by Matt McKenna
Even without seeing the film, you probably already know if you like Peter Jackson's final installment of the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies. If you saw any of the previous Hobbit or Lord of the Rings films and got a kick out of elves and wizards and epic, bloodless battles in which thousands of sentient beings perish, Five Armies won't disappoint. However, if you saw any of the previous Hobbit or Lord of the Rings films and thought they were supremely boring, well, this latest one isn't going to do much to improve your opinion of the series. But presuming you're in the first camp, you must be pleased that Jackson has gifted the world one more Hobbit adventure. Likewise, if you're a college football fan, you must be pleased that the NCAA has gifted the world one more game this season as part of the inaugural college football playoff. Though I can't say which team Peter Jackson is pulling for, it is clear he crafted Five Armies to critique the college football playoffs and the institution that created it.
At some point during the climactic battle sequence in The Battle of the Five Armies, you're likely to wonder what collection of entities constitute the armies referenced in the title. Are the dwarves one army or two? Are the men of Laketown an army even though there are so few of them? Do the massive eagles that receive a miniscule amount of screen time count as one of these five armies? Unfortunately, I don't have definitive answers to these questions, but my best guess is that the five armies include 1) the unruly dwarves, 2) the completely irrelevant men of Laketown, 3) the snooty quasi-immortal elves, 4) the convocation of enormous eagles, and, of course, 5) the horde of evil orcs/goblins/computer generated nightmares. Having established the identifies of the five armies in the world of The Hobbit, the next step to reading the film is to understand what these armies represent in the real world.
If Five Armies is to be read as a critique of the college football playoff, then the five fictional armies in the film clearly must represent the real-life teams “battling” for the national championship. Granted, shrewd readers will furrow their brows at the previous sentence as they wonder how a playoff with only four teams can possibly be explained by a fantasy movie involving no less than five armies. Indeed, this is a valid point, but as we examine the film a little deeper, we will see that all five armies have real-world counterparts.
Most obviously, the dwarves represent Alabama's football program. By nature, both the dwarves and the University of Alabama are money hungry institutions with entitlement issues. Furthermore, Thorin Oakenshield, king of the dwarves and Nick Saban, head coach of the Alabama football team have very similar relationships with the young people they command. Both Oakenshield and Saban lead their men (children?) into battle with the goal of maximizing their own wealth. While each member of Thorin's company does receive a portion of the reclaimed gold, Thorin keeps the most valuable treasure for himself. This asymmetry between the spoils of war acquired by Thorin compared to spoils of war acquired by his soldiers parallels Saban's gargantuan $6.9 million dollar a year salary and the relative pittance awarded to his “student-athletes” through scholarships valued at around $25,000 a year. Admittedly, Thorin Oakenshield eventually realizes the immorality of sacrificing the lives of his men for his own personal gain, and it seems unlikely that Nick Saban will ever come to the same conclusion. But I guess that's why the film is a fantasy.
It is also abundantly clear that Peter Jackson intended the men of Laketown to represent Florida St. specifically because Laketown's military history is nearly as unimpressive as Florida St.'s 2014 season. Jackson highlights Laketown's incompetence during the final battle in Five Armies where we see outnumbered dwarves, elves, and eagles fearlessly dispatching dozens of goblins while, in stark contrast, the men of Laketown fall over and die upon any sort of interaction with the enemy. The same can be said of the Florida St. football team which, after somehow earning a spot in the college playoff, was utterly shamed in their 50-29 loss to Oregon, solidifying their irrelevance in the discussion around the elite teams in college football.
One might mistakenly assume that because eagles are birds, the eagles in Five Armies represent the Oregon Ducks. However, Jackson focuses less on the biological classification of the eagles and more on their role in the film. If you've seen the previous Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies, you'll remember that each appearance of the eagles is a last-second surprise. Does that not sound like the 2014 Ohio State football team to you? After having dropped an early game to a mediocre Virginia Tech team, losing two quarterbacks to injury, and being part of the weakest major conference in college football this year, who expected the Buckeyes to land a spot in the playoff? Nobody, it seems, except Peter Jackson.
And what of the wood-elves? Well, the elves have Legolas, the consensus best warrior on the Five Armies battlefield. Likewise, the Oregon Ducks have quarterback Marcus Mariota, the consensus best player in college football and Heisman trophy winner. That both the elf army and the Oregon football team have the most important player on their side is only part of the parallel between the elves and the Ducks, however. The elves are clearly a finesse army, known more for their accuracy and skill than for their toughness. So to are the Oregon ducks known for their finesse offense and dominance in the skill positions such as quarterback and running back.
That leaves only the army of evil goblins without a team to represent. The institution the goblins are meant to portray, however, becomes clear once we take into account that the other four armies eventually realize the goblins are their common enemy. Therefore, to uncover who the goblin army represents, we must first identify the common enemy of the young men playing football for the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Florida St. Seminoles, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the Oregon Ducks. The enemy they all fight, of course, is the NCAA organization itself. Just as the evil goblins aim to subjugate the good creatures of Middle Earth, so too does the NCAA aim to subjugate the young athletes who make so much money for the organization. Despite being registered as a non-profit entity, the NCAA made over $70 million in profit last year, none of which directly went to the players sustaining concussions for the entertainment of fans and the enrichment of NCAA employees and university coaching staffs whose interests the NCAA apparently represents. There is no greater threat to the earning potential and wellbeing of young football players than the NCAA, and Peter Jackson deftly reiterates the point by aligning the evil NCAA organization with the evil goblin army.
I doubt you'll be surprised to hear that the goblins are defeated at the end of The Battle of the Five Armies. Since these films are prequels to the Lord of the Rings series in which the forces of evil reemerge, however, we know that Peter Jackson doesn't believe the NCAA is in any danger of being destroyed entirely. Jackson's more nuanced point is that, as the public becomes more aware of the NCAA's moral bankruptcy, we should expect to see intense pushback from the organization in an attempt to save itself from being replaced by something less exploitive. Indeed, we have seen that although the NCAA has suffered setbacks such as Northwestern football players attempting to unionize and ex-players suing the NCAA for monetizing their likenesses, the organization has managed to thrive regardless. One can only hope that in the coming years, fans become less impressed with changing postseason playoff formats and instead demand that the NCAA look after the interests of the athletes who provide such a massive amount of both entertainment value and revenue.