Peter Jackson’s “The Battle of the Five Armies”: A Review

Eleanor Simmons (Secretary 2009-10, Society Hero, Publicity Officer 2013-15, Banquet Chef, and Lembas Rep for a very long time) gives us her review of the final installment in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The Society’s opinions that I’ve heard on the Hobbit films so far range from “truly awful” to “I really do like it, honest!” to which Eleanor here adds her much more considered opinion!

Five armies (and a small but strategically-placed airforce): The battle of the setpieces

Legolas: “These bats were bred for one purpose…for war!”

I am perhaps in the minority of Taruithorndrim  as someone who genuinely enjoys the Hobbit films. For all that I’d like to take an editing-machete to much of Desolation (just chop off the last half-hour, perhaps…) I like many of the thematic and practical changes from the book and from the Lord of the Rings films. Which is not to say that they are not also utterly ridiculous.

Battle of the Five Armies is certainly my favourite of the three. For all that I was utterly dreading the prospect of an entire film of fight scenes, some miracle of pacing made the jumps from battle scene to battle scene to ominous war-bats actually rather fun, even to somebody not sold on this whole nonstop-action, endless-massed-orcs concept.

The film begins with Our Heroes escaping the burning devastation Smaug is bringing to Laketown. Bard quickly but emotively dispatches the dragon, using his son as part of his bow, and the dragon falls, straight into the film’s title card. Poor Smaug. Reduced to a prologue.

Bard then leads the refugees or Laketown to safety, and Kili and Tauriel try flirting in elvish, before saying a touching goodbye. Meanwhile, back at the Mountain, Thorin’s goldsickness is growing, and he is demanding Stop And Search powers over his thirteen subjects, in case one of the should happen to have picked up the Arkenstone and not mentioned it. Which, to be fair, one of them has. Thranduil comes to town, with a large and eerily synchronised army, and gets to play good neighbour bringing supplies to the Laketown refugees, before demanding from the dwarves a particular necklace of white gems, though we will have to wait to the Extended Edition to find out why.

Bard tries to prevent his two adjoining neighbours from declaring war on one another. Meanwhile, Gandalf is being rescued from some nasty Nazgûl by the combined powers of the White Council (which mainly boil down to Galadriel glowing at Sauron, while the other Council members stand around looking vaguely supportive). Meanwhile meanwhile, Legolas and Tauriel have travelled to Mount Gundabad and back for the sole purpose of reporting an army of evil bats. After this, Dáin Connolly Ironfoot arrives, riding a giant pig, and the elves and dwarves almost fight before noting the giant orc army on the horizon and wheeling their battle lines around sharpish. Well, Dáin’s lot does. Thorin and Thranduil both require convincing. Following this, the rest of the film is one long battle scene, with occasional interludes of Touching Farewell and Defying The Laws Of Physics, Also Common Sense.

Possibly putting the emphasis on each individual army and set of fighters in turn makes each new set-piece feel rather more exciting and meaningful, as it intersperses did-you-see-that “awesome” moments  with the utterly ridiculous. One of my favourite things about the Hobbit trilogy is the gleeful sense of fun, epic is undercut by campiness in a way that simply wouldn’t have worked (and didn’t work, when it was tried) within the scope of its parent trilogy. So: bring me your party kings, bring me your improbable animal mounts, armies of “evil bats, created for one purpose” and bring me even your gravity-defying Legolas running up a video-game bridge. I welcome them all, as a refreshing silly visit to Middle-Earth, that does not need to – and should not – attempt the grandeur of Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion.

Perhaps my main complaint is the extent to which Bilbo feels marginalised. In a film where everything is over the top, the understated approach to his character arc, comprising mainly moments of quiet doubt and resolution gets drowned out by the bombast surrounding him. He is a passenger in what should be his own story. Alfrid the Utterly Inexplicable gets more screentime than our hero. I would have liked to see more of Bilbo the strategist, the riddler who manages to negotiate his way through impossible situations to save himself and his friends. Bilbo killing orcs is rather less interesting in an entire film of people killing orcs.

Something closer to Bard’s character arc might have been possible. Bard’s growth was very well done, showing him as an “ordinary” hero, battling self-doubt and quiet desperation, but lead by an innate nobility and determination to do the best he can for everyone. As Bard, to some extent, replaces Bilbo as Everyman hero, I do rather like the choice to reverse his and Thranduil’s attitudes to the dwarves, as aggressor and peacemaker respectively. Having the man who has just lost his home to the dragon trying urgently to prevent further bloodshed is very satisfying to watch, while Thranduil’s choice to start a war feels highly un-Tolkienian, but entirely in keeping with the Mirkwood off the films.

What, exactly, is the point of Alfrid? His humorous attempts to escape Esgaroth with lots of gold are given more screentime than any other protagonist, and I don’t understand why. Thematically, he adds little to the story. Purists may gripe at Tauriel’s presence, but she is made to work remarkably hard to justify her existence. Not only does she serve the important purpose of being prominent while female, Tauriel is used for various thematic and plot-driving purposes, providing an alternative Mirkwood foreign policy perspective, a partial bridging between elves and dwarves, and another voice in Bard and Bilbo’s unpopular let’s-not-kill-everybody-please camp of opinion.  By contrast, Alfrid adds comic relief. Badly.

The Kili-Tauriel romance is one of the most divisive aspects of an incredibly divisive film. I feel it works – out of context, it is sweet and demonstrates how the younger of both races have the capacity to see beyond their elders’ prejudices and effect a partial reconciliation. In the context of the Legendarium, and elf-dwarf friendships in particular, it also works – something “real”, but unfulfilled and uncertain, the Aegnor and Andreth to Legolas and Gimli’s Beren and Luthien. It prefigures the greater friendship between Legolas and Gimli without supplanting their importance as the successful, post-Sauron example of cross-species reconciliation and love.

And then, of course, we have Thranduil. Oh, Thranduil. Best beloved isolationist party king, if I am a little sad to lose your brief but poignant display of gracious Sindar  dignity in the book (“Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold” shifting to “You started this Mithrandir… you’ll forgive me if I finish it.”) I have the consolation of the film’s remote, alien and utterly fabulous Elvenking who, it would seem, makes his warriors drill for hours to fight in perfect unison just so that he can barge through them to make a dramatic entrance. (As you do, with your large standing army in the middle of spider-infested woodland…) Thranduil’s inhuman pride and faint air of boredom somehow make him one of the most convincingly Elvish characters in Peter Jackson’s work – if not quite Tolkien’s Elves as we usually see them, something more mercurial, combining the elegant marvels of the court of Doriath with the wildness of Faerie and the untamed woods.

Silliness interspersed with moments of fleeting richness and beauty is a very reasonable stylistic choice, given the source material – but it is true that the filmmakers struggle to find a balance, leading to the bloated unevenness of the films as a whole. Battle mostly manages to avoid this fate,  but it has its own problems with the balance of the two aspects.

At times, it puts me in mind of a tour through the world of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland  – a guidebook written for the benefit of tourists on a highly structured Quest, with helpful notes on the ubiquitous eating of Stew and the Reek of WrongnessTM that accompanies Fell CreaturesTM such as evil avians. Of course, the Fantasyland in question is an entire world which has been repurposed as a theme park and forced to fit itself into narrow, Tolkien-inspired parameters. Jones is making a point about the shallowness of worldbuilding that simply ticks off tropes, and I can’t help but feel that the same principle is what makes Jackson’s Battle ultimately unsatisfying to me. Billy Connelly riding a pig and Alfrid cross-dressing to escape a battle are striking enough images, but it gives the world an artificial feel, as though a shallow Fantasyland has been imposed over the top of a complex world, forcing it to move from set-piece to set-piece. Scenes like the slow killings of Azog and Thorin, (Surprise! The orc is not dead yet! Who could have guessed?) feel fundamentally unreal, and cheapen the highly successful emotive moments that surround them. This is only reinforced by the use of weapons that can be swung around like LARP kit, and battle tactics that, though they may look incredible, are in fact literally incredible.

This is perhaps an overly harsh judgement, for I did enjoy the film very much. The acting is excellent, on all sides, and the emotional journeys, feel true – I will freely admit to sobbing my way through Bilbo and Thorin’s final goodbye. The action is remarkably engaging, the additions to the story (mostly) make sense … but all the same, I cannot bring myself to believe in the world it depicts.

If this review appears at times contradictory, in what I liked and disliked, it reflects the enthusiasm coupled with ambivalence I feel towards the film project as a whole. When discussing it with friends, any given scene would have at least two people claim that it was beautiful and moving, and several more that it had been so unbelievable to jolt them out of the film. For many things, I find myself in both camps at once, appreciating the story without ever really being able to believe in it.

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