Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Hobbit Movie Review: The Battle of Oversized Armies

I went to see the last Hobbit movie with low expectations, and Peter Jackson's last Tolkien effort met or exceeded them, but that's mostly a measure of how low my expectations were. As with the previous two movies, this one is over-big in every possible sense. The monsters are bigger, the armies are bigger, no emotion can be felt without scenery chewing and expository dialogue and even then it's good if we throw in some reality bending CGI just so there's no possible way you could miss what's going on internally.

Still, it's a Tolkien-based movie and it's the last we're likely to get in a long time, so I kind of felt I had to see it in order to see how it went down.

Review with spoilers follows.

One of several issues with Jackson's final Hobbit movie is that given the bloat of turning a fairly short children's book into a set of three two-hour-plus movies, there isn't really a whole story arc to this movie. Rather it consists of tying off all the loose ends of the prior two movies via a massive, hour-long action spectacular.

The Dragon

The movie opens with Smaug destroying Laketown and being killed. Jackson has given himself three things to work out during the course of this:

- Bard has been locked up in jail by the mincingly greedy Master of Laketown for reasons that I don't recall from the last movie and this one doesn't bother to remind us, so the person who needs to kill the dragon is trapped in a wooden cell with barred windows which, for reasons passing understanding, is build on a bridge over a canal. Thus, it's necessary to get Bard out of jail so he can kill the dragon.

- Tauriel the Kate-from-Lost She Elf is hanging out at Bard's house with several dwarves including her love interest Kili and also Bard's kids, so they need to be got out of the burning town as the dragon attacks.

- The Master of Laketown and his sniveling sidekick are trying to escape Laketown with its entire gold reserves, because amid all this madness we need a massively over-drawn comic relief subplot which reenforces the message that gold creates greed and greed is bad.

The result is that there's simply a lot going on in a scene that ends up being fairly short by Jackson standards, and it all mashes together in confusing, silly and unsatisfying ways.

Tauriel gets the dwarves and Bard's kids into a boat and they escape, though managing to somehow be always in the middle of the most dangerous action. At the last minute Bard's son jumps out of the boat and rushes off to give Bard the Black Arrow (which in this case is not just a favored arrow but a seemingly six foot long all-steel harpoon) to his father. I'm not normally one to take the feminist angle on movie storytelling, but I'll take this juncture to note that again and again in this movie, Bard's son, who looks to be perhaps 14, jumps into the fray to fight like a man, while his two daughters seem to one have stage direction for every scene in which they are threatened (which seems like half a dozen at least by the end of the movie): look scared and scream in as high a pitch as you can! This despite the fact that the oldest daughter looks to be a good 16 or 17 and is taller than son-the-action-hero.

The Master and sniveling sidekick Alfrid are trying to get out of town with their overloaded boat. They realize the boat is overloaded, so the Master throws Alfrid overboard rather than lose any golden ballast. Bard escapes by braiding a rope from rags, throwing it out the barred window of his prison, catching the Master by the neck with the loop, and using the force of the Master's escaping boat to rip the entire wall out of the prison, allowing Bard to escape. Somehow this a fails to either stop the boat or decapitate the master (who is pulled back against the decorative gunnels of the boat, so his neck is being squeezed between a rope attached to the iron bars of Bard's prison cell and the wood of the boat) who survives to later be crushed by the falling dragon.

Having thus been freed from his prison, Bard finds an armory, grabs a bow and quiver of arrows, and runs across the rooftops to engage Smaug as a one man anti-aircraft section from the very highest tower in town. (In a movie with so many obvious holes, it seems silly to note these little things, but it seems to typical of Jackson's inability to think through why things happen that the bell in this tower is ringing madly, such that Bard eventually gets frustrated and cuts the rope to it, despite the fact that everyone is clearly fleeing the town except Bard and his son. Who is ringing the bell? Is there some brave but misguided soul who is determined to keep ringing the bell even as the entire town is on fire in order to... No, more like Jackson has forgotten that in a pre-mechanized world bells require bell ringers.)

This gets us to one of the odd little dogs that didn't bark in the movie. Bard empties his quiver at the dragon. His son brings him the black arrow. The dragon breaks Bard's bow and takes some time to monologue at him. Now, pretty much the first thing we saw in the movie was the eye of the Thrush, who heard Bilbo's account of Smaug's weakness, a gap in his armored scales in the hollow of his left breast. In the book, it's been established that these Thrushes are wise and old, and that they could speak to the men of Dale. The Thrush flies to Bard in the midst of the battle with the dragon and tells him about the dragon's weakness, and Bard uses this knowledge to fire the final, killing shot. In the movie, we see the Thrush in that first image, and then we never see it again. Bard notices the weakness himself, whips together a makeshift bow with the remains of his broken one, and uses that to fire the massive steel harpoon into the dragon, killing him.

I'm taking a lot of time on this short scene partly because it's a scene that I dearly loved in the book as a kid, and even in the old animated Hobbit which I saw numerous times as a kid. And as in other parts of the movie, the telling in the book is both tactically believable and dramatic, while the Jackson version is bloated and confused. Here are the key sections from the book:

Then suddenly a great light appeared in the low place in the hills and the northern end of the lake turned golden. 'The King beneath the Mountain!' they shouted. 'His wealth is like the Sun, his silver like a fountain, his rivers golden run! The river is running gold from the Mountain!' they cried, and everywhere windows were opening and feet were hurrying.

There was once more a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm. But the grim-voiced fellow ran hotfoot to the Master. 'The dragon is coming or I am a fool!' he cried. 'Cut the bridges! To arms! To arms!'

Then warning trumpets suddenly sounded and the joy was turned to dread. So it was that the dragon did not find them quite unprepared.

Before long, so great was his speed, they could see him as a spark of fire rushing towards them and growing ever huger and more bright, and not the most foolish doubted that the prophesies had gone rather wrong. Still they had a little time. Every vessel in the town was filled with water, every warrior was armed, every arrow and dart was ready, and the bridge to the land was thrown down and destroyed, before the roar of Smaug's terrible approach grew loud, and the lake rippled red as fire beneath the awful beating of his wings.

Amid shrieks and wailing and the shouts of men he came over them, swept towards the bridges and was foiled! The bridge was gone, and his enemies were on an island in deep water -- too deep and dark and cool for his liking. If he plunged into it, a vapour and a steam would arise enough to cover all the land with a mist for days; but the lake was mightier than he, it would quench him before he could pass through.

Roaring he swept back over the town. A hail of dark arrows leaped up and snapped and rattled on his scales and jewels, and their shafts fell back kindled by his breath burning and hissing into the lake. No fireworks you ever imagined equalled the sights of that night. At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon's wrath blazed to its height, till he was blind and mad with it. No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age; nor would they have dared now, if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.

Fire leaped from the dragon's jaws. He circled for a while high in the air above them lighting all the lake; the trees by the shores shone like copper and like blood with leaping shadows of dense black at their feet. Then down he swooped straight through the arrow storm, reckless in his rage, taking no heed to turn his scaly sides towards his foes, seeking only to set their town ablaze.

Fire leaped from the thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends as he hurtled down and past and round again, though all had been drenched with water before he came. Once more water was flung by hundreds of hands wherever a spark appeared. Back swirled the dragon. A sweep of his tail and the roof of the Great House crumbled and smashed down. Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. Another swoop and another, and another house and then another sprang afire and fell; and still no arrow hindered Smaug or hurt him more than a fly from the marshes.

Already men were jumping into the water on every side. Women and children were being huddled into laden boats in the market-pool. Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping, and where but a little time ago the old songs of mirth to come had been sung about the dwarves. Now men cursed their names. The Master himself was turning to his great gilded boat, hoping to row away in the confusion and save himself. Soon all the town would be deserted and burned down to the surface of the lake.

That was the dragon's hope. They could all get into boats for all he cared. There he could have fine sport hunting them, or they could stop till they starved. Let them try to get to land and he would be ready. Soon he would set all the shoreland woods ablaze and wither every field and pasture. Just now he was enjoying the sport of town-baiting more than he had enjoyed anything in years.

But there was still a company of archers that held their ground among the burning houses. Their captain was Bard, grim-voiced and grim-faced, whose friends had accused him of prophesying floods and poisoned fish, though they knew his worth and courage. He was a descendant in long line of Girion, Lord of Dale, whose wife and child had escaped down the Running River from the ruin long ago. Now he shot with a great yew bow, till all his arrows but one were spent. The flames were near him. His companions were leaving him. He bent his bow for the last time.

Suddenly out of the dark something fluttered to his shoulder. He started -- but it was only an old thrush. Unafraid it perched by his ear and it brought him news. Marvelling he found he could understand its tongue, for he was of the race of Dale.

'Wait! Wait!' it said to him. 'The moon is rising. Look for the hollow of the left breast as he flies and turns above you!' And while Bard paused in wonder it told him of tidings up in the Mountain and of all that it had heard.

Then Bard drew his bow-string to his ear. The dragon was circling back, flying low, and as he came the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered his great wings.

'Arrow!' said the bowman. 'Black arrow! I have saved you for the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!'

The dragon swooped once more lower than ever, and as he turned and dived his belly glittered white with sparkling gems in the moon--but not in one place. the great bow twanged. The black arrow sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow by the left breast where the foreleg was flung wide. In it smote and vanished, barb, shaft and feather, so fierce was its flight. With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down from on high in ruin.

Full on the town he fell. His last throes splintered it into sparks and gledes. The lake roared in. A vast steam leaped up, a gushing whirl, and then silence. And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth, but not of Bard.

Now, there are things that you couldn't do exactly as written in the book. For instance, you can't get across Bard's history during the course of the battle very well. A good movie-making move would be to introduce him as a character back when the dwarves arrive and are feasted by the Laketown men. However, what the book has going for it is that it's tactically sound and interesting. (Also, typing this up it strikes me: This was written in the '30s, before The Blitz made dealing with fire from above an real life occurrence for the Brits. And yet, it seems realistic and compelling, from the bridges being cut to the houses being wetted down to prevent fire.) Every image here is dramatic, and they follow logically.

And that's the big sin of Jackson's version of the scene: not that it doesn't follow the book precisely (though as I think the above shows, you could do the scene precisely as shown in the book and have a really dramatic scene) but that it is messy and, as a result, less dramatic. Something a lot more like the book, dropping the silly sub-plots like Bard being in jail, and including the town's efforts to defend itself, would have been more dramatic and become compelling. Jackson can do this. The Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers was a dramatization which made tactical sense and was more dramatic as a result.

The Dragon Sickness

The dwarves who made it out of the wreck of Laketown head up to the Mountain to join the rest of the company. Here they find Bilbo in doubt and Thorin in the throes of Dragon Sickness. See, we can't just have Thorin become a bit hardened and obsessed with the regained possessions of his kingdom. That might be a little too subtle for Jackson's estimation of his viewers. Instead, we need a full-on pathology which can be expressed in CGI.

One of the things I've heard praised about the earlier Hobbit movies is that Thorin comes off as a character with some actual nobility and gravitas, something that Jackson's version of Aragorn in the LotR movies mostly lacked. Here that mostly falls away because Jackson's portrayal of Dragon Sickness is so over the top. At one point, while contemplating it all, Thorin walks across a massive hall floored in gold (the quantity of gold in this Mountain is going to completely devalue the metal in Middle Earth -- Jackson can't do anything small) and suddenly we see a CGI vision of the floor turning into a golden vortex which sucks Thorin down. In case we didn't get that the first time, it happens twice as Thorin struggles to escape from the metallic whirlpool.

At the more personal level, in the previous movie Jackson had the dwarves explicitly promise Laketown payment for helping them. Bard repeatedly asks Thorin in parley if he will follow through on his promise and give the gold he promised to the survivors of Laketown to help them buy provisions and rebuild, but Thorin refuses on the theory he won't do anything with an army at his door. In the book, the survivors of Laketown come to the mountain thinking to get help, but they haven't been promised any kind of help by Thorin. So Thorin's refusal to help shows and hardening character. It is within his ability to help the survivors and he should owe them a debt of gratitude because they freely helped him, but he's not actively breaking his word.

Thorin does get some good words of reconciliation in with Bilbo at the very end, but even there I felt like it stuck to the personal and robbed Thorin of the more kingly character he cuts in his final scenes in the book.

The Storm Clouds Gather

In the mid section of the movie, Jackson is again hampered by the sheer number of plot threads he's got going on. Legolas and Tauriel go north to spy out one orc stronghold to the north, while Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond stage a kung fu attack on Sauron's stronghold of Dol Guldur and do all kinds of crazy martial arts along with a few of Galadriel's patented photo negative electro-magnetic pulse attacks in order to... well, they rescue Gandalf from a cage, and kind of sort of expel Sauron from his current stronghold, thus sending him East (to Mordor, nudge, nudge.) Honestly, this whole plot line should have been left out as it was in the book. Jackson doesn't end up having anything exciting to do with it, so aside from getting a chance to bring in characters from the LotR movies and show madcap Radagast's bunny-mobile again, there's really no point to it. (As Brandon discussed in his review, working from the appendix material which deals with the attack on by the White Council, there's actually a massive Jackson-style battle hinted at, which Saruman being instrumental in devising terrible siege engines which allow Sauron's stronghold to be overcome. Instead, we get peculiarly ineffectual elven and wizardly kung fu.)

Two massive orc armies are converging on the Mountain, one of them preparing a subterranean sneak attack by using giant earthworms to dig tunnels from which orcs will pour out.

There's a sort of reverse evolution going on among orcs in Jackson's Middle Earth. These orcs, particularly the main ones Bolg and Azog, are significantly larger and more indestructible than any of the orcs we saw in his Lord of the Rings. So while Saruman was supposedly doing some GMO work on orcs to make them bigger and able to fight during the day, in this world the orcs are far bigger and badder sixty years before LotR than they are during what you might expect to be the big orc showdown. They orcs are also accompanied by an array of beasts so big and so bad that it becomes kind of unbelievable that the forces of light assembled to fight them would actually stand a chance.

The forces of light aren't doing so well at first, though. The elves have shown up to demand a piece of the action from the dragon horde. These elves are so armored and move with such mechanized precision you almost wonder if they had any actors or if they entire elf host is 100% CGI except for Legolas, Tauriel and the magic-moose-riding Elf King. Yeah, did I mention that the Elf King rides a massive battle moose? (Or elk, or something.)

I was also a bit sad that the Elven King is given his own case of dragon sickness and is actually eager to start a fight for the treasure of the Mountain, while in the book he's the one with the line, "Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold."

Bilbo does still get his moment of trying to broker piece by bringing the Arkenstone to Bard to be used as a negotiation tool to get the desired help from the Dwarves. This incident, in such a sprawling movie, felt oddly abbreviated to me. It's cut down to the bare minimum, which it didn't have to be because as we see in a bit Jackson had more battle time than he knew what to do with. But there it is...

The Battle Breaks
And so we get to the battle. The battle is in the title, and it's clearly what's near and dear to Jackson's heart, but frustratingly enough, he doesn't quite seem to have it in him to direct a really tactically interesting and dramatic battle. I'd spent some downtime between writing sessions lately re-watching bits of HBO's WW2 drama Band of Brothers, and one of the things that had been striking me is how dramatic well executed battle tactics are. You have an objective; you have obstacles to it; you form a plan to overcome those objectives; and you execute that plan in great peril. This is the stuff that drama is made of, so it makes sense for an author or director dealing with a big battle to think through how it works tactically.  This is important not only because good tactics create good drama, but because a tactically incoherent battle (without clear objectives, without a clear plan for how to achieve those objectives, without clear obstacles to those plans) becomes a big spectacle without a lot of meaning or dramatic involvement.

Here again Tolkien is out ahead. When it becomes clear that armies of goblins and wolves are sweeping down upon the elves, dwarves and men, they take a quick council and form a battle plan:

This is the plan that he made in council with the Elvenking and with Bard; and with Dain, for the dwarf-lord now joined them: the Goblins were the foes of all, and at their coming all other quarrels were forgotten. Their only hope was to lure the goblins into the valley between the arms of the Mountain; and themselves to man the great spurs that struck south and east. Yet this would be perilous, if the goblins were in sufficient numbers to overrun the Mountain itself, and so attack them also from behind and above; but there was no time to make any other plan, or to summon any help.

So they have a plan: lure the enemy in and attack them from above. And there's a clear way for their plan to go wrong: the enemy gains the mountain and attacks them from above in turn. This is drama. Seriously, can you imagine if this was actually how it was directed:

The elves were the first to charge. Their hatred for the goblins is cold and bitter. Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. As soon as the host of their enemies was dense in the valley, they sent against it a shower of arrows, and each flickered as it fled as if with stinging fire. Behind the arrows a thousand of their spearmen leapt down and charged. The yells were deafening. The rocks were stained black with goblin blood.

Just as the goblins were recovering from the onslaught and the elf-charge halted, there rose from across the valley deep-throated roar. With cries of 'Moria!' and 'Dain, Dain!' the dwarves of the Iron Hills plunged in, wielding their mattocks, upon the other side; and beside them came the men of the Lake with long swords.

Jackson's battle starts much faster. There is no plan. The dwarves deploy in a cool-looking shield wall and wait to receive the charge of the oncoming orcs, while the elves look like they're going to sit it out behind the dwarves. Then the elves jump over the dwarves, landing in the narrow space between the dwarf spears and the oncoming orc army, and flash into action.

Between basically nonsensical battle tactics such as this, and Jackson's array of absurdly huge battle beasts that the orcs have brought with them, the whole thing becomes unbelievable and confused almost instantly. The orcs spend a lot of time attacking Dale, where the civilians from Laketown have taken refuge. This gives way too much time for not-very-funny antics in which Alfrid the greedy sidekick (whose life was saved inadvertently when the master threw him out of the boat with the gold) tried to hide from battle, dress himself as a woman, and run away with a corset stuffed with gold. Honestly, there must have been five minutes of Alfrid scenes, and they all could have gone. We also get lots of screaming time for Bard's two daughters (who as main characters get to be the only people from Laketown with good hygiene.) Finally, near the end, some of the women announce that they should take up arms and go fight with their men. At which point, the daughters get to show a fraction of the backbone which Bard Jr. has shown from the beginning -- but they don't actually get any real action to do, because by this point Jackson has realized that his main battle is too big and confusing even for him and so he basically abandons it for a smaller and more manageable conflict up on a frozen lake by Raven Hill. Thorin (who spends the first half of the battle saying that they should ignore the battle and make sure the gold is safe, but finally recovers and leads his twelve companions into the battle, though inexplicably without wearing helmets) and Fili and Kili head up there as to Legolas, Tauriel, the Elvenking, Bilbo, Azog and Bolg. Here they all fight it out in absurd and sometimes repetitive fashion.

Legolas flies on a bat, runs up falling rubble, and generally works magic to the point you start to wonder if we're seeing a video game rather than a movie. (The dividing line is so thin with The Hobbit.) Azog and Thorin have a massive single combat on the frozen lake, in which Azog flails at Thorin with a massive boulder on a chain, until he breaks up the ice so much that Thorin is able to make him fall in. He appears to die under the ice, but then -- in one of the most egregious not-really-dead-yet moments I've seen in a fight scene -- he stabs Thorin through the ice, then bursts through it from underneath and attacks Thorin again. Thorin kills him only by allowing himself to be mortally wounded. Luckily, Bilbo is right there, and is able to go over and have his touching last words with Thorin, because after having been impaled through the chest by a four-inch wide blade Thorin obviously isn't going to last long to gasp out his final forgiveness.

Fili and Kili are both killed (not defending Thorin as in the book, but more or less credibly fighting the orcs which are 2-3x their height) and Tauriel... isn't. This was the biggest surprise for me. According to Chekov's law, if you have an elf warrior maiden on the wall in the first movie, you have to shoot her in the third. Plus, since she's in love with Kili (who died) while Legolas is in love with her, it seems like at a story logic level she needs to die in order to avoid leaving open the question of where she is in LotR -- since she's obviously one of Middle Earth's great badasses. Instead, she weeps over Kili's body and says that if this was love, she doesn't want it, because it hurts too much. The Elvenking gets a little misty eyed and tells her that it hurts because it's real. Legolas says he can't go home, so his father advises him to go look up a ranger of the north who is called Strider. He may be the real deal. (For those of us who actually read the appendices to LotR: Aragorn was 10 at this point.)

And it Ends

The actual book was pretty good, though book speed, about closing action. Bilbo wakes from being hit on the head and finds the terrible aftermath of the battle, in which even Gandalf was wounded. He's taken to see Thorin, who is dying of his wounds, and exchanges final words with him. I always find myself choking up when reading this section. It really is good. Then Thorin is buried in state under the mountain, and Bard places the Arkenstone with him. His elven sword, Orcrist, is placed on his tomb. Dain becomes King Under the Mountain and Bard becomes King of Dale. Bilbo leaves in company with Gandalf and the Elvenking, to whom he gives a parting gift in part as recompense for all the things he stole while living in hiding in his halls. Arriving back in Hobbiton, Bilbo interrupts an estate sale of his things, which his heirs had arranged after having him declared dead.

The movie ends much faster, and although it takes a bit of time, it lacked the strong emotional closure. Bilbo is leaving empty-handed, Balin tells him that that night Thorin will be buried and pass into legend. There's a quick wave goodbye scene, and we're back in the Shire where Bilbo says goodbye to Gandalf and interrupts the estate sale.

One of the purposes of ritual is to channel proper feeling, and I think that in this case, working with Thorin's burial, the return of the Arkenstone, the crowning of Dain and the crowning Bard and rebuilding of Dale, we could have channeled feelings about the aftermath of the battle and the losses experienced by the characters. Having Bilbo intent on slipping away quietly, seemingly the day after the battle, ends up taking away from the feeling of the thing. We no longer have proper rituals to channel the emotions we ought to feel.

Overall, there was nothing in this movie quite as bad as some of the bits of the second: Thorin surfing on the river of gold, and the gold plating of the dragon spring to mind as just deeply absurd moments. But there was also a lot that simply wasn't that good, it was so large and unfocused. And especially frustrating, there were some things left out or changed to such an extent that with this final installment, I'm no longer sure one could product a good movie simply by cutting the nine hours of Jackson down to a good three-hour movie. It's sad, because having put this much into Tolkien adaptations, I don't know when it will happen again -- certainly not any time soon. Marvel franchises may be constantly rebooted, but I would imagine it'll be another 25+ years before we see a new set of Tolkien adaptations, if ever. I wish that this current crop were better.


David said...

I almost wonder if he came to hate the material, given the violence he has done to it. I wasn't eager to see it after the second movie - which I've taken to calling The Desolation of Tolkien - and this review pretty much has been decisive. Thorin's fall deserved just the smallest, fairest hint of subtlety, but I just don't think Jackson can do that. And as you say - this is sad, since the material can do better, and honestly - Jackson can do better. While certainly it was possible to discern (more than just) the seeds of spectacular vulgarity in the LOTR movies, and there are some ugly failures in the movies (Denethor and Faramir esp.), this goes far above and beyond those.

And of course the supreme irony is that it was greed that brought Jackson back to Middle Earth for a Hobbit trilogy - not just greed for money but also for glory and attention, the desire to relive past triumphs.

Brandon said...

Right all the way through. What's particularly perplexing about the Hobbit movies is that while they are better taken as movie prequels than as adaptations, they really aren't all that great as prequels, either -- sometimes they are reasonably prequelish and sometimes they just are baffling as prequels. But this seems to be just an extension of the habit you note of dropping threads (the thrush, the rallying of the Laketown women) that runs through the whole thing.

Since story confusion is common enough special effects spectaculars, it might have all been salvaged had the battles been done with any sense. I don't think anybody can come away from the movie with any clear idea of what was going on with the two orc armies -- it's a case where even just having the second army show up unexpectedly and without explanation would have made more sense, rather than pretending to explain things in such quick and piecemeal fashion that the audience doesn't really know what's going on. The elves leaping over the dwarves still gets me; it just seems to be the perfect example of neither Jackson nor any of his co-writers having even an elementary idea of how battles work.

Otepoti said...

Ah, yes, I thought I remembered this: The first incendiary devices to be dropped during World War I fell on coastal towns in the south west of England on the night of 18–19 January 1915. The small number of German bombs, also known as firebombs, were finned containers filled with kerosene and oil and wrapped with tar-covered rope. They were dropped from Zeppelin airships. On 8 September 1915, Zeppelin L-13 dropped a large number of firebombs, but even then the results were poor and they were generally ineffective in terms of the damage inflicted. They did, however, have a considerable effect on the morale of the civilian population of the United Kingdom.[1] [Wiki]

Also, I imagine Tolkien consulted or recalled contemporary accounts of the Great Fire of London (Pepys et al) for fire-fighting detail in a world of thatched roofs.