Scene by scene analysis of ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’
Warning: Spoilers ahead
Having just seen the last film for a third time, I think I am prepared to tackle the pleasurable, if arduous, task of writing an in-depth review.
I have roughly followed the soundtrack listing of each scene to keep a consistent and chronological structure to the writing.
Suffice to say, this is quite a lengthy review …
Fire And Water
Given how The Desolation of Smaug ended, it felt appropriate that we should immediately revisit the tense moments prior to Smaug’s fury over Lake-town.
Peter Jackson has ditched the long-standing tradition of a prologue at the start of a Middle-earth film and opted to open this final installment with a fiery sequence that would make Dante’s Inferno blush with shame.
This is probably one of the best openings to any of the six Middle-earth films: a terrifying and gripping sequence that collates technical mastery, music composition and character performance, all in 10-minute blast.
It is a testament to Jackson’s skills as a fantasy director; but the highlights occur during the quietest of moments: the careful camera shots on the characters’ faces prior to the dragon’s approach, the swooping sound of wings, the shadows on the rooftops, the foreboding sense of approaching menace.
In addition, we are provided with further insight into the character of Bard: particularly the relationship with his son, Bain.
A gripping moment prior to his triumphant deed, sees Bard comforting his son against the oncoming wrath of the dragon.
This is what makes Peter Jackson stand out as a fantasy director above the rest: the ability to balance extraordinary action sequences with emotional impact.
Shores Of The Long Lake
One can clearly see how influential the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan were in the execution of this scene.
Several wide-shots of survivors scrambling onto the fog-enshrouded shores enforce the wonders of the real within a fantastical world: opting for hundreds of extras in a real environment instead of CGI wizardry – something that is so synonymous with the beauty of The Lord of the Rings.
Yet again, Bard’s character is given the necessary importance as he becomes leader of the Lake-town people.
Luke Evans’s performance shines through as he immerses himself completely in the travails of his character.
We are also introduced to the much-loved (by some) – and hated (by others) – love triangle between Kili, Tauriel and Legolas. It’s all platonic and up-in-the-air so far, but it makes you think that this valuable screen-time could have been used for more important matters.
Beyond Sorrow And Grief
As Thorin gazes upon the wealth of his people, he becomes more aggressive, greedy and suspicious in search of the Arkenstone. Coming across as a troubled Shakespearean character, it is Richard Armitage who stands out in this third film.
His performance as the dwarf king stricken by dragon sickness is breathtaking, and one that does full justice to the book’s version of the character, if not more memorable.
Indeed, watching the entire Hobbit trilogy, you are able to witness the evolution of Thorin’s character as a complete story arc, on par with that of Bilbo’s. This scene is one of several in this film that proves it.
Guardians Of The Three
For the past two films, the Dol Guldur subplot has been building up to this moment.
In The Desolation of Smaug we learnt the true nature of the Necromancer via a nail-biting scene which saw Gandalf bravely (if foolishly) taking on Sauron himself.
Suffice to say, expectations for the resolution of this storyline were high.
Unfortunately, the so-called “attack on Dol Guldur” (as this sequence was affectionately called by fans) results in no more than a couple of minutes of screen-time.
Still, what it lacks in length it makes up for sheer creepiness and atmospheric intensity. Originally introduced to filmmaking via Horror, Peter Jackson mastered this genre in his first few films prior to The Lord of the Rings.
The setting of the ruined fortress is, quite frankly, unsettling (as it should be).
Cate Blanchett, once again, nails the performance of the Elf queen with a gracefulness that defies human acting.
But the real highlight of this scene is Elrond’s and Saruman’s confrontation against the Ringwraiths. Powerful flashes and fluent sweeping strokes, inter-cut with Galadriel and Gandalf’s tender connection, creates an edge-of-your-seat moment as one eagerly expects the tide to turn with the presence of Sauron himself.
Unfortunately, the promised confrontation between the Dark Lord and Galadriel results in an epileptic-inducing series of back-and-forth flashes that are more reminiscent of a mental battle, rather than a physical.
Which is fair enough. But it seems odd that Jackson, known for this love of action sequences, would miss the chance of a blow-to-blow conflict and instead replace it with a jarring attempt at a “psychological” struggle.
All this is not helped by the so-called “nuclear Galadriel”, as she unleashes her wrath against Sauron.
It would have improved the overall scene had her physical appearance been more akin to the powerful elf queen in The Fellowship of the Ring, rather than creep-girl Samara from The Ring.
It seems as if Jackson mixed his rings somewhere.
That said, this is a stirring sequence and brilliantly foreshadows the return of Sauron and the War of the Ring seventy years later.
The Ruins Of Dale
Finally, we get to see the wonderful set that the folks over at Stonestreet studios laboriously worked on for months.
Dale made its major appearance way back in An Unexpected Journey: a breathtaking city of men in all its glory – only to be decimated by Smaug a few moments later.
The people of Lake-town, under the cares of Bard, have settled amid the ruins: hoping to find appropriate shelter and an end to their misery.
It is from this moment that Peter Jackson starts to weave in the political intricacies that will lead to the struggle for the wealth of Erebor.
Ridding themselves of the obstacle of Smaug, the way is paved for the story to cleverly build upon previously-established tensions that will result in the Battle of the five armies.
Yet again, it’s great to see such an extensive physical set in this trilogy with only the barest hint of CGI in the background. This is the Middle-earth we fall in love with in The Lord of the Rings.
Story-wise, the tensions between Elves, Men and Dwarves intensifies. At the same time, it becomes apparent that Alfrid’s role as the comic relief will be more extensive than previously thought.
Not a bad thing, considering Ryan Gage (a theatrical actor) delivers a convincing performance – but unfortunately, he seems to occupy more screentime than Bilbo does.
The Gathering Of The Clouds
Whilst the three races are at each other’s throats, unbeknownst to them, Azog is marching his forces towards Erebor: intent on carrying out his Master’s orders to take hold of the Mountain. At the same time, he dispatches Bolg to lead a second host from Gundabad: the main orc stronghold in the North.
Once more, it would appear that Jackson has been making extensive use of on-location filming, as the camera sweeps round the breathtaking views of New Zealand’s lush plains – currently being trampled on by thousands of realistically-rendered CGI orcs: with Azog riding his monstrous warg at their head.
The scenes continues to build on the rising tension, as the different characters with their own aims, make their way towards Erebor.
In a way, The Battle of the Five Armies is a strategy film that cleverly sets in play the political and geographical aspects of Middle-earth; an unsettling quiet before the storm.
The lack of Bilbo in this third film has been noticed by most people: even those who were not familiar with the book.
And whilst we hope for more of the hobbit in the Extended cut, thankfully, Martin Freeman’s performance radiates on screen whenever his character has any dialogue.
Pit Freeman’s innocent persona against Armitage’s declining royalty and you get this deeply moving and gripping moment.
As Thorin rewards Bilbo with a mithril vest (of important significance in The Lord of the Rings), the dwarf begins to suspect his own Company of stealing the Arkenstone.
Using Smaug’s words to Bilbo and giving them to Thorin, to highlight his descent into madness, is a powerful reminder of a major theme in the book (and the films): greed.
Bred For War
I have nothing against Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Legolas (none at all).
However, I still hold by my belief that his character should have had a brief (in the background) cameo in the second film: making his appearance more powerful than the bloated screen-time he has had.
His constant presence detracts and distracts from the main characters of The Hobbit, and his elf-like acrobatics – whilst impressive to watch – could easily have made way for more dwarven character development (who, regrettably, have been left largely anonymous through the whole trilogy).
That said, it was a wise choice by Jackson to introduce us to Gundabad and its relation to the orcs. Not only do we get a glimpse of the infamous stronghold (and yet, another impressive Middle-earth location on screen), but the director shifts the focus from the Lonely Mountain towards the next big threat the story is leading up to.
It’s a pity therefore, having introduced the idea of Bolg and the Gundabad army, not to fully integrate it during the third act of the film (more on that to follow).
A Thief In The Night
Whilst anyone going to see The Hobbit films should have entered the theatres without any strict expectations of adherence to the book, it is nice to see scenes play out closely to what Tolkien wrote.
Case in point, the chapter ‘A Thief in the Night’ makes a crucial appearance in this final film.
Bilbo scrambles over the battlements and makes his way towards the Elven king’s tent where, once again in Freeman’s top-notch acting, he delivers a moving speech about saving his friends by offering the Arkenstone as a barter.
The scene is made even more powerful by the presence of three of the most imposing characters in the trilogy (Thranduil, Bard and Gandalf), who look upon Bilbo with respect and a new perspective on the possible outcome of this knotty situation.
The Clouds Burst
The final parley with Thorin begins and the whereabouts of the Arkenstone are revealed to him – along with the thief.
In a much anticipated scene, we finally get to see Billy Connolly’s portrayal of Thorin’s cousin.
And what a portrayal.
Having read the book numerous times, Connolly brings the right amount of arrogance and craziness to Dáin: not only as a character, but his appearance is also daunting and one worthy of a successor as King Under the Mountain.
Much has been said about the possibility of a CGI-ed Connolly, and whilst it has yet to be confirmed, the rumours appear to be true. However, given the leap in quality in visual effects, this is barely noticeable expect to the keen-eyed.
Yet, our attention is primarily focused on the imminent clash between the Dwarves and the Elven/Lake-town forces. That is, until the arrival of Azog’s army signals a significant turn of events.
Battle For The Mountain
Let’s leave Skull Island and go back to Middle-earth, shall we?
Forget those giant earth-eaters for a moment and let’s focus on what happens next …
The first hour of The Battle of the Five Armies was busy building up the tension and motivation of the major characters. Suddenly, with the appearance of Azog, the gears rotate into position and open the way to the start of the titular battle.
There were some justifiable fears that Peter Jackson might go bigger than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields – undermining that battle’s significance in The Return of the King as “the greatest battle of our time”.
However, concerned moviegoers had nothing to worry about. Whilst the scale and the action is immense, it never reaches the same emotional resonance and canvas of the battles in the War of the Ring.
That said, the choreography is mouthwatering. The strategies are tantalising. The hand-to-hand skirmishes and clashes are gritty and intense.
Peter Jackson knows how to direct a battle scene, and having proven his stock in the Rings trilogy, the opening stages of the Battle of the Five Armies is another resounding success.
Furthermore, the mixture of action sequences and character emotions is well-known to be part of the director’s trait in executing a successful conflict.
Bard’s heroic moments as a stoic leader of men are wonderfully inter-cut with his concerns for the safety of his children; during which a slaughter ensues as the orc army enters the city.
Alfrid’s constant comedic intrusions start to become a bit too much; and whilst it helps to alleviate some of the tense moments, it is somewhat disappointing when you realise such moments could have made way for more Bilbo presence during the fighting.
Having the Battle fought out over the ruins of Dale and before the Gates of Erebor is a great way to go into some of the tactics employed on the battlefield; especially if the orc army leader is a clear strategist who knows what he is doing.
The character of Azog is given more believably and depth by making us aware of his goals and what a formidable commander he is (rather than just a mindless orc who sends his forces forward without any clear purpose).
It helps to emphasize the dire situation our characters are in.
The Darkest Hour
Whilst things turn from bad to worse for our heroes, Thorin sits idly on his throne: pondering in his madness for gold.
As his most loyal companion (Dwalin) urges him to charge out, a furious exchange of words ensues. Yet again, Armitage delves deeper into his character’s state of mind and brings out a gritty and powerful performance worthy of much praise.
The same can be said of Graham McTavish’s disillusioned Dwalin who rebukes his King for not aiding his friends. The scene is a promising tearjerker that ends with Thorin threatening to kill his companion.
The Lord of the Rings had much room for Peter Jackson to experiment with the psychology of the characters under the influence of the Ring (which he managed to pull off so memorably).
In The Hobbit, whilst a few hints of such mental feelings found their way into The Desolation of Smaug (with Bilbo and the Ring), here is finally the chance to visually witness Thorin’s darkest moment and redemption.
Some have argued that the metaphor of being swallowed by gold is a typical cinematic cliché.
Whatever your opinions, it is clear that Jackson has a knack of presenting his audience with the most expressive and beautiful shots to convey the emotions and state of mind of a character.
Case in point, Thorin’s battle with his own thoughts is a pivotal moments in the entire trilogy, and it is executed in a fantastic way.
Shore’s music (which unfortunately has not had the chance to stand out as much as it did in The Lord of the Rings), the echoing voices, the hallucinations of Smaug, the camera angles and expressiveness of Richard Armitage’s face, all contribute to a terrific scene.
Sons Of Durin
Armitage’s performance continues to shine as the film shifts perspective to present us with his redemptive state of mind.
The silhouette of the dwarf emerges out of a bright glow, followed by a deceleration to the Company: “Will you follow me, one last time?”
We realise Thorin’s character has come full circle: from humble, but proud beginnings in An Unexpected Journey, to the start of his decline in The Desolation of Smaug and ultimate redemption in The Battle of the Five Armies.
It is a real pity that Kili (once again) gets his uncle’s and the audience’s attention, whilst Fili is sidelined.
Meanwhile, as Dáin’s forces are about to be slaughtered, Peter Jackson once again employs his skills to heighten the emotional impact of the moment.
Thorin and Company charge out to meet the orc army, in a slow motion sequence which sees the dwarves “rallying to their King”.
It is at this point that the famous line uttered by Thorin in the book would have made this scene even more powerful:
Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him.
“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.
Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dáin to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves.
The Hobbit, Chapter 17 – ‘The Clouds Burst’
It was something I had been hoping to see for years, and given the final film, it would have worked beautifully. But unfortunately, we never got to see.
Still the scene is nonetheless intense.
Meanwhile, the Battle is raging in the streets of Dale. Thranduil looks helplessly on the bodies of his fallen warriors – a scene very reminiscent of The Two Towers: as Haldir gazes at the fallen Elves and Uruk-Hai on the Helm’s Deep battlements .
The elf king decides to abandon the fight, but is rebuked for his selfishness by Tauriel.
Much like Bard, what Peter and his team have done with the character of Thranduil is to give him more of a three-dimensional personality than what comes across in the book.
Lee Pace builds upon what he has established in The Desolation of Smaug and his “elvishness” comes across in a believable way.
However, whilst at this stage in the book the elf has cast aside his own interests and actively joins in the Battle to help the others, Jackson’s own version of Thranduil retains his stubborn and snobbish traits.
Whilst the character’s transformation does occur towards the end of the film, it would have been better if this was done sooner and not let the audience distance themselves from him too much – turning him almost into an antagonist (a trait that should have been resolved with his arrival for aid in Lake-town).
Thorin, Dwalin, Fili and Kili have ridden towards Ravenhill (a Dwarven watchtower on the southwest spur of Erebor) to get rid of Azog and leave the orc army leaderless.
This is where most of the issues I’ve had with this film start to crop up …
If you’re unaware of what happens in the book then that’s fine. What you see on screen is a climactic moment that pits our dwarf characters against the orcs.
The icy setting and combat sequences are fantastic. It is unbelievable how realistic the CG environment looks.
A favourite shot of mine from this segment has got to be Fili and Kili making their way towards the inside of the tower, covered in a blanket of fog.
The sequence escalates in the deaths of Fili and Kili respectively; and whilst they are emotional, they certainly come nowhere as close as the loss of characters from The Lord of the Rings (think of Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring).
The problem, yet again, lies in the execution (no pun intended) of the scene and the lack of characterisation: primarily of Fili.
It was crucial that we got to know as much about the older brother as possible, in order for this moment to work. Unfortunately, this was carelessly handled.
Furthermore, the reactions to his death are almost superficial. Bilbo looks somewhat flummoxed and not knowing what to think, whilst Dwalin’s sob feels slightly off.
Whilst I can understand Peter Jackson’s decision to keep this pivotal moment away from the chaotic scenes of combat, I still think these scenes could have had better impact if it occurred before the Gates of Erebor – together with the rest of the Company.
Which reminds me: what happened to the other Dwarves?
Unfortunately, this third act suffers the most. We are left in the dark as too what happens during the rest of the Battle – focusing instead on Legolas’ fight against Bolg, Tauriel’s interference, and a prolonged Azog vs Thorin fight.
To The Death
I found the Thorin vs Azog confrontation towards the end of An Unexpected Journey to be incredibly moving. And to this day, having seen that first film many times since, it still remains a moving scene.
Peter Jackson managed to make us care for this character so much that, although I knew he wouldn’t meet his end before the third film, I still felt sorry at how badly he was being beaten by the Pale Orc.
Again, let me stress that the choreography and inventiveness of the action is a big plus.
Yet somewhere there is a lack of emotional connection. Perhaps it may have been the omission of a grand score; no presence of any slow-motion scenes to build-up the tension; or simply due to the change in location.
There is nothing to criticise about the performances of the actors, especially Armitage and Manu Bennett – who both give it their utmost.
But I think that the concept of a fight on a frozen lake (or river), trying to fool the audience that Azog is dead beneath the ice, and then Thorin letting himself be wounded to deliver the final blow, indeed feels too much of a cliché.
The tension and the emotion is there, especially post-confrontation: with Thorin giving his parting words to a grieving Bilbo.
However, frankly, Peter Jackson fell into a trap I thought he would not fall into after what he gave us in The Lord of the Rings – and that is: dispensing of a battle fight with an excuse.
We’ve been told through the film that a second orc army from Gundabad was approaching, and once it does, instead of posing the threat we were constantly told it would pose, the host of Eagles (under a barely-seen Radagast, and an even less appearance by Beorn), arrive to save the day without meeting any potential resistance.
Both in The Lord of the Rings and An Unexpected Journey, people have complained about the Eagles’ presence of always saving the day; and whilst this is what happens in the books, Jackson could have gone a little bit further and given us some of the promised “dogfights” between them and the bats.
Inter-cutting this with the Azog vs Thorin confrontation would have alleviated much of the unbalance in the third act of The Battle of the Five Armies.
This could have been done by demonstrating that the Eagles don’t always have it their way, and that the Battle’s resolution and victory were dearly bought, rather than a quick sweep of flight power.
Whilst the four dwarves were on Ravenhill battling Azog and his denizens, what happened to the rest of the Dwarves? How did Bard and his Lake-town contingent fare in the streets of Dale? Did Thranduil go to the aid of Dáin and help repel Bolg’s army?
We have no idea.
True, the third act may improve in structure once further battle shots are introduced in the Extended Edition; but considering the theatrical cut is supposed to be the director’s first choice, I’m surprised Peter Jackson felt it justifiable to be rid of the second orc army in a few shots which barely hint at what’s going on.
Courage And Wisdom
No funeral or coronation scenes and no “multiple endings” are to be found in The Battle of the Five Armies.
It would seem that the writing team gave into that pressure not to do the same thing with The Hobbit: so much so that they’ve gone to the extreme of removing scenes that might have helped to tie up many of the loose ends in this film.
The Arkenstone, Orcrist, the distribution of the treasure, Thranduil’s white gems and others remain obscure – after being continuously told about their importance throughout the entire trilogy.
After three films it feels as if we deserve a longer conclusion to all the stories and characters, instead of a quick summary of brief shots.
However, in a way, the departure of Bilbo from Erebor is handled with care and expertise, and we are soon on our way back to The Shire.
The Return Journey
The last few scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies, do make you feel as if we have come full circle.
After some further wide-shots of the New Zealand landscape, we are back in familiar territory.
Gandalf bids Bilbo farewell and assures him he is aware of the magical ring found along the way – foreshadowing the story-line in The Lord of the Rings.
There is no return to Beorn’s House, nor to Rivendell. In a way, this was a wise choice as it is not necessary for the audience to revist those locations.
Instead, we are taken back to the borders of The Shire.
There And Back Again
Again, it is wonderful to see scenes from the book that actually make their way into the film.
Revisiting Hobbiton on screen is always a special moment – especially since this is the last film we will see it on screen.
Even the auction sequence is handled with care: giving us all the elements of the scene from the book, but without dwelling too much on it (if only Peter Jackson had done the same with the other scenes that never made it into the final film).
Instead, the director focuses on Bilbo’s return to Bag End – the loss he has endured and the journey undertaken.
His once cosy and cluttered home is now bare and disrupted, and a nice metaphor for Bilbo’s current state of mind.
However, whilst the scene feels like an appropriate ending to a trilogy, it is essential for the filmmakers to setup the story that will lead us into The Lord of the Rings. Hence, the brilliant move to focus on the Ring and end with a familiar scene at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring: perfectly connecting the two trilogies together into one seamless saga of six films.
On the Soundtrack
Howard Shore knows what a piece of Middle-earth music should sound like; after all, he was the one to introduce it to us in the first place.
Perhaps the visuals overshadowed the score, but for some reason the music wasn’t as emotionally stirring or engaging.
That said, once the tracks were heard separately, you could let yourself be transported into that world. And now, whenever I rewatch The Desolation of Smaug, the music feels more powerful in each scene.
The same thing can be said of The Battle of the Five Armies. Whilst there are some moments of intense orchestral music, they are few and far between. Hopefully, once I listen to the soundtrack a few more times, I can appreciate more the acoustics together with the visuals.
A note on The Hobbit trilogy
I may have expressed my dislike and frustrations towards certain decisions made with these films, but The Hobbit trilogy sustains itself as a worthy piece of cinema; and though it may not reach the levels of realism and excitement as The Lord of the Rings (though it comes close), it is an essential and satisfying set of films that beautifully introduce the world and the narratives leading into the events of the War of the Ring.
Copyright of images belongs to Warner Bros. Studios, MGM Studios and New Line Cinema