After three films and around eight hours, Peter Jackson’s 'Hobbit' Trilogy comes to an end with ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’. A lot of criticism has been levelled at the films, some of it justified, but I found a lot to love in the first two instalments. I had suspected that the trilogy as a whole would make a lot more sense once we saw the final chapter, and now that time has come. The question is, does ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ end the trilogy on a bang or a whimper?
After defeating Smaug during the dragon’s attack on Lake Town, Bard (Luke Evans) leads the survivors towards Erebor to seek help from Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the dwarves, along with King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the Mirkwood Elves, who demand their share of the treasure. Thorin is driven by crippling greed and refuses to help or back down, forcing Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to secretly bargain for peace between the two sides. What none of them know, however, is that another army is coming from behind them - an orc onslaught hellbent on taking the mountain and wiping them all from the face of the earth.
Dividing Tolkien’s masterpiece into three acts means that the majority of this third film is devoted to the titular battle, an immense centrepiece, and what the trilogy has been building slowly towards. Jackson and his screenwriting partners have been pulling on Tolkien’s other writings to contextualise the events of the book into the wider narrative of Middle Earth, the battle and the fight for Erebor now linked with the wider epic of the One Ring, giving it more emotional weight and increasing the stakes dramatically over those in the book. They also stick very close to the final chapters of the book, both in terms of narrative and tone, and this is both its greatest strength and its inevitable weakness. Because of this, the resulting film turns out to be somewhere between a bang and a whimper. The battle itself is the technical marvel we have come to expect, executed with visual and visceral power, but the real highlight and guts of the film are the titanic duels between the primary dwarves and the primary orc antagonists. This is Jackson at his absolute best, a master at tension and immediacy. You feel and flinch at every blow, and even those who know where it is going will be on the edge of their seats. It’s also the swiftest and tightest of the films, just under two and a half hours, giving the film an explosive shot of energy.
In the end though, ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ doesn’t come to the same emotionally satisfying conclusion that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ did, which is partly because of the film and partly because of the source text. Tolkien’s novel ends on a massive downer, with many major characters not surviving, very unlike the end of ‘Rings’. This ends the film on a far more melancholy note, and Jackson and his team don’t quite know how to navigate this. It’s hard to be roused by ‘Battle’ because no-one walks away entirely happy. Even though this is the sharpest and clearest film of the trilogy, and suffers the least from Jackson’s tendency towards preposterous indulgence, it’s probably the least satisfying. The human drama is terrific, and his often ill-conceived humour is kept to a minimum, but (perhaps fearing the same criticism ‘Rings’ received) the film ends abruptly, making it feel more like a footnote than a defining event in the Middle-Earth narrative. There’s also a strange lack of awe in the film, something the previous two had in spades. Everything looks impressive and the emotional beats tend to land beautifully, but nothing takes your breath away as much as the riddles with Gollum or the reveal of Smaug. While ‘The Return of the King’ was an ecstatic end to the ‘Rings’ trilogy, ‘Battle’ just doesn’t quite get there.
‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ doesn’t come to the same emotionally satisfying conclusion that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ did.
This third film does give the cast a lit more room to show what they’re capable of though, and mostly they take full advantage of this. Richard Armitage gives his strongest performance in this film, especially when charting the greed that starts to eat away at Thorin, and Evangeline Lilly is terrific as Tauriel, the female elf warrior attempting to bridge the conflict between the elves and the dwarves. As always though, the standout is Martin Freeman, who pulls out all the emotional stops in his final turn as Bilbo. Freeman’s strength has always been as the perfect everyman to ground the fantasy, and he does this so beautifully in ‘Battle’, especially in the devastating finale. His responses are so achingly honest, without which the film just wouldn’t work.
Now that it has come to an end, it’s clear that Peter Jackson and his team had one hell of a challenge on their hands with ‘The Hobbit’, and their approach has brought forth both greatness and folly. It isn’t an easy book to adapt, its episodic structure very satisfying in the novel but problematic for cinema, and they’ve navigated this difficulty with great decisions (like drawing on Tolkien’s other writings) and bad one (such as the dull expansion of the Lake Town narrative). It probably also didn’t need to be three film in the end, ‘Battle of the Five Armies’ suffering from not having quite enough material to play with, and the ghastly High Frame Rate experiment certainly robbed the films of their visual richness. In the end though, there’s just so much to celebrate with these films, and for every moment of silly indulgence, Jackson throws in five built on spectacle, daring and imagination. They might not be a scratch on the masterpiece that is ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but they’re still an absolutely terrific achievement. We probably didn’t need a big-screen adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’, but at least the ride has been a wildly enjoyable one.