Part Two ~ Fire and Water upon the Long Lake
In this part of my review we will look at the beginning of this film, which differs from all of the previous Middle-earth films because it lacks a prologue!
In Part One of Mordor’s Review of The Hobbit: BFA, I gave a brief overview of the film. I touched on many areas of the film where I feel it succeeded and other areas was where I feel it failed. In Part Two of this review we are going to take a more detailed look at the 10 minute opening of the film. The death of Smaug!
Please go HERE to our Hobbit: BFA Review for all nine parts of the Mordor Review!
Let’s begin Part Two of our review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with a look at Smaug’s fearsome attack on Lake-town and his intent to burn it right into the water! I want to say this right out of the gate, I like the opening of this film as well as the ending of The Desolation of Smaug. I think the abrupt cliff-hanger ending was the perfect way to close the second film! Bringing Smaug’s confrontation with Bard and the destruction of Esgaroth into the third film is an example of the smart storytelling that Peter Jackson is known for! This allowed Jackson to give this scene the time and care it deserves.
From my perspective this is the pivotal scene in the book, everything leads up to this moment. The Death of the Dragon! I was happy to see that Jackson gave this scene the time and care it deserves. The Hobbit trilogy of films as opposed to the book, has made The Battle of the Five Armies the central moment that brings the entire three films to a rip roaring climax rather than the death of Smaug!
The film opens with a shot of the Lonely Mountain as the camera pans down into the city of Esgaroth. Just below the mountain, you can the see the fire of Smaug igniting the forests along the way to the city. As the camera sinks into the town, you see people looking toward the mountain and the very beginning of the fear and panic that will soon envelop the city. A wonderful opening shot the sets the stage for the next ten minutes of action, which slowly builds to the death of the Smaug.
The people of Lake-town seem aware of the dragon almost immediately, unlike how Smaug comes in the book. Tolkien wrote that some of the more foolish people of Esgaroth believed that the mountain was once more flowing with Gold, when in fact it was the fire of Smaug descending upon them. Bard the grim, was one of those who saw the real danger coming.
In Peter Jackson’s version of events, the townspeople feel the rumble of the Dragon’s coming even before they see fire on the mountainside. Apparently the battle with the dwarves in Erebor and the sound of the dragon bursting forth from the front Gate of the Lonely Mountain must have echoed down through the valley, because the people of Esgaroth seem to grasp pretty quickly that they need to escape the wrath of the dragon. This begins a panicky retreat from the city that begins immediately, like rats jumping from a sinking ship.
We follow the antics of the Master of Lake-town and Alfrid as they attempt to flee Esgaroth in a boat laden with the cities riches. We see Bard trapped in jail trying to get out and we watch his children along with Oin, Bofur, Kili, Fili and Tauriel getting on a boat and attempting to get out of the city. I thought they way Jackson introduced the dragon was perfect. At first we only hear the rumbles of his coming and we watch Tauriel listening to the dragons roar. Then we see see a shadow that flies over one of the tall towers in the city. Next we cut to Bard looking out of his jail cell and we see Smaug for the first time flittering through the clouds. Finally, we cut back to Bard’s children, the dwarves and Tauriel moving through one of the waterways between the buildings of Lake-town and Smaug descends right over their heads.
We see the expressions of the dwarves as they are confronted with their greatest nemesis! Then the camera pans to Tauriel, who gives one of her best performances in the trilogy as she looks up at the dragon. Her expression is sheer perfection. It’s a complex mix of emotions showing fear, and awe, but also admiration for this incredibly powerful and magnificent creature flying over them. I must give kudos to Evangeline Lilly for her awesome performance and a tip of the hat to Peter Jackson for capturing this wonderful moment on film!
Dragonfire and water…
Finally we get our first full look at Smaug. We see him descending like a freight train over the water and in front of him is Esgaroth in the center of the Long Lake. As he comes down over the water, we see his chest begin to glow with flame. This is without a doubt this sequences Money-shot! Smaug flies down upon Lake-town and spews forth a conflagration of dragon fire that cuts the town in two. In this moment, we see an awful scene of people in stark silhouette looking up at the dragon coming and immediately they are engulfed in flames. A truly terrifying image.
We then see Smaug in a series of shots as he flies down over the city engulfing entire waterways in billowing flames as the men, women and children flee for their lives. The city is engulfed in fire, chaos and mayhem.
Now there’s one moment here I must point out! A cameo of Peter Jackson’s daughter, Katie Jackson. Now I have no problem with cameos in films… it can be great fun trying to pick out people as you’re watching a film. Her acting in the scene is fine, as she sits in a boat reacting to the fiery chaos around her, but what does bother me is the fact the we saw her in the last film The Desolation of Smaug where she plays a barmaid in Bree. Well, I keep asking myself how in hell did she get all the way to Lake-town before the dwarves did…. hmmm!
Next we see Bard making his escape from jail and getting revenge on the Master of Lake-town at the same time. This scene begins with the Master and Alfrid on the heavily laden barge trying to escape. They ram into the boat with Bard’s children, the dwarves and Tauriel, nearly pitching them into the water. We see flames flashing overhead and then the Master throws Alfrid into the water to keep them from sinking. In that moment, Bard throws a quickly made rope out the window if his cell and it lassoes the Master and pins him to the back of his boat. The forward motion pulls out the barred window and Bard escapes. A fun scene that works well, even if it is a bit far fetched.
We then watch as Bard heroically busts into the Armory and take a large Yew bow and a handful of arrows. Cut to Smaug continuing to set fire to the city as Bard smashes through a roof just as the dragon swoops down over him. Then he looks up at city bell tower ringing loudly, which is the highest place in the city. He begins to make his way over to the tower.
Next we see Smaug rising up over the city and the lake with the Lonely Mountain in the distance. This shot takes us to Bilbo and the Dwarves, who have climbed up to the tower on Raven Hill, which commands a view of the Long Lake. They stand there looking down upon the burning city with looks of horror and anguish, as they realise they are responsible for awakening the dragon and letting him loose on the innocent citizens of Lake-town.
Bilbo turns and sees that Thorin is not looking to the fire of Lake-town, but rather to the vulnerable doorway into Erebor. A telling moment.
The action then cuts back to the city on fire as Bard climbs up to the top of the tower. As he reaches the top, the camera pans 360 degrees and we see that almost the entire city is on fire. The folks at Weta Digital outdid themselves with the fires of Lake-town! Not to mention the magnificent dragon! Very realistic and believable. Smaug takes another pass over lake-town spewing flame as Bard takes a shot with his bow and arrow. The arrow glances of Smaug’s scales with ease and we begin to see just how futile the attack on the dragon really is.
Then Bard takes several more shots at Smaug with absolutely no effect. We then cut to Bain, who sees his father Bard in the tower and he calls out. Everyone in the boat looks up as Bard shoots more arrows and Kili thinks he has hit the dragon, but Tauriel say no, that it’s likely nothing can pierce the dragon’s scales. This is when Bain remembers the Black Arrow and realizes he must take the arrow to his father to save the city. He grabs hold of a winch and swings off the boat and makes for the tower after picking up the Black Arrow hidden earlier in one of the boats.
Bard reaches for his last arrow and shoots right at Smaug’s face, who for the first time sees him. The arrow does nothing to the dragon as he swoops past the bell tower. So begins the final battle between Dragon and Bowman.
Bain pops up through the trap door of the bell tower and Bard is shocked to see his son. He asks why he’s not left the city as he was told to do. Bain looks up into his father’s eyes and tells him he came back to help. In near despair, Bard realizes that nothing can stop the dragon now and that he and his son will probably be engulfed in flames when Smaug make his next sweep of the city. That’s when Bain produces the Black Arrow and asks if this will help!
The expression of pride for his son and joy at getting this last chance to take out the dragon is wonderfully played by Luke Evans. Then without warning Smaug smashes into the tower and Bain nearly falls to his death, before Bard pulls him to safety. Bain’s look of fright is perfect, as Bard takes the Black Arrow from him. Smaug lands upon the burning wreckage of the city and turns to look at Bard in the Tower. Bard realizes with horror that the bow has broken in half. Benedict Cumberbatch then delivers another great line of dialogue. Smaug looks at him and says…
“What will you do now, Bow-man!”
I love the fact the Peter Jackson gave Smaug one last opportunity to express his character as he speaks to Bard. In the book Smaug is simply shot down from the sky with a single black arrow with no interaction with Bard. I don’t think that would have worked on film nearly as well. The scene would have felt anti-climatic. And even though it seems improbable that this giant Dragon and the small man in tower could carry on a conversation over the length and breath of a burning city, Peter Jackson pulls it off with close up shots of the actors and Smaug’s face.
Despite Smaug’s vast sense of superiority, Bard will not so easily surrender. Smaug begins to worm his way through the fiery ruins of Lake-town speaking to Bard as he crawls closer and closer. Smaug sees Bain and tells Bard in a deliciously evil voice that his son will BURN! Bard realizes that to save his son, he must kill the dragon now! He takes the ends of the arrow and jams then into the wood of the tower, strings the bow and then places the black iron arrow on Bain’s shoulder.
What follows is a classic moment of inspired cinema. Smaug moves in on Bard, asking him…
And just as Smaug says the words, the camera zooms in and we see his broken scale and the vulnerable skin underneath. Now, I must say I was still hoping to see a Thrush in this scene fly down and whisper this news in Bard’s ear as it was written in the book, but it’s one of the plot lines that simply did not make it into the films. I’m still holding out some hope that this scene might make it into the extended edition,but I’m not holding my breath!
Either way this is still an exceptional scene and makes for a great opening to the final film. As Smaug moves in for the kill, Bard takes aim for his final shot! Despite all the fiery chaos raining down upon them, this comes off as a very intimate scene between father and son. Bard quietly calms Bain and coaches him into taking the right position to kill the dragon. The arrow is shot and hits home right in Smaug’s heart. The inevitable moment comes…
I must say, I think this is may favorite sequence in the entire film. It’s beautifully shot with an almost lyrical cinematic quality. As the arrow disappears into Smaug’s flesh, he smashes into the tower as Bard and Bain fall with it into the fiery waters below. Smaug does a barrel roll through the ruins of the city and then his vast wings pull him up and out of the fire and into the sky for one last flight. What follows is pure poetry. We see Smaug do a whirling spin, similar to the one he did as he broke out of the Gate of Erebor, shaking off the hot molten gold that covered him. Unfortunately, nothing can save him this time.
Smaug rises up into the night sky, clawing and bellowing in pain. Finally, we see him take his last breath, the Lonely Mountain in silhouette behind him. The fire in both is eyes and his mouth slowly cools to a deathly dark as the once great dragon slowly begins to sink back down to the burning city below. Floating downward with wings extended and lifeless, there is still a hint of fire in his heart, but as he falls it burns low and then goes out forever. There is utter silence as he drifts towards earth. A beautiful and stunning bit of cinematography, that I feel is the best moment in the entire trilogy!
Now comes the time for the Master of Lake-town gets his due! Smaug crashes down out of the sky directly onto his boat and he is instantly crushed under the dragon. And so ends the life of Smaug the Magnificent.
The scene closes with a return to Raven Hill, where Bilbo declares that Smaug is dead. Then the dwarves begin to caper and cackle with glee at their unexpected fortune and Balin declares loudly that soon everyone will know the dragon is dead!
“The board is set… the pieces are moving… so begins the great battle of our times”
These words of Gandalf from The Return of the King ran through my mind, as I watch this moment in the film. Thorin descends into the valley before the broken Gate of Erebor and the camera pans upward to reveal the gate itself and the film’s opening title fades in… The Battle of the Five Armies which frames the location of much of the action in the final installment of Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the only one of Peter Jackson’s six film Middle-earth Saga, that doesn’t begin with a Prologue that takes place in a time before events of the film. Yet this doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it might, because the opening scene showing the death of Smaug is a perfect segway from the events of the final film. It sets in motion all the circumstances that follow and it gives Smaug the sendoff he deserves!