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War Horse, “Anti-War Mosaic”

Another early review has popped up, this by Ted Pigeon:

The film centers on a horse named Joey, who is auctioned off to a poor farmer who can hardly afford to maintain the farm and support his family. The farmer’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), trains Joey to plow the fields and eventually takes the horse under his wing. Structurally, War Horse resembles Spielberg’s film of ten years ago, A.I.. The first act presents a focused family drama before drastically changing course for an episodic second act, which follows the horse on a series of encounters with a variety of folks on different sides of the war. Like A.I., this film is most effective in delivering the shorter vignettes in its long middle section rather than with the main story established in the opening 30 to 40 minutes. However, while A.I. gave us a machine who simulated the actions and emotions of a human, Spielberg here asks us to invest in an animal that cannot feel or simulate human emotion. To his credit, Spielberg mostly avoids attributing human feelings to animals, though there are a few points that veer close. But to my surprise, the “horse perspective” plot device works very well because the story remains fixed on the human characters that weave throughout the narrative. Each of the smaller portraits in the middle of the film are delicate and compelling in depicting how various individuals are affected by and participate in the war. While not especially subtle, these smaller stories are quilted together into a larger anti-war mosaic that I found much more convincing than the director’s 1998 anti-(but-also-pro-)war film Saving Private Ryan. This film gives us characters on all sides of the conflict that are fearful, caring, and human.

In Spielberg’s vision, the larger context for the war or the strategic interests of the sides are not factors. This is where the plot element of the horse perspective plays a key role. The story of the horse becomes involving because it avoids “horse feelings” (for lack of a better term). Without diving too deeply into the horse’s motivations or emotions, Spielberg fashions a narrative strung together by benign observances of the fear and benevolence of those who enter into the horse’s narrative. The human characters are mostly all good people who do little things to help each other out. The film adopts a serious view of the implications for war while also citing the need to distort its reality (particularly in a wonderful passage involving on older Frenchmen and his granddaughter). One common thread to the human stories is the often dehumanizing social roles we inevitably must inhabit to survive. And as is typical of a Spielberg film, technology also features prominently among the film’s thematic undercurrents, particularly the technology of warfare. Another integral element that begs further exploration is how people communicate, whether with animals, the enemy, or through technology.

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15 Comments on this Post

  1. In what way was Saving Private Ryan “pro-war?” It didn’t take a side politically, and it actually showed the true horror of war.

  2. It was pro-war in that it exemplified heroism and still contained a fair share of flag-waving. It’s a far cry from the truly anti-war sentiment of The Big Red One or The Thin Red Line. And the “true horror of war” isn’t the blood and guts and mud RMmed down your throat by Spielberg, it’s the dehumanizing Spect of it, something the other films did far better.

  3. Because they weren’t heroic? War, especially WW2, isn’t just one emotion. The movie doesn’t show them being gung-ho about anything. They’re annoyed by their mission, and the fact they continue to lose their comrades. Yes, the violence of war is the true horror. It’s the entire reason soldiers lose themselves mentally. Those are images you can’t forget. The overwhelming adoration for its portrayal from actual veterans of the war, isn’t something that can be brushed aside either.

    Upham killing Willie isn’t dehumanizing? What about the fact that Ryan feels guilty for his life? The Thin Red Line is a lot of things, but an accurate portrayal of war and its effects it is not. It even made Guadalcanal look like paradise for christ’s sake.

  4. Saving Private Ryan is a good Spielberg film. The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece, less concerned with putting the audience in the middle of the action by hammering them with guts and gunshots.

  5. I agree with lazarus: Saving Private Ryan, after a brilliant 20 minutes, sank into a malaise of sentimentality and flag-waving which I thought would never end. Thin Red Line, Big Red One, Stalingrad, Das Boot, Apocalypse Now – all vastly superior war films.

  6. Robert Cameron

    Seriously guys, you’re beginning to sound like those people who sneer “Spielberg makes movies, Godard makes films.” If Saving Private Ryan is pro-anything, it’s the courage it takes to fight through the horror a b.s. that is war. It’s just as effective as The Thin Red Line, and people need to stop comparing the two.

  7. Houstonrufus

    SOOOO, excited. I got an invite to see it next Wednesday. I’ll have to get their early to get in line. I hope I make it in!!

  8. Houstonrufus – please be sure to give us your take if you make it in!

  9. Houstonrufus

    Will Do, Steve50! I had read it was showing in a few cities in the midwest, but hadn’t heard it was showing here in Houston. So when I got the invite today, it was a total surprise.

    I agree with your assessment of Saving Private Ryan. I actually like the film more than you did, but I do think Spielberg’s first 20 minutes or so of the film is a masterpiece. The rest of the film is fine but has its flaws. Which is why I feel like I’m the only person in the world who thinks Shakespeare in Love should have won that year. And that Spielberg won the oscar he was supposed to win.

  10. Rufussondheim

    I am coming to the conclusion that Spielberg is a good litmus test in determining what one enjoys in movies/films.

    When people are critical of Spielberg on here of late, I am 100% in agreement with their specific criticisms. The things that bother them are things that bother me (like Spielberg trying to have it both ways in Saving Private Ryan).

    No one here is denying Spielberg isn’t a master at the technical aspects of filmmaking, it’s the storytelling that’s the problem for many of us.

  11. “Which is why I feel like I’m the only person in the world who thinks Shakespeare in Love should have won that year. And that Spielberg won the oscar he was supposed to win.”

    You aren’t alone – I thought the oscar went to the better candidate that year, also.

    I’m not a Spielberg-hater, by any means. Schindler’s List was top-notch. I liked Close Encounters better than Star Wars. Jaws was brilliantly put together. ET – great family movie. But turning one of my favourite books, The Color Purple, into a Xmas card- unforgiveable. Amistad was a mess. He’s a technical genius with moments of cinematic artistry.

    War movies are my favorite genre, if I had to name one, and I’m around animals all the time, including horses, so I’m going into War Horse with an open (and hopeful) mind. I expect to be emotionally maneuvered, but no shoving, please.

  12. Jim Fine

    Ted Pigeon first posted his review on the John Williams Fan wesbite forum, http://www.jwfan.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=20872&st=40 and there’s another review by ‘Nightscape94′ on the same page – he went to the same screening at Plymouth Meeting, PA. The page also links to other reviews, like AICM’s. The forum’s worth keeping an eye on as they often get previews etc from a DreamWorks insider.

  13. I also think the Oscars got it right when they gave Spielberg the Directing Oscar but handed Picture to Shakespeare in Love.

    Either film was deserving of best Picture – and really they are so different, how does one compare – but SiL to me is a perfect movie that I will be happily watching again and again. SPR is a strong middle-of-the-road war movie story elevated by amazing, virtuoso directing that drives home the horror and amoral madness of war better or as well as any other film out there. But Spielberg’s directing is so clearly greater than, say, the story itself, which reheats a lot of old WW2movie cliches;, whereas SiL is a movie where all elements are equally wonderful and no one contribution overshadows or outbalances the others.

    It was clearly a horse race that year. Both films had won 5 Oscars before Best picture was announced. It could have gone either way. Can’t we just say they were both deserving? Yet I for one will always personally treasure Shakespeare in Love more.

  14. Sam Stronach

    If any of you are Veterans in Canada, there are seven special screenings next Wednesday (16 November). Details here:

    http://www.brandonsun.com/entertainment/breaking-news/veterans-invited-to-advance-screening-of-steven-spielbergs-war-horse-133611338.html?thx=y

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