It began the year being perceived as the film that would take down Oscar, along the lines of Saving Private Ryan – an unflinching look at WWII. Probably it was never going to be Schindler’s List, an unflinching look at the Holocaust. Or maybe along the lines of ET, a film about a special bond between a human and an alien. But, as it happens, War Horse is none of these things. It’s Spielberg’s first family film that lacks even the edge that E.T. and Hook had. No, this, like his other film out this year, Tintin, is sincerity kicked up to 11. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heartfelt emotion that moves only in one direction is the stuff that many a war film from the 1940s, say, were made on. One thing I’m starting to understand about film critics is that they like nostalgic homages to our cinematic past perhaps more than they like films that try to do something new. Nothing new there; it is human nature to choose from a limited number of familiar things – hence the success of sequels, TV shows, McDonald’s and Starbucks. So it’s easier to wrap your mind around a movie that reminds you of John Ford than it is to see a movie that really comes baring no historical context whatsoever. This is why War Horse is probably going to be embraced by major critics, despite its weaknesses.
War Horse is, in many ways, the film that best sums up 2011’s year in film. It has mostly no love interest (except a boy and his horse), no sex, very little profanity and is aimed squarely at families, heaps upon heaps of sentimentality, both earned and unearned. I have always to wonder why we’re living in this post-9/11 era of dramas that really have erased human sexuality almost completely. It has never been as invisible, both in terms of having any sort of female presence, and in terms of existing at all, than it is in War Horse. This isn’t to say that every film should be about sex; but it’s weird when it’s absent completely. The last film to win Best Picture that had a sex scene in it was The Departed in 2006. Five years on and they’ve all been zipped up. War Horse, therefore, seems to epitomize this new/old ideal of movies that were made before you could talk about sex on screen.
And the only reason it means anything is that there is now a blurred line between what we used to think of as “family films” and what we now see as adult dramas. A decade ago, War Horse never would have gotten a pass. But because the pickings are so slim, the great films so few and far between, one embraces it out of necessity.
If you are afraid of some kind of extreme violence that might come to Joey the Horse, fear no more. It is not a spoiler so much as a reassurance to people who don’t want to feel pain on Christmas Day to say that War Horse ends like most Spielberg movies end – tied up as neatly as possible with the happiest of endings. Even when they’re bittersweet, like E.T. or Close Encounters. This isn’t a filmmaker who wants you to feel any amount of discomfort, even if the subject matter is World War I, you know, that war that caused TS Eliot to write The Waste Land?
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
In other words, don’t expect you’ll have to mourn the death of Joey the Horse any time soon.
There is no point in saying War Horse “doesn’t work,” because it more than works. Most people walk out of the film drying their tear-stained faces and saying how much they loved it. So how can that be wrong? It can’t be. Movies are made for audiences and Spielberg is the audience whisperer. He knows what people generally respond to — gone are the days of Jaws and Close Encounters where there was room left for doubt. Munich is maybe the only film Spielberg ever took on in the post-70s era that left the emotions in a somewhat ambiguous place. With War Horse he does exactly the opposite.
For me, the only time War Horse really fails as a film and as a story is when they sell out Joey. I can handle the man/horse passion/love. I can handle that the lead character doesn’t have a love interest and says things to the horse like “and then we’ll be together, Joey.” I can handle that he says it with a straight face. I can even handle the Gone with the Wind-esque ending, the lack of a single line that doesn’t feel like a cliche, and the blurring over of violence for the sake of numbed out children who just want to be happy all of the time. I can handle the old fashioned quality of it – heck, I can even handle the Spielberg face throughout. What got me, though, what pulled me out out of the film and finally made my flowing tears halt abruptly was when Spielberg felt it necessary to make the horse act like a person or a dog. Unlike a puppet that is being manned by people, where their gestures and feelings can be read through the horse’s movements to a clever degree, here, Spielberg has the horse hear what the humans are saying and act accordingly. He also has the horse “act” like Mr. Ed, for instance, and “choose” whom he wants to be with in the end. There was no real need to do that. It wasn’t necessary. Horses are magnificent on their own – they certainly don’t need to be infused with anthropomorphic qualities in that kind of film. I grew up with ponies and horses my entire childhood. I bonded fully and completely with a young stallion inappropriately named Pumpkin. He was my best friend. I rode him up and down the firebreaks in Topanga, walked him when he was tired, bathed him. When we moved from Topanga I had to watch as he was loaded onto a horse trailer and taken away. For someone who had a fairly traumatic childhood anyway that event stands apart as one of the most traumatic of my life: I know horses. As wonderful as they are they have their own behavior that’s different from dogs, chimps and people. The fact that Spielberg betrays this bothered me too much in the end.
Most people won’t care about that. The complaints about War Horse will come from the sappiness of it, the contrived nature of how it all comes together in the end. But most will be sold on the 100% pure emotion it doles out. And I would have been right there with them if only he hadn’t overplayed his hand with that damned horse.
Still there is much to appreciate with War Horse. So much of it is so beautifully handled, especially when the horse is traded from one side to the other and you see some of the battle play out. But it backs off what that war really was. And again, on stage and in a book you don’t need to have every detail laid out. But on film, that kind of film, you expect to see a more realistic depiction of what war really is, that war especially.
The other minor complaint is that many of the soldiers, I suppose not the British soldiers, acted like horses were expendable, when in fact, according to Wikipedia, they were anything but: “The value of horses was known to all. In 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, men at the front understood that “at this stage to lose a horse was worse than losing a man because after all, men were replaceable while horses weren’t.” For Britain, horses were considered so valuable that if a soldier’s horse was killed or died he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had not simply become separated.”
However, what War Horse gets right is how many horses were killed during that war. The number is at around six million horses who were estimated to have served in the war with a good number of them dying during the war. That in and of itself is a compelling fact. This is why I didn’t think Spielberg needed to embellish Joey’s behavior to make him act more like a person. It doesn’t help the story so much as it makes it borderline ridiculous.
In the end, though, it’s good to know what role horses played in World War I. At the end of the film the horse is treated like the courageous soldier that he was. And if by this point you aren’t a mewling sobbing wreck well, what is there to say. By the time Joey is given props for his contribution to the fight your soggy tears might have even bloomed into an all out ugly cry. I know mine did. After that, for me, the movie stumbled.
But you start to look like a fool if you tear down a movie like this that so many people seem to enjoy. Where is the joy in that? There are so few mainstream Hollywood films of substance, especially this year. It’s hard to complain when Spielberg comes along and makes one that has its heart in the right place. So it isn’t perfect, so I expected more from him, so I hope he could practice a bit more restraint with the schmaltz — none of that takes away from what War Horse might bring to weary audiences looking for yet another sentimental education, 2011 style.