Why AUJ’s scene works better than BOTFA’s
The comparisons are obvious and the decision to include an initial confrontation between Azog and Thorin at the end of An Unexpected Journey, cleverly foreshadows the eventual meeting at the end of film 3.
It is my intention to analyse the two scenes and work out why one works better than the other.
For the purposes of this analysis, I will be referring to the Thorin/Azog scene at the end of An Unexpected Journey as the “Pine Forest Confrontation”; whilst the scene in The Battle of the Five Armies will be referred to as the “Ravenhill Conflict”.
Time and time again, I have found that the Pine Forest Confrontation has been a constant tear-jerker since my very first viewing of the film. With the Ravenhill Conflict, the emotional resonance lies only AFTER the conflict has ended.
I do not want to go into much detail on the Ravenhill Conflict, as I’ve already said much in a previous post (The Problematic Climax of ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’).
What follows is a personal opinion and is not meant to generalise the overall feeling of any fans or viewers of the film.
Why the scene in AUJ works
The primary function of this scene is to raise the stakes for one of the main characters (Thorin) and introduce the feud with Azog. This confrontation is meant as a “teaser” to the proper, defining, duel at the end of both characters’ story arcs in the third film. A precursor of sorts.
With simple (but elegant) camera moves, tight editing and neatly choreographed timing, Thorin’s first eye contact with his long-supposed dead nemesis, raises the tension of the scene. Cutting back and forth between Thorin and Azog, and back at Thorin – each time the camera tracking closer to the character’s face – we get that sense of a brooding storm of violence between the two.
Thorin has shied away from his traumatic past at the very real possibility that his feared enemy was still alive. Throughout the first film he’s heard rumours of this, but refuses to believe it until he sees Azog for the first time in this scene. The fear in the Dwarf King is understandable, but he will not allow himself to back down anymore; not least, seeing his companions in dire need of rescue from the collapsing tree. He decides to do the one thing he was meant to do: face Azog and push back the threat.
All this is presented to us as a series of close up images of the characters’ faces and the use of slow-motion. Thorin standing up, walking down the tree and charging towards Azog is all presented as a fluid series of movements where time has slow down. This emphasizes the dwarf’s majesty, his attempt to master his own fears and produce a “glory moment” on the screen.
In fact, the entire sequence, from Thorin’s charge until he is thrown away from the jaws of the white warg, take place in slow-motion: contrasted with the “normal speed” reactions of the other characters (more on that later).
The fluidity of slow motion helps to give each shot the gravitas and “epicness” it deserves to convey this high-stakes moment. Some may find it clichéd, but if done correctly – as in this case – it’s something that instills the right emotions appropriate for this specific stage of the story.
Gandalf, Bilbo and the other Dwarves are in a spot of bother as the pine tree they’re clinging to is about to tip over a cliff; the more urgent due to Ori and Dori struggling not to slip and fall a nasty drop.
These are characters that have come to know Thorin – some, more than others – loving and respecting him for the character he is. The little montage that intercuts between Thorin’s predicament at the hands of Azog and the reactions of his friends and companions works wonders. Thorin is not alone in this moment; but due to the situation the others are in, they are unable to intervene and help out. In essence, Thorin couldn’t be more alone facing one of his worst fears.
Dwalin, ever eager to run by his future King’s side, risks his own life as the branch he’s on suddenly gives way. We, as an audience, instantly fear for his life too. The world and characters we’ve begun to care for by now are breaking apart. Evil is having its own way.
Balin shouts helplessly at Thorin’s distress and Bilbo looks on with a bewildered and apprehensive expression. Each Closeup of a face is like a beat. A beat within the rhythm of the sequence. Each shot adds to the overall emotional ride.
Unlike its successor, this scene benefits from the first film’s linear story line. We get to see this scene play out from beginning to end without interruptions. The conflict between Azog and Thorin is not diluted via other distracting scenes. Its impact lies in this very moment of decision between life and death. Will the dwarf survive? What will happen to the other characters?
There’s been some criticism to the opening musical motif as Thorin charges down from the tree towards Azog. Reminiscent of the so-called “Nazgûl theme” it was said to distract viewers from the scene and take them to images of the hooded wraiths in The Lord of the Rings.
I confess I felt exactly the same way upon my first couple of viewings; but as I gradually worked my way to re-viewing this scene, the piece become more and more in tune with the visuals. One could see this Ringwraith connection with Azog, as is revealed in the second film, where the orc is also a servant of Sauron himself.
At the same time, the music is perfect in strengthening the beating rhythm of the shots, Thorin’s footsteps and the eventual clash with Azog.
The next piece of music, reminiscent of the score during Haldir’s demise at Helm’s Deep (in The Two Towers), highlights Howard Shore’s skill at augmenting emotional visuals via sound. Thorin’s pain, Balin and Dwalin’s cries and Azog’s roar are all highlighted against a sweeping piece of melancholic orchestra.
It also proves once again how The Lord of the Rings is indebted to Shore’s contribution, without which it wouldn’t have become the classic it is.
The elements of this climax within the narrative necessitated a clean-cut, brief scene. As explained above, this is meant as a foreshadowing of a supposedly more powerful, more conclusive scene to follow in the third film. Resolution is delayed and it is excepted that these two characters will meet once again for a final, decisive confrontation later on.
We get a scene that is just right. It does what it’s supposed to do without too much prolonging. It reignites the deadly feud between Thorin and Azog and establishes a major subplot to the narrative.
Why the scene in BOTFA doesn’t work (so well)
Besides those who had read the books, general viewers would have anticipated one final confrontation between the two characters. Ever since the ending of the first film, Azog and Thorin have been distanced from each other and their feud could only have ended one way: a direct confrontation.
Unlike the Pine Forest Confrontation, this scene splits up into separate elements. After Fili’s death, Thorin charges forward and engages in a deadly battle with Azog. The story then shifts to Kili’s death, back to Thorin fighting Orcs, to Legolas’ archery skills.
The erroneous decision to isolate Thorin and Azog from the main battlefield, nonetheless, paved the way to the possibility of a powerful one-on-one confrontation that has been built up over three films.
Finally, the real decisive engagement comes as Thorin regains Orcrist and Azog stands on the frozen river; a solitary figure shrouded in the cold mist.
I’ve discussed this before in my other post but Azog’s choice of weapon from his original mace points to only one thing: broken ice gags will follow. This clumsy piece of weaponry takes away all the intelligence and tactfulness we’ve come to comprehend in the character of Azog. The scene itself suffers from this perplexing choice and ends up being shot after shot of a piece of stone at the end of a chain breaking through the ice, trying to crush Thorin.
In addition, the concept of a villain sliding beneath the ice and pretending to be dead is too much of an over-used concept to be believable. The whole breaking-through-the-ice and self-sacrificing-death-blow strips away any fragments of a monumental pivotal scene.
None. There’s is no engagement of other characters. We do not see their reactions to the duel (as a matter of fact, we’re completely oblivious to their own predicaments during the battle).
Unlike the Pine Forest Confrontation, there is no one to cry out for Thorin or any emphasis of the helplessness he is in.
What saved this confrontation was the beautiful moment between Bilbo and Thorin’s farewell. Had the conflict with Azog been on the same emotional level as the Pine Forest Confrontation, this nonetheless wonderful scene between hobbit and dwarf would have been even more powerful.
As an audience, barely aware of the unnecessary feud that has been introduced between Legolas and Bolg at the end of film 2, our attention is primarily on the two characters fighting it out to the death since film 1, without the need for distractions. To add further insult to injury, the presence of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings (and in The Hobbit presented as almost a god-like elf), we’re not really concerned with the safety of Thranduil’s son. He can certainly take care of himself. And although Bolg was tactfully exposed as not the average orc, we still think Thorin and Azog is the defining moment at this stage.
This scene would have worked much better had the confrontation between dwarf and orc taken place on the battlefield, without these Legolas/Bolg intrusions. If there had to be a Legolas and Bolg duel too, it would also have been better if it had occurred amid the chaos of fighting, together with the other supporting characters.
Think of the Battle of the Morannon from The Return of the King. Think of Aragorn facing the mighty troll in the middle of the battle. Although, as viewers, we’re aware of the thin thread on which hangs the outcome of the conflict, we’re also invested in the outcome of Aragorn as a single character. Will he be struck down? Will he survive? How will this affect the overall Battle?
The Ravenhill Confrontation would have been successful had it been left in its right place in the valley of Erebor. Involving the other supporting characters within a single climactic scene that pivoted on the duel between Azog and Thorin, with the outcomes of each character’s personal battles, would have elevated the final third film considerably.
Again, Howard Shore does an excellent job with the music. It is a real pity, therefore, that the visuals do not live up that level of quality. Fast-paced, frenetic, and chilling, Shore brilliantly encapsulates the tone and atmosphere of the scene. The themes highlight the stakes for our characters. There’s so much the music can do with this existing confrontation as it is.
The decision to split up the characters into different areas away from the main battlefield, caused the entire 20-minute or so sequence to feel longer than it should have been. Yes, we’ve been waiting for such a confrontation over three films, but when a scene isn’t holding up, all the gags and the action shots become tiresome. Instead of engaging emotionally with the characters’ journeys via the action, we’re constantly having to witness fight after fight after fight.
Merging all characters into one scene and a single set piece would have eliminated many issues of inter-cutting between different emotional moments. The whole sequence would have been significantly briefer, true; but it would undoubtedly have been much more satisfying to watch and experience.
In Essence …
Having said that, there is an interesting parallel with the use of fire and ice respectively, in which to portray these two characters. Both are masters of the two elements.
I hope that with the Extended Edition for The Battle of the Five Armies some major revisions are done to the Ravenhill Confrontation sequence. It is certainly a good piece of entertainment, but not one worthy of Tolkien’s story nor Peter Jackson’s capable cinematic adaptation.
The scene at the end of An Unexpected Journey is a testament to Jackson’s incredible ability to create something complex and stirring at the last minute. The scene in The Battle of the Five Armies was done in similar last-minute circumstances; and whilst it is still impressive, that sense of real-life urgency and deadlines shows through.
Copyright of all screenshots belongs to Warner Bros, MGM Studios and New Line Cinema