You like battle scenes? You’ll probably like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the last of director Peter Jackson’s six films based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Battle scenes make up the majority of the 144-minute film—and that doesn’t even count preparing for battles and talking about battles. Though there are some great scenes with the dragon Smaug at the outset, one very impressive scene with the elf woman Galadriel and a smattering of wonderful moments with the wood elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), this film is one big battle cry.
To make matters worse for those of us who want more than just swords and blood, the brief screen time of Tauriel was marred for me when news spread of Lilly’s ill-informed, anti-feminist commentary. Speaking to the Huffington Post, she shared that while she loves playing “kick-ass chicks,” she worries about compromising her “womanhood” in doing so:
I’m very proud of being a woman, and as a woman I don’t even like the word feminism, because when I hear that word I associate it with women trying to pretend to be men, and I’m not interested in trying to pretend to be a man.
Not only do her words grossly misrepresent feminism, she also problematically suggests that being strong (or “kick-ass”) brings with it the danger of being viewed as embracing manhood—as if strength is an inherently male trait. This intimation of a strict, unchanging gender binary of strong men and weak women smacks all too much of Tolkien’s worldview as evidenced in The Hobbit. In Tolkien-land, men fight, women stay home at the shire, are taken to a safe space in Lake-town along with the children or, on rare occasion, get to be magically pure and powerful like Galadriel. Yes, there are strong characters in his work such as The Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit is entirely populated by males.
Tolkien’s lack of gender diversity is more understandable given his milieu, but I expected more from Lilly: she who played uber-strong, complex Kate from Lost. In fact, in a year when so many well-known figures have proudly proclaimed feminism and worked to dispel myths about it (such as Emma Watson, Beyoncé, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, et al), for the actress who plays Tauriel—the character who finally gives us a strong woman in The Hobbit—to not only denounce the word but to spread the very misconceptions we are just starting to chip away at, is disappointing, to say the least.
It is also unsatisfying that Tauriel is again placed at the apex of a love triangle between the elf Legolas and the dwarf Kili—especially as Lilly initially had set a condition before agreeing to the role that her character not be involved in a love triangle (for more on this, see my review of the second film here.) Though the love triangle motif was not as prevalent in this film, neither is her role; she is on screen only a few times. Sadly, she does seem to be even more of a “Mary Sue” character, filling a token spot as the one woman of the film. (For a lively debate on her character in this vein, see the comments thread of my previous review.)
As for the rest of movie? Also disappointing. While the second installment of the trilogy gave us many different types of scenes and several narrative arcs, the third installment consists mainly of swords, deaths and very little else. In other words, it’s full of the chest-thumping, fist-pumping, violent bravado that Lilly associates with manhood.
Granted, the underlying critique of greed, displayed most obviously in Thorin’s “dragon sickness”—or lust for gold and riches—has merit. The entire battle is driven by greed, a fact that certainly has much resonance in our modern world. And, by film’s end, this greed is condemned by he who suffered from it most. Dying, the warrior Thorin says to Bilbo,
Go back to your books, your fireplace. Plant your trees, watch them grow. If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.
Indeed. And it would be a merrier movie if this message were further driven home. Instead, the franchise itself is greedy with dragon sickness, thus undercutting the critique of greed inherent in the text. The Guardian review hints at this, noting Jackson’s “outrageously steroidal inflation of Tolkien’s Hobbit” while the Screencrush review argues the “bloated adaptation” is a “huge missed opportunity, one that stretched out its source material way past its breaking point for the sake of a huge financial windfall.”
Maryann Johanson, in her review, pointedly links Jackson to Thorin’s dragon sickness, claiming Jackson “has been suffering from a similar compulsion for the past decade: ‘blockbuster sickness.’”
To its credit, the film does depict the futility of battle, especially battle that has wealth and power as its motivating factors. Thorin, chaneling any number of modern-day warmongers, says at one point, “Treasure such as this cannot be counted in lives lost.” However, as lamented by Johanson,
There is no resonance for those of us watching, and there’s no reason why there couldn’t have been: The world is being ruined by a lust for money and the power that money represents, and yet instead of this Hobbit feeling in any way meaningful, it feels like we’re watching a videogame.
Indeed, what she calls the “dragon holocaust of Lake-town” is also largely devoid of pathos; instead, the destruction looks like yet another shock-and-awe blitz, a war we are not immersed in but removed from. It’s much like the way mainstream media frames battle—as something we might want to look at once in awhile but not really feel the pain of, not see the bodies, not let the devastation deter us from holiday shopping.
Another low-point of the film is the character Alfred, who Screencrush aptly refers to as “a woefully unfunny comic relief figure.” Alfred is a despicable figure from Lake-town, attacking women one minute (which the audience is encouraged to condemn him for), and stuffing gold coins into his bra while disguised as a woman in another (which the audience is encouraged to view as funny). Yet Alfred’s attempts at performing femininity fall into the trap of upholding damaging stereotypes (women as gold diggers) and showing gendered disruptions as pathetically funny. Sadly, trotting out this tired trope brought the only audible laughs from the audience.
In summation? A sausagefest with swords. Bearded dudes with swords. Pretty-elf dudes with swords. Dwarf men with swords. Men riding warthogs and elks and wielding swords.
Given that there are five massive armies, couldn’t the casting have been a tad more diverse? Why not mixed-gender armies, racially diverse armies, armies that had people of different body size and ability? Yes, we have Tauriel, seemingly the lone key female fighter. And in one scene the women from Lake-town plan to arm themselves, saying there is no reason they can’t fight as well (though we never see them do so).
There are small moments where emotion and empathy cut through the battle-weary saga. Bilbo breaks into tears when Thorin dies. Tauriel similarly mourns the death of her dwarf love, Kili, capturing the anguish of losing a love that was denied her due to its “abnormality” (elves are not meant to love dwarfs, a taboo that resonates with modern audiences’ awareness of normative love codes, heteromonogamy chief among them). But this narrative arc ultimately intimates such love is doomed, or as one reviewer argues, making Tauriel and Kili akin to “the Romeo and Juliet of Middle Earth.” Further, it once again places women as primary only in relation to the men who love them.
While the same critic has raved about the “chain-mail punch” of the film, noting that “Jackson’s pumped-up final hobbit movie really works: It’s exciting, spectacular, genial and rousing,” I would argue that it’s far, far from spectacular. The close of the film, set back in the shire, allows us to glimpse a portrait of Bilbo’s mother hanging above his fireplace. Earlier, Thranduil told Legolas that his mother loved him “more than life.” I would like to see a Tolkien adaptation that put such mothers, and other women, front and center. One that had an all-, or mostly female cast. Perhaps like the forthcoming female Ghostbusters, we will one day have a grand epic saga that is female-driven. Perhaps Jackson will one day recover from “dragon sickness” and return to his roots—to the likes of Heavenly Creatures, with Kate Winslet in a breathtaking early role.