn’t quite have the epic majesty she had in Fellowship when she showed a glimpse of her enraged and over-powered form. Still, it does give something of a pay-off to the lacklustre scenes in Unexpected Journey with Saruman’s prattling on about mushrooms and stained teeth, with his cold look of horror at seeing Saruman return, and his final chilling line of “leave Sauron to me…” with all the baggage that entails.
An Erabor Standoff
But when it comes to face-offs with villains, there’s one true moment where The Hobbit excels. It’s the final duel between Azog and Thorin. This is the battle we’d been teased since the first movie, the rematch after the battle for Moria seen fleetingly in flashback during Unexpected Journey, and after the burning pine tree finale of that movie. With a battle raging on below them, upon the peak of Ravenhill, Thorin and Azog begin hammering upon each other, then after just about everyone else has died or is fighting elsewhere, Thorin walks out onto the frozen river and the pair begin their duel in earnest.
It’s an amazing sequence, with a cold steely calm with the music dropped out and an eerie silence as we see Azog standing in the yellowing evening sunlight on the glittering ice, holding a huge lump of iron on a chain. Thorin throws himself into battle and it seems like lunacy as he barely gets a cut in as hit sword glances off Azogs armour and the improvised flail crashes down into the ice again and again. Then comes the killer moment; Azog’s exhaustion begins to show as finally he can’t pull the flail back from the ice, and he’s shocked and distracted by a wing of Eagles flying in and decimating his reinforcing army. So Thorin simply drops his sword, pulls the iron flail from the ice, tosses it to Azog, then steps backs off the floating ice platform as Azog’s weight overbalances him and sends him under the water.
It’s moments like this that make the entire trilogy worthwhile. It feels like what we’d have gotten if Kurosawa made modern fantasy epics, and it’s only slightly marred by the next moment where Azog swims under the ice and then bursts back out stabbing Thorin in the foot. A scene taken almost wholesale from the movie Cliffhanger. After that Thorin does his heroic sacrifice bit, and then wanders off to look over the battlefield and slowly die. PJ’s Middle Earth films haven’t ever really given us a proper heroic duel, and this is the closest we really get, as Aragorn vs Lurtz was about 5 sword clashes long and Eowyn vs the Witchking was more luck than good judgement. It certainly feels more cinematic than the books mention of Kili, Fili and Thorin dying fighting Bolg & his bodyguard in the midst of the battlefield. Although that certainly could have been interesting.
… and Back Again
Of course, the title of the book is There And Back Again; and the original plan for the film series was a pair of films called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Hobbit: There and Back Again. It’s however with some surprise that the film, which takes so many liberties with added scenes throughout the early parts of the story chooses instead to truncate the return journey. Although this is probably due to the fact that even though this is the shortest of the Middle Earth films, audiences may have restless bottoms after a 2 1/2 hour movie, and also due to the myriad complaints levelled at Return of the King for having “too many endings”.
In Battle, we are treated to an Extended Edition scene showing the bodies of the slain Durin’s folk lying in state, followed by the crowning of Dain as King Under the Mountain. (who by all accounts was as good a King and a master as the people’s of Erebor could have hoped for, right up until his death in the Battle of Dale during the War of the Ring) We then get a short scene of Bilbo leaving, and promising the surviving dwarves of Thorin’s company that they are welcome for tea any time they are passing by. It’s touching and sweet, and says most of what needs be said.
There’s a funny thing I’ve observed in my life. Whenever I see the adaptation of a book I know well, the scriptwriters invariably remove my favourite line from the movie. In LOTR, it was Gollum’s final lament about turning to dust upon the slopes of Mount Doom, in Harry Potter it was Dumbledore talking about socks, however in the Hobbit, they retained the lines, but in the wrong film. However we have lost the final scene of Balin & Gandalf visiting Bilbo some years after the adventure. Instead we have a final scene of Bilbo returning to ransacked Bag End and then flash forwards to old Bilbo sitting at his chair, just as Gandalf arrives to knock on is door near the beginning of Fellowship. It’s a sweet moment and a nice way to connect the films. But it always leaves me a little cold.
This is in part because I hate the end of anything I like, which is probably why, for me, the multitudinous endings of ROTK actually work as a gradual easing down to the final close. Whereas in Battle, there feels something missing, as we skip over the return to Trollshaws, and instead see only a short montage of Gandalf & Bilbo riding across fields, then their final parting in the meadow. I wanted more, quite simply, partly because I didn’t want it to end, and partly because I feel like there should have been a furtherance of these characters interactions. We all know that Gandalf & Bilbo remain friends “all his long years” but we also know that some tragedies befall the others.
Although the appendices do cover the fates of the Dwarves of Thorin’s company, the only one we know much about was Balin (unless you include the appearance of Gloin in the LOTR tie-in video game War in the North, and you should because it’s great fun), Balin is mentioned in Fellowship, as having become the lord of Moria, and of course his tomb is the setting of the battle set-piece between the Fellowship and the Cave Troll. However it also shows us the fate of Ori, the slightly gormless one.
Yes, apparently this was the plan all along, and in fact Ori’s costume and ‘tashless look was specifically based around the idea that he is the corpse that Gandalf takes the journal from, and reads aloud just before Pippin disturbs the skeleton on the well. If you look closely, you can even see that he’s carrying that same journal during the Hobbit films. Which is a mildly depressing thought when you look back. I imagine that Oin is lying dead there as well, as the three of them set out together to take back the Kingdom of Moria. Aside from that, it’s only that one wide shot of the Company at the gate of Erabor, saying farewell to Bilbo, that we get. Which seems a little sad.
It’s more so as when this film came out in the Extended Edition last year, it marked the end of an epic journey of my own. One that has lasted me for most of my adult life. As I said in the first part of this blog series, I first got hooked on Tolkien and Middle-Earth when I was 17, and a score of years later, and the cinematic rendition of that world is now completed. While it may not have lived up to my or anyone’s every expectation, it has given me and many others, countless hours of joy and an inspiration to millions of film fans, fantasy lovers and readers alike. It’s easy enough to wag your finger at the Hobbit films for not being as good or as novel as Lord of the Rings, but the troubled and the ever changing remit of the production is partly to blame for that, as much as any of the artistic ideas and decisions of Peter Jackson and his cohorts.
I’ve lived in middle earth in my heart and in my mind for more than half my life. I can only imagine what it means to those who went to see the LOTR films as children and are now only around the age I was when I first encountered it, seeing it complete. It’s certainly flavoured my personality and my thoughts, and now I can at least in some way sit back and close the Red book, having completed this journey. Perhaps now I should embark on one of my own creation.
So to close, I can’t think of anything more fitting than the song that rounds off the Trilogy, what’s more, I think I’ll use a version that literally shows how much this means to many people.
Wherever the roads may take us… A Elbereth Gilthoniel!