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War Horse

December 26, 2011
War Horse

Steven Spielberg makes a lunge for your heartstrings with War Horse. Or, as it might have been titled, One Bloody Thing After Another. In most such films the process of overcoming misfortune is incredibly inspiring, but in this one the sheer number of misfortunes is pretty incredible on its own.

A young man, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), watches a thoroughbred horse being born and is immediately taken with it. At auction, his father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse as much to spite his landlord as anything else, despite the fact that what he needs is a plow horse; Albert names his new horse Joey. His mother (Emily Watson) is right to worry, as their farm may go under for this unwise expense, and Joey isn’t made for plowing a stony field. But Joey — every bit as stubborn as Albert and his father — gets it done.

When the Great War breaks out, Joey is sold — the only way to save the farm’s — to an officer (Tom Hiddleston), who promises to return Joey to Albert. The first charge on the continent is a disaster, and Joey is captured by the Germans. He ends up with a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) for a bit before being conscripted again and pressed into service hauling German guns until the end of the war. Meanwhile, though originally too young to enlist, Albert enters the army himself in search of Joey.

Spielberg makes much of the slow transformation from the pastoral country sides of 1914 Devon to the blasted hell of the Somme in late 1918, but much of the war is not just glossed, but skipped entirely. If you didn’t pay close attention in history class and didn’t pay attention to the two establishing captions, you could easily believe the war lasted a matter of months or less.

And how can you portray the absolute horror that was trench warfare — including a major charge over the top — without seeing a single drop of blood? Whether shot, stabbed, or struck by shrapnel, soldiers collapse in a heap to die. Survivors are left with neatly cauterized scrapes or a rash from exposure to mustard gas. Blood, I suppose, would make people too sad for cheap sentimentality to buoy.

There isn’t much point in mentioning the acting; there isn’t much to speak of. We barely stay in one place long enough to develop any character beyond the point of caricature. Albert is stubborn and loyal; his mother is practical but defensive of her family; the landlord is as much of a jerk as any German commander; the French grandfather is world-weary. The only fleshed-out character is Joey, who is anthropomorphized more than any of the people around him.

As if it’s not already sweet enough: add strings. John Williams score is more than a match for the rest of the movie’s syrupy sweetness. I’m sure some people love this sort of diabetes-inducing glurge, but I need a bit of an edge to keep a film grounded. That’s where — despite popular opinion — We Bought A Zoo goes so right, and War Horse goes so wrong.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ilya Kopysitsky permalink
    January 16, 2012 02:09

    Here are my thoughts on War Horse and Spielberg in general:

    I really liked the film. While not one of Spielberg’s best films, its artistry is at a totally different level than the usual Hollywood fare. I think the sentimentality you are writing about is Spielberg’s choice to use to form of a children’s film to tell the story of World War I. By constricting himself to making a children’s film, Spielberg gives his film rigorous structure. The audience doesn’t have to find their bearings, they know they are watching a children’s story and they can concentrate on how Spielberg will fill it in. This is one of the most horrifying films about war I have ever seen. Spielberg manages to make an extremely powerful statement against war by showing not just what it does to the lives of individual people but also the futility of the enterprise. I think John Ford would be extremely happy if he made a movie of this quality.

    Why can’t people accept Spielberg as a great artist? Sure most of his movies adhere to genre conventions, but not having to construct form frees him to concentrate on the content of his films. Hawks, Ford and Chaplin all made films that adhered to genre conventions, but this wasn’t a limitation, it was an advantage. The same could be said about Spielberg. Minority Report is a science fiction film but its really an extremely serious examination of totalitarianism, The Terminal is a Capra-eseque comedy but its really a film about post-9/11 America, Schindler’s List is a “Holocaust Film” but its really an exploration of a very certain type of American personality, War of the Worlds is another horrifying war film, Hook is a about how modern life breaks the spirit of a man and how it can be restored… All excellent.

    When he isn’t constrained to genre he is even better. A. I. is the best American film that I have seen in the last decade. It is a study of how families destroy their children, a tale of how man’s foresight is limited even at his most rational, a convincing story of The End of Civilization and how it all fits together. On first viewing the movie appears “sentimental”, but this is false. This is a film that is meant to address the analytic part of the intellect first and the emotional part afterwards as say Kubrick’s great films Eyes Wide Shut or Barry Lyndon. First the ideas must be understood, then an emotional attachment to the work can be made. I think War Horse shares some of this quality with A. I. It is a deeper picture than it first appears to be.

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