The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

One of the arduous things about watching Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was experiencing the intense parent-child tumult. Arwen gains independence from her father and pledges fidelity to her love for Aragorn above all else, but it involves her devolving into a frail state, becoming as fragile as all the rest of Middle Earth before Sauron's ascension and the elves' retreat. Faramir gains recognition from his impossibly stubborn father, the steward of Gondor, but not even after essentially throwing his life away in a hopeless battle and only after being mid-part cooked in a bonfire of his father's own contrivance. This is an older generation's sturm und dang; a break-through occurs — stern authority is breached — but it's so exhausting you have to hope that once it's been successfully had out that none of the parties involved ever re-acquire the stamina to re-stage it. "The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies" threatened a repeat of this sort of thunderous clash — Bilbo's "unforgivable" "betrayal" of Thorin — but it seems Peter Jackson had perhaps more how contemporary parents and children might handle their children breaking away from them — how he might handle it, with his own children — rather than what baby boomers like himself had to brace themselves to expect with their more authoritative parents. For in this film autonomy is recognized with some grace by elders, and the definition of what "youth" does that deserves respect is expanded beyond being evidently in the right to simply possessing drive.

The scene where Bilbo reveals to Thorin that he gave the outside armies the Arkenstone is hardly Bilbo's most important scene with him. The attention is barely on their confrontation, for Thorin's attention is still so much also on the outside armies at his gate that Bilbo immediately finds an opportunity to scamper off. We note that Bilbo stands strong in the encounter; he declares what he did without apology; but it seems the most diluted version of what Jackson could stand to have offered without belittling the significance of it in the book and his fidelity to the characters. So what is left mostly unchallenged in impact is a previous encounter between the two where Bilbo reveals that he's taken an oak seed he'd found along their adventures, intending to plant it back near his home when he gets back. What he thereby shows to Thorin is that, not only was he very much interested in helping the dwarves reclaim their homeland — so that they could enjoy the same pleasures Bilbo knows he'll eventually be returning to — but in taking "their" homeland back with him. Not as a memento, but in the great, imposing form of a whole oak tree. He does enormous honour both to himself — the dwarves have meant something to him — and to Thorin ... indeed, in Jackson's version Thorin's gifting to Bilbo of the mithril armor almost seems a makeshift equivalent gesture: he grabbed for himself Thorin Oakenshield's "shield"; Thorin provides him the matching armour. Basically this encounter, which also involves Thorin once again showing his appreciation for Bilbo and his sense of him as an equal, is about immediately breaking the possible predatory stance between them for one which restates what had been accomplished between them in the previous film. Thorin may go whole-hog regression with the rest of the dwarves, but it's kept to a surprising minimum with Bilbo in this movie, seemingly because the exhaustion of having to climb the whole way back doesn't seem something Jackson wants to degrade them with.

Jackson could be pretty hard on hobbits in "Lord of the Rings," forcing them to go a long way to redeem themselves after having accomplished feats that should have kept them bullet-proof for awhile. For instance, Merry and Pippen were primarily responsible for one of the two towers going down, manipulating the great Ent army into a war they'd just decided not to involve themselves in. Yet early in "Return" they're back to being pests, appropriately scowled at by Gandalf, just as they were when he first met them and were recklessly blasting off his best fireworks and making a mess of a party. But in this film Gandalf gets ready to release a heavy scowl on Bilbo but Bilbo is allowed by Jackson the kind of stature that would immediately have Gandalf draw back. Bilbo decides he's going to cross an active battlefield to warn Thorin of news of another approaching army, and Gandalf replies: "you'll be seen" ... "it's out of the question." Bilbo doesn't reproach Gandalf for the couple of heavy insults he'd implicitly handed him here — one, that since he'd advertised the importance of Bilbo joining the journey in the first place as owing in part to his being so small he could successfully trespass places others would be seen in, he'd basically been bullshitting both Bilbo and the dwarves about his worthiness of setting out on the adventure; and two, that the only reason he arrogantly decided for Bilbo that he was going to go on the adventure, marking his door so a party of dwarves could turn his place into a tumult, wasn't because his ongoing existence, sans adventure, and continually amongst all his mother's doilies, wasn't worthy of respect, but apparently because this was something he thought he could inflict on Bilbo regardless. He reacts by convincingly showing that to him what is important is the fact of his own decision, what he wants to do, regardless of how even good friends see him for it. And Gandalf recedes, registering that he'd been opposed by someone who in that moment was probably more in the right than he.

This isn't something you often see happen to Gandalf. In "Lord of the Rings" everyone who does so is made to seem the fool Gandalf assesses them as .... Theoden refusing Gandalf's request they meet the army in open battle, insisting his people would be safe at Helm's Deep; Denethor refusing to calling for aid. Gandalf's "rightness" is apparently somewhat contestable in this film, however ... enough so in fact that just before Bilbo doing it Thranduil kinda does it as well. Thranduil, the elf king, could have been made to seem appallingly narrow-focussed in this film — the king we were prepared to encounter given previous references to him as jewel-dazzled and of a "more wild" race of elves. But when he refuses Gandalf and insists on pulling his troops away from conflict, Jackson insured that we'd been witness to his previous instant willingness to have his elves join the dwarves in battle when truly dire opponents showed themselves, and experienced from his perspective a long look at all the dead glorious elves littering the ground ...  at the ghastly waste of what is clearly Middle Earth's most precious resource — what shouldn't be put at risk of complete decimation without risking starving the world of a singularly important source of delight.

Thranduil is mostly spared, kept safe from, the harsh judgment the previous film looked like it might assign him mercilessly. We remember him belittling Thorin by assessing that he was probably moved primarily by impure motives ... "burglary, and things of that nature." But in this film effort has been put into ensuring that we notice that when he mistakes people's motives he doesn't malign them but assesses them admirably .... he won't acknowledge Gandalf's claim of an approaching army, but does laud him for his loyalty to the dwarves, his effort to save his friends. He of course does bear down hard on Tauriel, but his violence is later requited by doing massive repair work to keep her from coming apart after Kili's death. And he's barely a baulk to his son Legolas's future, without seeming to mind that this is so: when Legolas declares he's leaving his long-known elf home and venturing out on his own, Thranduil implicitly communicates how wrong objection would be to his son's thought-through stance by giving no objection at all, and only adding information that might compliment the direction he guesses his son is venturing. There are several scenes in the movie where we are made to feel that much of what has defined Thranduil — his relationship with and loss of his wife — had nothing to do with remaining home, forever pledged to fathers, but about himself having set off, facing fiery dragons and terrible northern forts.

This finish isn't elder-heavy. The expectation on them — elders, or anyone who is allowed a position over another as potentially exploitive as one of parent over child — is to graciously part ways, let go, and they do. The tumult that might greet one generation finally reaching the age where they might contest the one ahead of them is to be avoided, if possible, with elders recognizing the rightness in another generation standing up for itself, making its own imprint, offering if they can, maybe modestly offered guidance — maybe they haven't a clue as to what the next generation needs? — but for sure fulsome love and support. You notice in the film how conspicuously Jackson puts attention to Bard's relationship with his children. You notice how Jackson's own children, in, I think, every film of the series, beginning with "Fellowship," have come of age. You wonder if what is shaping Jackson's making of Tolkien's finish of "the Hobbit" are thoughts not solely on preparing things for the already-done "Lord of the Rings," but preparing an audience to consider their children's eventual introduction to them of a completely open field: the civilization created out of their own drives and inclinations, however crazy and impossible to us it might be to register them as society-improving rather than ruining. 

How else to understand the strange case of Alfrid, the servant of the vile Master of Laketown? He was lent to us after "The Desolation of Smaug," ready for our oblivion — if this guy makes it through his master's destruction by the dragon, it's only in a sense for our killing. And yet what Jackson does is treat us as if we were the dwarves at the beginning of "the Hobbit," in completely disbelief over the choice of Bilbo for the company, with him making a case for him a la Gandalf. He plays us. Or tries to. We are meant to enjoy seeing Alfrid repeatedly humiliated, beginning with his being (literally, and figuratively) dumped by his master and then afterwards by repeatedly being proven an incompetent at any job the likes of Bard and Gandalf have assigned him, but in doing so almost feel that we've agreed to allow that he deserves credit for at least earnestly trying — the beginning of rehabilitation. He's been ordered around a lot, and however bitterly, complied with everything directed to him ... and by people we'd have to feel shame in doubting their willingness to task jobs to him, to trust him. And then not long after when he dresses as a woman in an effort to escape fighting and flee the town, Jackson seems to almost task us with undue prejudice if we're still absolutely bent on seeing him destroyed. An angry older woman sees him in female-dress and charges him as lacking all courage and bravery, and Alfrid's reply — "Not every man is brave enough to wear a corset" — does requit some: even in this heroic film-world, our outside world that increasingly prefers heroes that are open to being ascribed as feminine and that views thorough he-men as part of a narrative of gay-hatred and rape culture, seeps in (we remember how Jackson rebuffed he-men in “Return of the King,” Merry’s being mocked as un-battle worthy by the Rohan warriors but of course proving himself as as able as anyone not Legolas or Aragon). Jackson shapes Alfrid’s next fate as if given avenue: he lets him load himself up with gold and be allowed by Bard to head away from battle and on to enfranchising his own open future. His only rejoinder, “Alfrid, your slip is showing,” if not affectionate, is a very gentle chide, and implicitly recognizes that he’s not a dullard incapable of appreciating wit, i.e., that he's at a different level, a bit more human, than the dullish woman who accosted him. 

Alfrid’s not “Catch 22’s” Yossarian in this epic, but he is somewhat what Tolkien’s generation’s would have viewed the war-avoidant and feminine men of the post-war 1960s — just the most selfish of people!… who perhaps baby-boomer Jackson would ultimately acknowledge as much affinity with as he would the world war-saluting Tolkien, which wiped out a whole lot of people. A whole lot of young people — in the first one, pretty much an entire generation — who would have been better off if they’d stuck to joyous feasting, drinking brandy, and enjoying the comforts of home. That is, if they’d been more like the default for hobbits … and for the "vile" "Alfrids" and "Masters of Laketowns" and dragons content to long-rest in gold, for that matter. 


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