I've forgotten when and where and why I found out that Steven Spielberg was making a movie based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book War Horse. I ordered the book from the library, and read it in a few hours. It was a sweet tale, about a boy and his beloved horse, a horse sold to the army as a cavalry mount at the beginning of World War I.
When I saw the first trailers of War Horse in the theater, my eyes began to leak tears, thinking about how Spielberg was going to take a sweet tale, and make it an epic one.
And yes, he did, all the way from a picturesque little village in England to the nightmare of barbed wire, mud, and machine guns of "no man's land" -- the battleground between opposing armies' trenches. British poet Wilfred Owen described it well:
Hideous landscapes, vile noises....everything unnatural, broken, blastered; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth.
Through the film Spielberg drags us ever downward, from the unrealistic optimism at the outbreak of war, to attacks on unarmed soldiers, to stupidly planned battles, to soldiers looting farms for food ... all the way to the rats and mud in the trenches. The life of the horse is also devolved, from helpmate and pet, to weapon of war, to abused muscle to be discarded when used up.
Yet on this horrible journey, the film also speaks of hope, when people stop fighting long enough to recognize the humanity around them: A German commander angrily confronting an English cavalry officer who has just foolishly allowed his men to be massacred; a brother who risks everything to protect his sibling; a man who tries to take care of the animals his army must use ruthlessly.
There are so many memorable images in this movie, it could be hard to choose one that made the greatest impression; but for me, it was the one that exemplified the change in the use of horses in warfare. A cavalry charge takes place, and with the camera, the movie takes full advantage of the absolute terror a man would feel seeing a line of horses thundering down upon him, the sound, the speed, the size -- the knowledge that the 1000-pound animals have been trained to trample anyone in their path. The scene was mind-boggling -- but the horse was already obsolete as a weapon, and proved no use against the rapid fire of machine guns.
Two things were a disadvantage for this movie's magic where I was concerned, however. The first is my own fault: I read the book and knew the ending, so the culmination of the story was not powerful to me. The second ... well, I've owned a horse (sometimes two) for 25 years, and have been a horse enthusiast all my life. I was very distracted by what was to me, obviously different horses used in various scenes (and they have to do that, of course), and also had a couple nitpick criticisms that had to do with hair growth, hide condition, and barbed wire.
Overall, this is a gorgeous movie with an important message: War ain't a fit night out for man nor beast.
It is not often that the movie house here in the trailer park has two brand new movies by Steven Spielberg playing at once. In fact, I can't remember that ever happening, but then my memory isn't what is used to be. Nonetheless, such an opportunity presented itself this holiday season when Steve followed up last week's release of the animated gem Tintin with the live action film War Horse. So off Sand and I went to the movies for the second time in less than a week. We did not go on Christmas Day because as old-fashioned as it sounds, we think there are indeed more important things than Spielberg premieres to do on Christmas.
So. When it comes to story telling, it is said that all stories are variations on several basic plot types. Everybody seems to agree there are basic plot types, but the number of basic plots ranges from three to thirty-six, with seven being a popular number. There are, however an infinite number of ways to describe the three, seven, twenty or thirty-six plot types, so this is by no means a science. If you are interested in one take on the plot types, click here. War Horse in my mind is a 9/14 combo plot, which is a protagonist facing overwhelming odds (#9) and protagonist overcoming obstacles to true love (#14). Yup, you guessed it, this is a formulaic boy-and-girl-separated-by-war movie. The twist here is that the part of the girl is played by Joey the Horse. In a further twist, the girl is the one sent off to war and the boy has the classic girl-left-behind part. Of course it might be that the author is simply stating that it doesn't have to be that the girl always gets left behind and sometimes guys can be left behind, but on the other hand, the boy was a boy, and the girl was a horse. But the horse was a boy too. Hmmm ...
There is another basic plot, the Star Trek plot, which is based on the premise that all life forms in the universe are sexually attracted to Captain Kirk, but War Horse is not that type of story. It really is a simple and sweet 9/14 combo. The twist to the story that is the "hook," the thing that drags you into this story, is that this story has been made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. We therefore should expect a meticulous and wonderful telling of the tale.
Did we get it?
Well, I'm not as big a horse story person as Sand is, so it was a little difficult for me to throw myself into the story. When Joey the horse was being taken off to the war and the boy was blubbering about never forgetting and not resting till they were reunited and the like, I would have been perfectly fine with him getting whacked in the back of the head and told Just suck it up, kid, it's just a horse; it's not like they're dragging your grandfather out of the pub. But then that's just me. Spielberg is more sympathetic than I am, however, and takes us into World War I step by step, the initial hurrahs and the marching off to a glorious adventure leading inexorably into a conflict that strips every bit of good from everything and everyone it touches. There are no heroes in this story, only survivors.
The anti-war message came through in this story, but not much else. We are not given enough of the boy to be invested in him, and there wasn't enough reality to the horse to make it more than just a prop. Fortunately Spielberg resisted creating an anthropomorphic Disney-type character out of the horse, but then fell short in portraying the horsy details. We are asked to believe for instance that a horse raised as a pet and a plow horse can be carted off and in days be a trained cavalry horse racing off into battle.
Of course this was a Spielberg movie. Not being particularly drawn into the story, I was able to pay more attention to the movie making. It dawned on me what I like about his movies. First, I think that he never forgets that movies are about taking us to places and seeing things that we don't usually see in real life. In the opening scenes of the movie, we are shown the beautiful and idyllic English countryside, but it is not sufficient to be shown a static scene or be given a simple pan shot. We are treated to a soaring aerial tour, seeing sheep like ornaments on the fields. I can see fields when I want, but I rarely get to see them from above. Always in Spielberg's movies, every scene is beautifully and artistically composed. Second, as well as meticulously composing the elements in a shot, Spielberg uses light to direct us. I was struck in this film by how cleverly he would light a scene so that the light itself would direct my eyes to what he wanted me to see. Look here and see what Rembrandt does with light in his painting "Anatomical Lecture," and you will get an idea of what Spielberg does with light. Comparing Spielberg with Rembrandt? Yes, I think that is a valid comparison of two talented artists.
Having said all that, do I think this film worked? Actually, aside from giving credit for the great technical expertise, I would only give a lukewarm endorsement to the film. There really was nothing innovative or remarkable about this movie, something I've come to expect from Spielberg. It was okay, but not much more.
If you want to see a Spielberg movie, definitely go see Tintin, which very definitely is innovative and remarkable. You can wait for War Horse to hit the cable movie channels.