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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

[German article in the October 2014 issue of CINEMA magazine translated by ArchedCory]

On December 10th the last journey to Middle-earth starts. CINEMA was on set and saw destroyed cities and elves covered in blood.

Thick snowflakes silently fall onto Dale’s crumbling city walls. Richly decorated wells and gates were in the meantime grown over by grass and thickets and give evidence of the former wealth of the kingdom in Middle-earth’s North. Houses, muddy paths, a row of decayed trees provide the impression of the disaster that must have taken place here. 171 years ago the dragon Smaug had opened the fire on Dale and laid the city in ruins.

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Now the metropolis on Erebor’s mountainside is again becoming the scene for death and destruction. Men from Esgaroth that fled into Dale’s ruins are being chased by gruesome orcs. With drawn axes and swords they fight screaming through the narrow streets of the ruined city. And are finally defeated by the Mirkwood elves.

At the end of the massacre, Thranduil (Lee Pace), king of the wood elves, at the same time angry and sad looks at his fallen companions and the dead bodies of the orcs as he is torn out of thoughts by Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The wizard is clad in grey and pleads to Thranduil for help in the fight against the powers of darkness. He however only replies: “The elves have already shed enough blood in this land.”

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“Thanks!”, shouts director Peter Jackson, and makes the orcs jump over elvish blades a few more times this day.

So Middle-earth will become sinister. For the end of his trilogy, covering the fantasy world invented by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937, Peter Jackson lets hell come down over Middle-earth. Just like in his last “Lord of the Rings” adventure “Return of the King”, he ends his epic with massive battle scenes, tragic losses and emotional chasms. For this the kiwi gathered his actors once more for six weeks in June 2013 in his home, the idyllic Wellington. It was very challenging for the actors. “It was already two and a half years ago when I first played Bilbo”, says Martin Freeman. “Since then I have worked on lots of other projects. So in the beginning I needed some time to empathize with the role of a hobbit again.”

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The shiny chain mail (mithril shirt) which he’ll wear in his next scene has probably helped him with this, just like Jackson’s perfectionism. “Peter already knows how to cut a scene before he has even shot it”, explains Ian McKellen who has the number 9 in elvish tattooed on his upper arm as reference to the nine members of the fellowship in the first “Lord of the Rings” film.

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When the word “pick up shooting” is uttered in film industry usually alarm bells start to ring. After all, under normal circumstances they are the studio’s reaction to bad test screenings. It’s different here. Due to e.g. bad weather conditions certain scenes couldn’t be finished. Further Peter Jackson is constantly haunted by new ideas on how to end the final chapter in Middle-earth. This means he has written some sequences already two years ago and others as late as last night. “I still don’t believe that we are done”, Ian McKellen jokes. “I have said goodbye to Tolkien’s world already a lot of times.”

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Despite Jackson’s passion for the topic, many fans remained skeptical about the director’s intention to expand a book with 300 pages into three films. Many feared an overblown fantasy spectacle. Jackson answered with two emotional 3D-epics for which he used the appendices of “Return of the King” amongst others, invented characters like ninja-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) or let known characters like Legolas (Orlando Bloom) return despite not appearing in the book. This way Jackson designed his own vision of Tolkien’s world – without raising himself above the mastermind.

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Even after all these years in Middle-earth the 54-year-old still doesn’t seem to believe what his team lines up for him. To turn the city of Dale into a ruin it first had to be destroyed. Over the span of six weeks approximately 130 craftsmen prepared statues, pillars and houses out of plaster, cement and wood at Mount Crawford to demonstrate the destructive power of dragon Smaug.

And another set has to suffer from the monster: Esgaroth. Over three months the Venice of Middle-earth was erected in the Stone Tree Studios in Wellington’s district Miramar – including 54 houses, boats and canals. In the end the largest set for this production fell victim to Smaug’s flames.

Next to a series of sets built solely for this production, Peter Jackson also counts on CGI effects, especially in the Battle of Five Armies which make up the core of this film.

“After this battle”, he says, “the idea of shooting a small drama sounds really tempting.”

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Text in one of the boxes:
The plot of the film: While Smaug destroys Esgaroth the dwarves under the lead of a slowly going mad Thorin entrench inside Erebor. While the wargs and orcs head for the mountain, elves, men and dwarves form an alliance in the “Battle of Five Armies” against enemies that act under the influence of the Necromancer.