“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”: A Modern, Militarist Parable

“American Heroes” World War II Reenactment- April, 2011. (Photo: DVIDSHUB)

Just before Christmas, my daughter announced that the last in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, was due for release and we would all be going to see it (if I go with them, you see, I pay). I remember the first Hobbit film very well as the cinema was extremely cold, possibly to add realism to the snow scenes. “We saw the first one,” I said dubiously, “but did we see the second?”

“You didn’t,” she replied, “but we’ve got the video. You should watch it so you know the story.” I didn’t relish the idea of five hours of repetitious mayhem over the festive season. “I’m sure that’s not necessary,” I said helpfully, “there’s no story at all.”

Of course, I lost that round and we duly trooped off to the movie theater late on a Saturday night. While we were waiting in the crowded foyer, it occurred to me that there was something surreal about queuing to see a children’s fantasy on the Saturday night just after Christmas. What on earth was its attraction for a modern audience? What could it say to us? What is its take home message? The Hobbit was written just on 80 years ago by the very archetype of the upper-middle-class English academic, an Oxford professor of philology. J.R.R. Tolkien was quite adamant: It was a children’s book, not a political commentary, as Animal Farm was. It can easily be read in a couple of hours as it is devoid of any extras such as plot, character development, moral quandaries and so on.

Although the version we saw was in 3D, the characters were two-dimensional, of a type that makes tissue paper look thick.

After seeing the first installment two years ago, I had to check the book because my recollection didn’t quite gel with the 150 minutes of frantic action on the screen. Somehow, even though parts of it had been omitted, this thinnest of plots had been stretched and padded to occupy nearly eight hours of screen time. Whole conversations had been written into the script, minor incidents expanded to fill 10 minutes of action and so on. I am one of those boringly moral people who believe that entertainment must have meaning, that even amusement must be uplifting in some sense and not (shudder) self-indulgent. Like it or not, Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue Parrot sketch actually says something about us, so I was curious to see what Jackson would make of the last 50 pages of Children’s Hour heroics.

On the surface, he made nothing of it. Although the version we saw was in 3D, the characters were two-dimensional, of a type that makes tissue paper look thick. The plot, of course, was entirely one-dimensional, a line drawn between somewhere off screen and a mountaintop. However, as silly as it was, about half way through, it occurred to me that the film was actually a none-too-subtle comment on current affairs.

Part III starts where Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, and a dozen dwarves enter their former home in the Lonely Mountain, waking the enormous dragon Smaug from where it has been guarding the treasure it stole from the dwarves. The dwarves want their treasure back, so when the dragon goes off to destroy the human village on the lake and flames out, all 13 of them move back. However, the elves want some of the loot, too (I must have blinked and missed that bit), and the surviving humans (a few hundred men, women and children) also turn up with their hands out – but Thorin, the heir presumptive to the dwarf throne, gets greedy and welshes on his deals. The three groups, elves, humans and dwarves, lurch toward war; just how Thorin thinks his dozen not entirely loyal troops can resist an army of several thousand gorgeously androgynous elves we are not told, but it seems that vast wealth has warped his judgment. Meanwhile, the very thin subplot unwinds as Kili, the youngest dwarf and the only honestly sexual character in the entire series (a spiffingly endowed, 180-centimeter Irishman with a perpetual two-day growth), manages to charm one of the normally frigid elf ladies, Tauriel, which is very naughty of her, but just another prank for him.

As all are donning armor for the big brawl, the wise and caring old wizard, Gandalf, rides up to say they should sink their differences because an army of Orcs also wants the mountain’s treasure and is on its way. Somehow, reason prevails, the three sides of goodies sink their differences and battle is joined with the egregiously bad, very ugly, ill-mannered and none-too-aromatic Orcs. Just when it seems the baddies will prevail, along comes another wizard with a flock of well-trained giant eagles and a human-bear shape-shifter (the fifth army of the title), and the Orc army is scattered.

However, Thorin, Kili and his brother Fili (I think) are already heading up the mountain to kill the head Orc, so we have another half hour or so of mayhem on some sort of erection at the top of a chocolate box mountain. The loyal Fili is sacrificed to show how awful Orcs are; after all sorts of treachery, the Orcs meet a suitably sticky end, but Thorin and Kili are also done for – and, after tedious agonal soliloquies, pass on to dwarf Valhalla. By coincidence, Thorin and Kili are the only goodies to have been naughty, Thorin because he lusted for gold and Kili because he willfully tricked one of the asexual elf woman into getting the hots for him. Leaving the legions of dead for somebody else to bury, Bilbo goes home to the same pretty place far from the fields of war and quickly finds everybody carrying on as normal (pilfering, snitching and the like).

Jackson’s eight-hour splurge of gore is nothing other than a rerun of the classic narcissistic American narrative of redemptive blood lust that is now winding its way to the final ghastly reel.

It was clear that some parts of the original story had been omitted while others had been fluffed out almost beyond recognition. The question that bothered me as we drove home was this: What has this excruciatingly long and noisy cartoon from 1935 got to do with anything today? Like it or not, everybody who puts pen to paper is telling us something. Steinbeck says, “Poverty and virtue are not incompatible”; Ayn Rand says, “Self-interest is the only virtue”; while Monty Python says, “We are all absurd.” Even TV advertisements are telling us, “You are so facile that you will fall for this crap.” In their selection of the scenes to play and the dialogue they wrote (there isn’t much in the original), consciously or otherwise, the producers were weaving a narrative to enmesh us and draw us in, but what was it? What was the take home message? Was it just “Hey, indulge yourself on your night off,” was it “Ebola, jihadists, Putin and the NSA are too scary, so retreating into juvenile fantasy is your only option,” or was it actually art?

We can dispense with the last question fairly quickly. The endless computer-generated images aren’t art and the film is too full of stereotypes to qualify. For example, the greedy master of Laketown is your average American producer’s idea of a thoroughly awful, foppish English colonial administrator who likes nothing more than counting the gold he has screwed from his groaning subjects while stuffing his face full of braised testicles. Truly. You actually see him pulling the vas deferens between his teeth to extract the last bit of . . . flavor. Gross, but that’s English depravity for you: Real men eat meat. His much lower class but equally English factotum, the vile Alfrid (not in the original), wears the same style hat as the first version of Shylock I saw many years ago. This subliminal categorization presumably accounts for his total lack of noble (masculine) qualities, even to the point of dressing as a woman to steal gold. Everything is stereotyped: The humans are almost all simple, hard-working, honest folk; the dwarves are Snow White characters with ludicrous facial hair; the boy elves are classic Alfons Mucha homoerotic Grecian soldiers in gold lame while their womenfolk are Beardsley stand-ins; and the Orcs must have afforded the make-up artists a lot of fun to see who could come up with the ghastliest. Hobbits, who don’t figure much this time, are about as convincing as the French poodles dressed in clothes that walk on their hind legs on American daytime TV.

If all else fails, what about the dialogue? Even if the glove puppet characters don’t say anything memorable, there is still room for poetic interchanges – but, in fact, there aren’t any. Apart from explosions and swords hitting heads, the sound track consists mainly of deafening screams, bellows, grunts and moans. As literature, it ranks somewhere below a McDonald’s jingle. The special effects are interesting for a few minutes, but they just go on and on, so their impact fades into boredom. Ho hum, another monster? The New Zealand setting, of course, is never boring but it’s much better in the flesh.

So what’s the point? Why spend hundreds of millions turning a short, 80-year-old children’s book into this year’s smash Hollywood spectacle for adults? If it were unique, perhaps it would amount to something, but it wasn’t: Every one of the five trailers shown before The Hobbit consisted of masses of truly awful baddies doing battle with a small number of ridiculously heroic goodies in improbably gory settings while everything blows up around them (Taken 3, The Hunger Games, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men etc.). It seems to me that Jackson’s eight-hour splurge of gore is nothing other than a rerun of the classic narcissistic American narrative of redemptive blood lust that is now winding its way to the final ghastly reel.

First, note that war is something that takes place “over there” against truly ghastly “thems.” The hero, Bilbo, leaves his cutesy hometown to take part in a titanic struggle between good and evil that he knows nothing about; he does his duty and when it’s over, he goes back home and picks up where he left off. He isn’t quite the same person, but don’t let details like PTSD spoil the sheer fun of war. The episode opens with Smaug, the giant dragon, deciding to flatten the innocent humans of Laketown. “You came here and defiled my sanctum,” he says, “so I’m going to get even.” That line, of course, comes straight from the late Osama bin Laden. In a reprise of 9/11 (or is it Pearl Harbor?), Laketown goes up in smoke, but this time, the goodies win: The evil dragon is slain by Bard, a heroic and clean-cut human with an American accent using his 14-year-old son as an arrow guide (unconvincingly, the father says, “Look at me; don’t look at the dragon,” and the boy does as he is told). Suitably pierced, the dragon’s fire goes out and he falls on the boat of the escaping master, sinking him and his fey English accent with all his ill-gotten gold. It would be good if we could say he represents Goldman Sachs, but unfortunately, the company wasn’t sunk as it deserved; it not only survived and kept the gold, but Uncle Sam paid for its lifeboat.

The Orcs are every American mother’s idea of the evil other. They are foreign, dark-skinned and speak a foul language.

Somehow escaping the carnage of their city burning beside the water, the surviving humans struggle ashore and try to appoint Bard as their new hereditary ruler, but he won’t have it as he is a commoner just like them (that bit’s not convincing: Americans are as hooked on the trappings of imperium as anybody; look what happens when the president wants to play golf). They head off to the mountain to try to get some gold out of the dwarves to rebuild their town but get nowhere, which is exactly what happened to the owners of the Twin Towers when they tried to claim on their insurance policies.

The three armies of goodies represent the American states: Left to themselves, they squabble and bicker over trivialities, but faced with an existential threat, they selflessly sink their differences and unite to face the common enemy. There is the wholesome, down-home human army representing the wholesome, down-home American rural class (whose womenfolk also join in the fray, à la Rosie the Riveter); the gruff and industrious, but genuinely nice dwarves, representing US labor unions; and the beautiful, asexual and emotionally remote elves representing the US intelligentsia. You may object that I said the armies were states and then described them as classes; there are certainly only three of them, but Americans don’t believe they have social classes. Floating around, we have the wizard Gandalf as a sort of run-on Statue of Liberty (he also wears a skirt and a silly hat) dispensing homilies that people don’t want to hear because they much prefer their freedom to murder each other although they may stop brawling long enough to listen if the enemy is knocking at the gate.

The Orcs are every American mother’s idea of the evil other. They are foreign, dark-skinned and speak a foul language; they are big, ugly and dirty with rotten teeth and they come in millions. And they are evil. They are just so, so evil you won’t believe it, and they have all sorts of very large, stupidly evil friends like trolls, giant leather bats like something from a B and D horror movie, and huge five-headed worms that tunnel under your foundations. Why do Orcs hate everybody so much? Like foreigners everywhere, that is just their nature. As George W. Bush didn’t quite say: “They hate us just because we are just so goddamned wondrously, heartwarmingly fucking good that our mere existence humiliates them and they have to try to destroy us because we show how ugly and stupid they are.” Regrettably, a very large number of Americans actually believe that nonsense.

Orcs are patently a mixture of communists (masses and masses of them bred in incubators and taking orders without question) and jihadists. As surrogate Arabs to hate and fear, they have suicide squads of stupid trolls who smash walls with their heads then fall over dead or other trolls that are actually perambulated catapults, suicide bombers for the pre-electronic. Despite their size, trolls have very soft heads like the underpants bomber so that a determined elf can shove a sword deep into a troll’s cerebrum then ride him for a while.

The Orc enemy are also hopeless fighters, which celebrates another enduring American fantasy, that they are the only people on earth who have what it takes to fight (presumably they alone escaped the butcher’s knife so the Englishman could have his breakfast). In yet another frontier cliché, to protect his sisters, Bard’s 14-year-old son picks up a broadsword (they actually weigh something like 5 kilograms) and holds it up while any number of Orcs obligingly impales themselves on it. So the death rate for Orcs fighting dwarves seems to be about 60 to 1; fighting humans, at least 100 to 1, and the elegantly gymnastic elves are also brilliant at war, but they make such lovely corpses that we end up with quite a few of them as decoration. War is fun, you see; it’s good for the soul and only wimps would disagree.

After enduring hour upon hour of noise, destruction and mindless savagery, of grotesquely distorted hypermasculinity and feminine irrelevance, the take home message is just one word: violence.

To add a touch of realism, the Orcs/jihadists actually start to win for a while, but then very large winged creatures arrive (they look like eagles, but we know they’re standing in for F35s, or maybe angels – there’s not much difference) and so goodness prevails. Thus the film ends, not with the Orcs defeated and thereafter becoming model capitalists like the obliging Germans and Japanese in 1945, but by being driven back into their holes in the mountains, as the Taliban were, from which we know they will later sally forth again, as the Taliban are, a sort of Groundhog Day of evil that means the humans and their allies must live in a state of permanent warfare. Just like the United States.

So is Jackson’s Hobbit series art, is it pure entertainment or is it just self-parodying, Pythonesque absurdity? No, it’s none of these. The overwhelming impression of this deafening extravaganza of onanistic self-indulgence is the lascivious worship of unremitting violence, which was carefully sculpted to fit around the bare bones of Tolkien’s fairy tale. After enduring hour upon hour of noise, destruction and mindless savagery, of grotesquely distorted hypermasculinity and feminine irrelevance, the take home message is just one word: violence. Take away the violence and the film collapses into empty clichés. Violence is the rationale; violence justifies itself, cleanses itself, rejuvenates itself and perpetuates itself. These days, even children’s books become thundering dioramas of violence triumphant to inure the rising generation to horror, ensuring an endless flow of eager recruits to the ghastly reality of war. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is, in fact, blatant militarist propaganda. Everybody must believe this one point: Violence is why we exist.

But the ultimate irony is that while Americans will identify with the superhuman goodies, it is Imperial America that loves to hate: Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq . . . stand up to Uncle Sam and you’re toast. Lick his boots and you can, quite literally, get away with mass murder, plunder, corruption, anything, even raping and murdering American nuns. Since 1945, the United States has invaded more countries, fomented more coups and supported more dictatorships than the rest of the world’s countries together. Starting in 1945, US military forces have killed something of the order of 20 million foreigners, mostly civilians killed in their own countries, more than every other nation on earth combined. In that time, it has dropped more bombs, fired more missiles, built more nuclear weapons and had more foreign military bases than all other armed forces in human history.

The difference between Dick Cheney and a Peter Jackson troll is that the troll’s ugliness is only makeup; Cheney’s ugliness comes from deep within.

The United States has the largest prison population on earth (25 percent of all prisoners today), and executes more people than all other Western countries combined (many of them innocent); its police kill more of its citizens than all Western countries combined and nobody would want to get tangled in its legal system. It disenfranchises more voters, encourages more corruption of the electoral process, spies on everybody and tells lies about it at the highest levels, tortures, murders, steals, pollutes, moralizes and can’t even provide health care for its poor. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that the United States has become the single most destructive and dangerous nation in human history.

On the ground, look at a picture of US troops in Iraq with their body armor and helmet cams, then look at Jackson’s Orc legions. Even their uniforms are the same color. Look at his trolls, then look at that photo of Dick Cheney saying if he had the chance, he would launch his torture program all over again. The difference between Cheney and a Peter Jackson troll is that the troll’s ugliness is only makeup; Cheney’s ugliness comes from deep within. Not all the tears of the mothers of the thousands of innocents murdered by US drones, nor of the mothers of nearly 5,000 US troops who died in vain, could ever wash it away.

The United States, which was born in great hope, has now become the Orc Nation.