Home > Reviews > THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – Howard Shore

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – Howard Shore

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

thehobbitbotfaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

And so, at last, after an astonishing 13-year trip across Middle Earth in the company of director Peter Jackson, through three Lord of the Rings films and two Hobbit films, we come to the conclusion of the saga with The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final film based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy story The Hobbit. The film picks up immediately where the second film in the trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, left off last year, with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf cohorts looking on helplessly as the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), having emerged from under the mountain of Erebor, decimates the city of Laketown, before finally being brought down by the brave Bard (Luke Evans). In the aftermath of the devastation, the survivors of Laketown regroup in the ancient city of Dale, while the newly-crowned dwarfish king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) jealously guards his new wealth from inside his impregnable stronghold. However, news of Smaug’s death quickly spreads across Middle Earth, and before long numerous different armies are massing outside Erebor’s gates, each claiming a valid right to the treasure inside, or having insidious ulterior motives of conquest and destruction.

As much as I wanted to love The Battle of the Five Armies, unfortunately the film is something of a self-indulgent mess, comprising too much complicated action, too many poorly-written characters, too many deus ex machina moments, too many ridiculous moments of gravity-defying super-heroism from Legolas in particular, and too many throwaway sub-plots and logical holes which crumble under scrutiny. It’s a disappointing testament to Jackson’s lack of self-control that the film became as bloated as it did; it looks spectacular, as it always has, featuring stunning visual effects and staggering production design, but the final battles just go on and on and on, losing sight of what the heart of the films are about, and losing the audience along the way. Trimming at least half an hour off the film’s final battle sequences, and releasing the whole story as just two films would, for me, have resulted in a much more satisfying product, keeping the meat and meaning of Tolkien’s original tale, while eschewing much of the fat that made Five Armies so laborious to sit through.

Returning to Middle Earth for the sixth time is composer Howard Shore, whose scores throughout the entire run of films have been exemplary. The Hobbit scores, like the Lord of the Rings scores before them, are masterpieces of strict leitmotivic writing; the sheer number of themes, motifs and musical markers identifying characters, locations and concepts across all six films is amazing, almost overwhelming. Virtually no-one is writing music like this these days, with this amount of intellectual complexity and thematic depth, or with the amount of varying settings and restatements of the themes in different guises. Perhaps the only downside to this is that, once in a while, it feels like Shore has written himself into a corner, having to slavishly adhere to his own musical architecture, so much that the score feels too dense for its own good, but this is a minor criticism for what is otherwise a gargantuan achievement.

Written for the fullest complement of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (conducted again by Conrad Pope), with a featured choir, and numerous specialist percussion instruments, the score is quite colossal in scope, ranging from intimate moments of introspection and reflection to full-throated, nigh-unstoppable action sequences. The score is, essentially, an enormous tapestry, taking themes from both previous Hobbit films, some themes from the three Lord of the Rings films, and one or two brand new themes unique to this film, and weaving them together into a musical depiction of the essence of the story, in which hobbits, men, elves, two different tribes of dwarves, two different tribes of orcs, dragons, and much more besides, all come together in the same place and engage in a battle for supremacy and treasure.

As far as the men are concerned, Bard’s theme is present quite frequently during the score. The opening cue, “Fire and Water,” is a wonderfully dark and brutal piece of action, which pits Smaug the dragon’s thunderous, nightmarish motif against the more powerful theme for Bard, the hero of Laketown, the savior of his people. The serpentine, metallic music for Smaug receives its fullest and most bombastic statements of the entire trilogy here, giving the immense beast a fitting send-off, while Bard’s theme receives subsequent variations in cues such as “Shores of the Long Lake”. Similarly, the stately theme for the people of Laketown re-emerges as they rebuild what is left of their lives in “The Ruins of Dale,” and receives a couple of war-like and potent performances transposed to brass in “The Gathering of Clouds” and at the end of “Mithril,” when it is accompanied by aggressive, defiant male-voiced chanting.

The elves of Mirkwood are usually accompanied by the so-called Woodland Realm theme, which gets an imposing brass rendition towards the end of “The Ruins of Dale” as Thranduil, the elf king, and his forces arrive to take part in the conflict. Further performances of this theme, as well as the lively thematic variation representing the character of Legolas, feature in “The Gathering of Clouds,” “Mithril,” “The Clouds Burst,” “Ravenhill” and others, often accompanying moments of action or heroism from Legolas or Thranduil in combat. “Bred for War” has an angelic choral version of Legolas’s theme, the final moments of “A Thief in the Night” feature Legolas’s theme in a dark variation for brass, while “The Fallen” twists Thranduil’s theme into a ghostly choral lament as he tragically observes the bodies of his comrades killed in battle. The lovely oboe-led romantic theme for the she-elf Tauriel and the handsome dwarf Kili appears in “Shores of the Long Lake,” and later in “Ravenhill,” while the superb action theme for Tauriel herself appears just once or twice, most notably during the aforementioned “Ravenhill,” and with emotional potency at the very end of “Courage and Wisdom”.

The three themes representing the dwarves – for Thorin Oakenshield himself, for his noble House of Durin, and for their ancestral home inside Erebor – feature prominently in much of the score, usually surrounding the actions of Thorin himself, and the increasingly deluded decisions he makes to protect his treasure hoard from what he sees as thieving invaders. These identities are joined by one of the score’s new themes, for Dain Ironfoot, who arrives at the battle with a large platoon of dwarves to support his cousin Thorin’s cause. Although Ironfoot’s theme is almost entirely buried beneath sound effects in the film itself, it gets several spectacular performances on the soundtrack, exploding majestically from “Battle for the Mountain” at the 1:45 mark, and accompanied by soaring bagpipes in the conclusive “Ironfoot,” one of the best cues on the album. The Erebor theme has a brief outing in “Beyond Sorrow and Grief,” while Thorin’s personal theme begins to assert itself in the anticipatory “The Clouds Burst,” before emerging into full-throated heroic glory in the massive, valiant “Sons of Durin,” which plays all four dwarf themes at their mightiest volume, sometimes even counterpointing them against each other. Thorin’s theme reaches an emotional crescendo in the superb “Courage and Wisdom”, acknowledging his honorable nature and his noble sacrifice, and going some way to redeeming his character in the face of his ‘dragon-sickness’.

The two species of orcs – Azog’s orcs from Moria and Bolg’s orcs from Gundabad – are musically depicted by throbbing, relentless percussion, in cues like the violent and threatening “Bred for War,” parts of “The Darkest Hour,” the climax of “Sons of Durin,” and the imposing “Ravenhill,” which showcases the brutal-sounding motif for Azog himself on screaming, frantic brass. “To the Death” features an especially interesting set of musical ideas, as Shore counterpoints various different themes against each other to represent the individual mano-a-mano fights occurring. As Thorin fights against Azog, and Legolas battles against Bolg, their individual themes clash in symbolic musical warfare too.

Several familiar themes from Lord of the Rings also make guest appearances. This is most apparent in “Guardians of the Three,” one of the score’s darkest and bleakest pieces, which pits the musical identity for the evil Necromancer against three of the most famous themes from The Lord of the Rings – the Lothlórien theme, the Rivendell theme, and the Ringwraith theme – in a brutal action sequence in which Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman and Radagast battle against Sauron and the Nazgûl at Dol Guldur, and eventually banish him to Mordor. The heroic fanfare versions of both the Lothlórien theme and the Rivendell theme here are wonderful, as is the choral power of the finale.

In addition to the Lothlórien, Rivendell and Ringwraith themes, the Shire theme makes a brief appearance in “The Ruins of Dale,” and the theme for the Fellowship of the Ring emerges briefly at the very end of “Courage and Wisdom,” while the popular ‘Nature’s Reclamation’ theme makes a stirring appearance in “To the Death” as Radagast, the Eagles, and Beorn the Bear enter the fray to turn the tide against the Orcs. The score’s finale, comprising “The Return Journey” and “There and Back Again” sees the score returning to the lush, green music of the Shire, with its pennywhistles and its cheerful optimism, although even here the music seems to reflect the fact that Bilbo’s former playfulness has been tempered by his experiences of conflict and loss, as well as the subtly omnipresent nature of the One Ring.

thehobbitbotfa-specialEach film in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series has featured an original song in the end credits, and The Battle of the Five Armies is no different. Joining the likes of Enya, Emiliana Torrini, Annie Lennox and Ed Sheeran is Billy Boyd, who played the hobbit Pip in the Lord of the Rings films, but who is also an accomplished singer and songwriter. His song, “The Last Goodbye,” is actually quite excellent, with poetic lyrics co-written by Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, and a wistful musical accompaniment arranged by Kiwi composer Victoria Kelly that is both contemporary and classic. Boyd’s heavily-accented delivery also seems perfect for the song, and provides a fitting coda to the story.

Some commentators have voiced negative opinions about the three Hobbit scores. The themes are weaker than the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s too dark, too dense, too serious, too reliant on intellectual structure at the expense of genuine emotion and pure, old-fashioned fun. Some of this may actually be true – I prefer the original Lord of the Rings scores myself – but I think that these critics are overlooking what makes the Hobbit scores so unique and, in my opinion, wonderful. It takes so much to write scores with leitmotifs as complicated as this, and to adhere to them not just over the course of one film, but over the course of six films spanning more than a decade.

In my review of The Desolation of Smaug last year I ruminated on Howard Shore’s legacy in terms of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit scores, and how he has created a truly immersive world of music which follows its design parameters, but is fluid enough to introduce themes for new characters, places and concepts as each new film requires, without compromising the integrity of the work as a whole. Looking back at it all now, with the perspective of having listened to 13 years worth of music for these films, I honestly believe that, with these six scores, Shore has written one of the most important collective works in the entire history of film music. This will be his lasting testament to the art. With the conclusion of the Hobbit trilogy it is quite likely that we will never visit Middle Earth again, at least in the company of Jackson or Shore. This is it. We will never again have the anticipation of a new Tolkien-inspired work from the unassuming Canadian, and while I’m more than thankful for the 18 hours or so we do have, I can’t help but consider this to be a bittersweet moment, the end of an era. Looking at the direction film music is going, especially in mainstream films, I doubt we will ever hear a score like this again, and so my advice to you all is to savor this. Drink it in. Go there, and go back again, and again, and again.

Note: This review concentrates mainly on the ‘standard’ 2-CD set of the score, but mention should also be made of the special edition expanded version, which contains an additional 15 minutes of music, features extended versions of several cues, and includes two bonus tracks, “Dragon-Sickness” and “Thrain,” the latter of which is an additional cue which actually appears in The Desolation of Smaug.

Buy the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • REGULAR RELEASE
  • Fire and Water (5:57)
  • Shores of the Long Lake (4:01)
  • Beyond Sorrow and Grief (2:50)
  • Guardians of the Three (5:14)
  • The Ruins of Dale (3:39)
  • The Gathering of the Clouds (4:07)
  • Mithril (3:08)
  • Bred for War (3:19)
  • A Thief in the Night (4:14)
  • The Clouds Burst (4:12)
  • Battle for the Mountain (4:38)
  • The Darkest Hour (5:31)
  • Sons of Durin (4:23)
  • The Fallen (4:56)
  • Ravenhill (5:47)
  • To the Death (5:13)
  • Courage and Wisdom (5:09)
  • The Return Journey (4:16)
  • There and Back Again (4:19)
  • The Last Goodbye (written by Billy Boyd, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, performed by Billy Boyd) (4:05)
  • Ironfoot (5:03)
  • SPECIAL EDITION
  • Fire and Water (5:57)
  • Shores of the Long Lake (4:01)
  • Beyond Sorrow and Grief (4:11)
  • Guardians of the Three (5:47)
  • The Ruins of Dale (3:39)
  • The Gathering of the Clouds (5:52)
  • Mithril (3:08)
  • Bred for War (3:19)
  • A Thief in the Night (4:14)
  • The Clouds Burst (4:12)
  • Battle for the Mountain (4:38)
  • The Darkest Hour (5:31)
  • Sons of Durin (4:23)
  • The Fallen (4:56)
  • Ravenhill (5:47)
  • To the Death (7:22)
  • Courage and Wisdom (5:09)
  • The Return Journey (4:16)
  • There and Back Again (4:19)
  • The Last Goodbye (written by Billy Boyd, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, performed by Billy Boyd) (4:05)
  • Ironfoot (6:11)
  • Dragon-Sickness (3:51) – BONUS TRACK
  • Thrain (3:24) – BONUS TRACK

Running Time: 94 minutes 01 seconds – Regular Release
Running Time: 108 minutes 12 seconds – Special Edition

Watertower Music WTM39599 (2014) – Regular Release
Decca 4710479 (2014) – Special Edition

Music composed by Howard Shore. Conducted by Conrad Pope. Performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and James Sizemore. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Steve Gallagher and Jonathan Schultz. Album produced by Howard Shore.

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  1. December 21, 2014 at 4:37 am

    Very good review, Jon.

  2. December 21, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Excellent review, Jon!

    I want to hear your opinion on one matter about those scores: the way the music is used on the films. I mean, on The Lord of the Rings and the first Hobbit, the parts with music seems to last for longer. On Desolation of Smaug and Battle of the Five Armies, the cues are shorter and they are interwoven by large parts without music. Just compare, for example, the action scenes on the LotR and on DoS and BotFA. On the disc, cues like “Battle for the Mountain” and “To the Death” seems to be a lot of short cues edited together. It’s different to, for example, cues like “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” (from the Complete Recordings of Return of the King).

  3. January 10, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Excellent breakdown! I will definitely refer to this as I relisten to the soundtrack many times

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