War Horse: Speilberg’s beautiful but flawed anti-war epic [MOVIE REVIEW]
“War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s newest release, is a technical beauty. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston and composer John Williams are the true stars of this film. Based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and the award winning stage play written by Nick Stafford, screenwriters Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) have attempted to open up the story to a more visually graphic depiction of the futility of war.
Admitting to a lack of objectivity as the opening credits began to roll, I was skeptical that this film could compete with the phenomenon that was the stage play where life size puppets, for lack of a better word, represented the horses and farm animals. In a claustrophobic setting, with an almost bare set and using video footage and sound effects, the directors of the play, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot, created an urgent and violent atmosphere that sucked in the audience and heightened their identification with the plight of the characters passing through the lives of the war horse as well as the horses themselves.
Ted Narracott, a poor Irish farmer, wounded in the Boer War, allows the drink to interfere with his good or at least more realistic judgment. Goaded into a bidding war over a thoroughbred when he should be buying a plow horse, Ted finds himself saddled with a beautiful, impractical and useless animal that has cost him his savings and his mortgage money. Rosie, his beleaguered wife is distraught; not so his bright-eyed son, Albert, who immediately names the horse Joey and begins to train him. Bad luck seems to compound Ted’s bad judgment and he betrays Albert by selling Joey to an officer about to depart for the Great War.
Vividly depicting the horrors of war in the trenches – bloody, loud, dirty, claustrophobic – Joey is followed from battlefield to battlefield, captor to captor, all the while depicting the starvation, pain and cruelty inflicted on the innocent and guilty alike. Albert, too young at the beginning of the war eventually joins, intending to find his horse. The shift in focus to Albert brings the human carnage more into focus.
Spielberg’s attempt to combine a story of bonding, the boy and his horse, overlaid with a graphic depiction of the futility of war is a noble one and one at which he almost succeeds. The difficulties faced in such a scenario are brought more clearly into focus by all those that have preceded this particular film. The writers made a conscious decision to remove Ted, played by a mournful Peter Mullen, from the stereotype of an Irish drunk, but in so doing they also removed much of the external/internal conflict that is probably necessary to create the tragic loss and betrayal felt by Albert, a bright-eyed Jeremy Irvine, and depict the harrowing existence that a wife and mother in such a situation would have felt, leaving the usually exceptional Emily Watson with little to do but look concerned. The villain in the play, against whom Ted bid for the horse, was his successful brother, something that created a conflict of Greek proportions; in the film he is the smug landlord, David Thewlins using his overbite to maximum effect, whose greatest evil is his higher societal status, something that will be passed to his son who, as an officer, will fight less valiantly than Alfred, whose lower standing in the military reflects his poverty stricken origins.
Joey, who began life as Albert’s pet and is then sold to an English officer, will find himself captured by the Germans; hidden by a little French girl, pretty newcomer Céline Buckens speaking with a distractingly bad French accent, who lives alone with her grandfather, played with depth and warmth by the great French character actor Niels Arestrup; recaptured again and so on.
The challenge attempted but not met was to make this film successfully merge the bonding story with an effective anti-war message. Adequate on both counts, it falls severely short of being great on either side. Masterful stories have been told on screen about the love of a child for his pet from “My Friend Flicka,” to “The Yearling” to the original “Lassie” films and “National Velvet.” My personal favorite for emotional catharsis is “Old Yeller,” an obvious influence on this film as noted in later scenes. “War Horse” does not explore or achieve the level of emotional identification that any of these earlier films achieved, so while we’re definitely moved by the plight of Joey and the dangers he faces, our identification with him as Albert’s beloved companion is more removed.
Spielberg’s desire for an anti-war message is, also, not as successful as he might have wished and again it is by comparison of the truly great anti-war films that preceded and influenced this one. “War Horse” reflects several of those films in theme, scenes and cinematography. It is impossible not to think of Lewis Milestone’s classic rendition of Eric Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” because “War Horse” seems at times to duplicate the bunker sequences almost shot for shot. “Joyeux Noel” by Christian Carrion depicted an Allied/Axis Christmas truce that emphasized the similarities of the soldiers’ plights and desire for peace; and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” cast the blame on world leaders and sympathetically depicted soldiers on both sides as pawns in someone else’s game. So, although effectively depicting the horrors of war, “War Horse” is unable to bring added depth, passion or originality to the genre.
Kaminsky’s cinematography and Carter’s production design, always extraordinary, both help and hurt Spielberg’s goals. As mentioned previously, the depiction of war in the trenches is highly effective, violent and gritty, successfully bringing the viewer into the middle of the action and unable to escape. Less effective are the opening sequences, for while Ireland itself is beautiful, lush and green, as illustrated by Kaminsky’s photography, the life and living situation of the Narracotts is supposed to be marginal. Belief in the hard-scrabble existence of the family is not brought more into focus by having them live in a beautiful, immaculately clean and cozy cottage with a green meadow for the horse and loamy, if rocky, soil to cultivate. In the end, as engaging as “War Horse” is, and it is engaging, Spielberg oftentimes resorts to big, John Williams’ music-enhanced, wide-screen moments to manipulate the emotion that the story should have been able to elicit on its own.
Opening wide on Christmas day.
Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at www.nomeanerplace.com