The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

Culloden (1964)

2009 #48
Peter Watkins | 69 mins | TV | 12

CullodenCulloden tells the story of the 1746 battle — famously, the last fought on British soil — and the events that followed it, as if it were covered by a modern TV news report (albeit a feature-length one).

This adopted style — a first — makes for an effective presentation. As a form it obviously foreshadows the docudrama, a method of presenting history which is so popular today, though not quite in this way. Writer/director Peter Watkins gratifyingly refuses to break from his premise: the whole film is very much like an extended news piece, featuring interviews, facts, and the famous BBC objectivity — at no point does the narration inform us who is good and bad, right and wrong, yet leaves us with little doubt about Watkins’ opinions (which are pretty low of just about everyone).

In fact, the film is fuelled by much youthful righteous indignation from Watkins, in his late 20s when Culloden was made. That said, his (perhaps unrealistic) idealism is still in evidence in every interview I’ve seen with him from decades later (though in those cases applied to what TV is and should be). But he allows it to dominate proceedings here, too often focusing on the awful conditions of the poor or the wrongs committed against them by Nasty Rich Folk. Should we be cross about this? It is 1746 after all — of course life was awful for common folk and the upper classes were rich twits who rode roughshod over them. That’s how things were in The Past, for thousands of years before it and hundreds of years after. With our modern developed sense of morality it all looks Nasty and Wrong, but we can’t go back and change it so why get so upset about it? Surely such vitriol is better directed at places where this is still the case?

While Watkins’ righteousness is clearly present before and during the battle, it’s really let loose in the aftermath, as English soldiers commit all sorts of atrocities to the Highlanders. Perhaps this was genuinely shocking and deserved in ’64, and it’s still true that the actions taken were unforgivably horrid, but it’s no longer shocking — not because we’re desensitized to violence at this point, but because we’re now very aware that we have done horrendous things throughout our history even while painting ourselves as the good guys (as we still do today, of course). Early on he describes the workings of the clan system, ostensibly factually but with a clear undercurrent of its unfairness; yet at the end bemoans its destruction by the English. Maybe this is why Watkins struggles to find anyone likeable in the film: they’re all as bad as each other.

Even if his overly moral stance falters, Watkins’ filmmaking techniques rarely do. The use of ordinary people as actors works fine most of the time, though occasional performances or scenes show off the cast’s unprofessional roots. Watkins’ theories about how TV should be run and the involvement of the public in the way he did here may be romanticised and impractical, but it’s hard to deny that his application of them worked wonders. Performances frequently aid the documentary effect by seeming just like those in genuine interviews or news footage, whereas even the best professional actors trying to emulate such reality are usually mannered enough for the viewer to realise they’re acting.

Best of all, however, is the titular battle. These scenes are extraordinary, creating a believability even the largest Hollywood budget has often failed to challenge. It’s epic but also involving, disorientating but clearly told, brutal without needing expensive prosthetic effects or an 18 certificate. It’s a brilliant example of camerawork, sound design and editing combining under inspired direction to create a flawless extended sequence.

Culloden was a bold experiment in filmmaking — indeed, the notion of a distant historical event being presented as if covered by news cameras still sounds innovative — and Watkins mostly pulls it off, with stunning battle sequences, effective performances and a high concept that is never betrayed. A few minor weak points aside, the only serious flaw is that Watkins lets his overdeveloped morality run unchecked. His application of a modern outrage to what seems a typical historical situation grates quite quickly but never abates, ultimately reclaiming a star from what is nonetheless an exemplary effort.

4 out of 5

Culloden placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.