Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Riding Into Battle With WAR HORSE


- I'll admit, I feel a little torn about War Horse. Spielberg's latest war epic is beautifully shot, occasionally poignant, and has a handful of scenes that were among my favorites of any movie this year. And yet ... it's a Spielberg movie about a horse. My inner sentimentalist couldn't help but get caught up in the bombast of it all. My inner cynic couldn't stop groaning at the cheese-factor. Regardless, War Horse is a well-told story that is pretty much as advertised: a Hallmark card of a WWI movie. Spielberg knows, more than any other director, how to tug at heart strings. But when Spielberg is at his best, he also goes the extra mile. When he made E.T., Spielberg struck a nerve because he told a great story, filled with awe and wonder, and also captured the feeling of loneliness and isolation that can oftentimes be inherent in childhood. With War Horse, Spielberg strikes at an important and heartfelt message - the futility and tragedy of war - but he does so through the perspective of ... a horse. Not to undermine some of the film's genuinely powerful moments, I just think that it's a very, very tricky balancing act. A horse is not a person - it doesn't take sides in a war, and it would have the same attachments, fears, and reflexes whether it was on the side of the English or the Germans. With that in mind, WAR HORSE, to me, has moments where it truly shines - but it is also limited by its non-human protagonist.

The story of War Horse is simple but effective, particularly in the way that the plot goes around in a satisfying and elegantly-structured circle. We begin the film in the rural village of Devon, England, just prior to the start of World War I. A farmer by the name of Ted is in need of a new horse to plough his farm. At a horse auction, Ted goes against his better judgement, and rather than spending wisely on a work horse or mule, he spends a large sum of money on a thoroughbred - swift and graceful, but not exactly built for ploughing a farm. The purchase actually has the potential to be a huge mistake for Ted and his family, as, if they can't properly farm their land, then they can't pay off their rather cruel landlord, and stand to lose their farm. Luckily, Ted's teenaged son Albert takes to the horse - he names it Joey - and, against all odds, he teaches it to plough. Just as the boy and horse have formed a special bond, however, the war is on, and the British army offers to buy the horse for military use. Ted obliges despite his son's protests, and Joey is shipped off to war.

As War Horse progresses, we see Joey go on an odyssey through some of the various battlefields of World War I. He rides into battle as part of the British cavalry, gets commandeered by German forces, gets used in an escape attempt by two young German deserters, and finds temporary respite on a French farm, where he's cared for by a precocious young girl and her grandfather. In the film's climactic showpiece scene, Joey finds himself caught in a devastating, apocalyptic battle between British and German forces.

For me, the movie took a little while to get going. The opening scenes with Albert bonding with his horse struck me as the movie at its cheesiest. With John Williams' sweeping score blasting, we're treated to scene after scene of this 16 or 17 year old boy who inexplicably loves this horse with all his heart. It was all a bit much, but I thought the movie picked up a good deal when the scene shifts to the battlefields of World War I, and the film's focus moves to Tom Hiddleston as a courageous British officer, who's sworn to Albert that he'll keep his horse safe. Hiddleston brings some much-needed gravitas to the film, helping in the transition from boy-and-his-horse theater-of-the-aw-shucks to legit war movie.

Spielberg knows how to craft epic and horrific scenes of wartime combat, and such scenes are where War Horse really soars. When the bullets are flying and the threat of death is real, that's when I began to sit up and get 100% absorbed in the goings-on. And that too is when the central message of War Horse shines through. The somewhat manufactured relationship between a boy and his horse? Only went so far with me. But what did get to me was the idea that this war was destroying the beauty of the world bit by bit, that it was devouring up the land, and turning the earth's most majestic creatures (not to mention us humans) into cannon fodder. When the movie sticks to this sort of big idea, I think it really works. There's one phenomenal scene, for example, in which, during a lull in the fighting between the British and Germans, two soldiers - one from each side - have an unusually cordial encounter in the middle of the battlefield. It turns out that both want to help Joey, who's been caught by barbed wire in the middle of the combat zone. For a moment, the enemy combatants are just two people - but the absurdity and tragedy of the scene is that despite their friendliness, they're about to go back to trying to kill each other. Spielberg handles the scene with a deft, light touch - and though it's perhaps something we've seen before, few other directors could do so with such grace.

Where the movie lost me though was in the moments where it walks the line between following this horse's journey and actually making the horse into a person - a real character. To me, that's cheating. In an otherwise realistic movie, I felt that War Horse had too many instances where Joey acts less like a horse and more like a human. To me, those moments actually took me out of the movie and to some extent undermine its message.

As for the acting, I thought it was pretty good all around. Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is decent as Albert, but he is also probably the most guilty of anyone in the movie of laying on the schmaltz a bit too thickly. Tom Hiddleston is a standout, as mentioned. And generally, the cast is solid, though there's also a lack of truly commanding performances. In terms of the score, I actually think there are some fantastic themes here by John Williams - certainly, some of the more memorable work he's done in a while. I think the only issue is that the score is so bombastic and sweepingly sentimental - sometimes the action on screen doesn't quite live up to it. The effect is that the score, good as it is, can seem a little overbearing at times.

I will reiterate, however, that the film looks incredible. It was only days ago that Spielberg wowed me with the visuals of Tintin, and now he's wowed me again, but in a much different manner. With War Horse, much of the film has the classic quality of an old-school Hollywood epic. There are sprawling shots of the pastoral countryside, screen-filling sunsets that frame everything in lush, golden hues. As per usual, Spielberg infuses scenes with the maximum levels of awe and wonder. At the same time, there are a handful of scenes where the director cuts loose. One battle scene brings to mind the chaotic combat of Saving Private Ryan. And the previously-mentioned showpiece scene, in which the camera tracks Joey's desperate gallop through a hellish battlefield, is one for the ages. It's the one scene in the film where my jaw was truly on the floor.

Ultimately, I don't know that War Horse will be placed at the top tier of the Spielberg cannon. It's an excellent family film, and a simple yet effective cautionary tale about the horrors and futility of war. But Spielberg can be prone to diluting his films with too much sentimentality, and I think that's the case here. It's not that War Horse should have been devoid of sentimentality, it's just that the manufactured throughline of the boy and his horse never hit me as hard as the real-life horrors that both were witness to. It's nice that the two shared this bond, but it seems hard to get too caught up in it given the horrific backdrop. And let's face it, a horse is never going to be as effective of a character as a human being. I don't want to harp on that too much though. If you can get past all that, War Horse is a rewarding film in many ways. It's cheesy at times, sure - but it's also a classically-composed, stunningly-shot epic, and if you watch it, well, maybe - just maybe - a heartstring or two will be tugged.

My Grade: B+


  1. ----Spielberg continues to deliver over-produced
    PC moral alibis --for himself as Hollywood
    continues to BALK and RUN from the awesomely
    significant 60th Anniversary of the

    ---------------KOREAN WAR----------------.


  2. Hmm ... well, Spielberg definitely has a certain style, and to an extent I agree that he tends to play things a little safe sometimes and also does tend to lay the sentimentality on too thick. That said, most of the time, the sheer directorial prowess he displays and his talent for great storytelling tends to outweigh his faults, in my view. As for the Korean War, why do you talk about Hollywood like it's one person? Every director has their own interests and passions - I'm sure one of these days someone will come to the table with a great Korean War movie. But I think it's unfair to assume that there's some mass-conspiracy to NOT do one.