You Can Lead a Horse to War… : Spielberg’s War Horse.

Jeremy Irvine in War Horse

Beautiful photography and some moving performances can’t mask the phoniness of Spielberg’s latest submission. I know this is well regarded, even loved, in certain circles (Sam I’m looking in your direction), but I couldn’t get past its blustering optimism in the face of horror. What starts out as a relatively engaging story of  the relationship between a boy and his horse turns into a groan-worthy retread of Red Violin. Only this time it isn’t a musical instrument being passed from owner to owner by a miraculous horse. The miracle horse survives the worst ravishes of the First World War, even if his human companions don’t. And of course we are waiting for the inevitable reunion between the boy and the horse. We never really feel threatened by the mustard gas, barbed wire, stray explosives, or cruel men because we know Spielberg has preordained a happy ending. Spielberg has succeeded with emotionally manipulative fare before (think E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but where those managed to touch on some kind of truth through sometimes masterful manipulation, War Horse peddles a lot of clichés that reveal nothing more than the emptiness of the picture. All you have to do is believe in yourself (or your horse) and try and you will succeed! That’s it. You’ll never fail. I’ve never understood why there isn’t as much honor and satisfaction in trying and failing. But Spielberg continues to force-feed his audience feel good triumphalism that aren’t credible. There is no way half of the things the horse does and survives could have happened.  If a movie ever called for an Old Yeller-type ending, it’s this one. It would have meant more than the fantasies we’re served up in War Horse, but then theater-goers wouldn’t leave the theater feeling great. (Never mind how many people died, the boy and his horse are together again!) Spielberg can be a great director, but he’s trying too hard to make a movie audiences will love, instead of making something real. The result is a mediocrity. It’s a shame because I really loved the horse. (Rating **)

Advertisements

16 Comments

Filed under Current Releases

16 responses to “You Can Lead a Horse to War… : Spielberg’s War Horse.

  1. While I agree with the points made here, specially about the fact that we know they are going to end up together, I feel that the scenes individually are good, but in a whole reveal the nasty scheme and philosophy behind it. But I ended up appreciating the scenes while I watched, and even if I hated and groaned at the ending, I think it’s the work of a guy who knows the job, and Spielberg knows his shit.
    ***1/2 for me.

    • I agree that Spielberg knows his shit. I just wish he would have dedicated his talents to a better story. There are some good scenes, but the bad outweighed the good for me, by a lot. I have a feeling, based on what you’re saying here, that time will not be kind to your assessment of this picture.

  2. The problem isn’t really the horse but the boy. His survival and entitlement to the horse, as against the claims of everyone else who befriends Joey, is what makes the film irksome to some. Spielberg readily kills off many of the other people the horse encounters, on or off-screen, but the boy is privileged somehow, because of his unconditional if not obsessive love of the horse. It might have been a still more powerful film or fable — for a lot of the war stuff is quite good — had it been a tale of the horse’s miraculous survival despite the loss of all his human (not to mention equine) friends.

    • This is a great point. The horse is really the protagonist and I think I would have liked it a lot better if the story was more about his loss and survival. I thought the most interesting relationship was between Joey and the other horse.

      I don’t know that I agree the war stuff is particularly good. I did, however, like the scene where the British and Germans stop shooting long enough to disentangle the horse from the barbed wire. Of course this is a mini-version of Joyeux Noel, but it was still a nice moment.

    • Jon

      Samuel I did not feel that the boy is privileged based on his unconditional love of the horse. I perceived the ending to be based mostly on chance and the common bond of survival. They’ve been through hell, literally and come back again. So have a lot of other people in the film but they have a shared history. “As against the claims of everyone else”. Really? There’s one other person, the grandpa, who wants the horse. This is not the claims of everyone as I see it. It’s one other person, and the grandpa clearly sees the connection between the boy and the horse and realizes they should be together. You paint this like the boy takes the horse by force. He clearly was going to give it to the grandpa and the grandpa decided differently.

      • Jon, the “claims of everyone else” include everyone through whose custody Joey passes, including the German deserters who are executed and the sympathetic artillery man who is left behind. The cumulative impression is that they matter less than the boy, and that goes for the grandfather, too, whose encore seems included for the sake of extra suspense or pathos. Everything is contrived to reunite the horse and his boy, but I assume this is dictated by the source material, not Spielberg.

        • “Everything is contrived to reunite the horse and his boy, but I assume this is dictated by the source material, not Spielberg.”

          Yes, but I wouldn’t let Spielberg off the hook. He chose the material and, let’s be honest, if he wanted to change it, he could have. Hollywood has never exhibited a high level of fidelity to books or plays.

        • Jon

          So what’s your point Samuel? Are you saying the film is disrespectful to the other characters or those that died? I wouldn’t believe that to be the aim. Your argument sounds very much the argument many raise against Schindler’s in the portrayal of the survival of the few is disrespectful due to the death of the many. Am I not seeing your argument correctly?

  3. Jon

    “There is no way half of the things the horse does and survives could have happened. If a movie ever called for an Old Yeller-type ending, it’s this one. It would have meant more than the fantasies we’re served up in War Horse, but then theater-goers wouldn’t leave the theater feeling great.”

    Jason I sorry don’t buy this statement. I get back to what is the objective of the film. Obviously the film is a fantasy of sorts and although the outcome is not plausible per se, much of the film is about chance and circumstance and the transcience of life. It’s fine to say you don’t like it, but you can’t fault a fantasy for being a fantasy. This is no more plausible than many of Spielberg’s films but again I get back to what is the objective of the film.

    • Jon

      Oh and also, I didn’t feel great at the end of the film. It’s a tale documenting the horrors and impacts of the war using the story of the horse and boy to encircle the scope of the event. It’s not something that I felt great after seeing, it’s something that moved me by the story and events and brings reminders of the cost of war to lots of different kinds of people.

      • “Oh and also, I didn’t feel great at the end of the film. It’s a tale documenting the horrors and impacts of the war using the story of the horse and boy to encircle the scope of the event.”

        Ok, that’s a fair point. You’re right. It isn’t meant to be a feel good ending necessarily, but it is a happy ending that felt overly manipulative to me.

    • My beef isn’t that things aren’t plausible. There are plenty of movies I love that aren’t plausible, but the world created here didn’t lend itself to the flights of fancy you need to accept for the ending. You say this is a fantasy of sorts, but there was nothing about this movie that made me think of a fantasy. If that was what Spielberg intended he failed worse than I originally thought.

      • Jon

        Jason, well it’s certainly not a film based on realism. The events are a stretch and I don’t think it sits too far from his other films of the same type, but here that’s the story being told. It’s a fable. This doesn’t make it any less impactful of a story. If he’d tried to pawn this off as realism it wouldn’t have worked. I appreciated this film on the level of good storytelling. You didn’t like the way the story was presented and I found it worked. I’m prepping an essay of my own that will hopefully address my points better.

  4. Well Jason, I’m sorry I got to this a bit late, but I much enjoyed the back and forth here among people we both enjoy very much. Well you did warn me (and I am much appreciative though undeserving of that shout out at the opening) and you lessened the blow but coming clean at teh outset, so I have nothing but praise for your intentions and great writing here. I defended the review in my long essay, so I won’t bore you with repetition. I did find THE RED VIOLIN parallel most interesting. Seems like Jon Warner is the only person on the thread who is with me in similar sentiments, so I’ll rally to what he is saying here. But fair enough, you makes your points quite well and it comes down to individual taste and perceptions.

    • Of course it always comes down to individual taste and perception. No matter how definitively I declare a movie great or awful, there is always room for disagreement, no matter how strongly I disagree. It’s fun to debate movies because there is no right answer. It’s all subjective. I love that War Horse is a movie that really polarizes people because that leads to all kinds of great debate and helps us get to the core of what we liked or didn’t about a movie. I think this helps you get to know someone much more than any superficial conversation. It’s why I would never date anyone who always agrees with me (or, worse yet, has no opinion). It makes me think they’re putting on their best face, rather than being themselves. That’s why we’re such good friends Sam… we don’t pull any punches and we still walk away respecting each other!

  5. Pingback: John Ford Series, Year-by-Year Picks, Bresson Festival, Norwegian Wood, The Scarlet Letter and Harry Belafonte Documentary on Monday Morning Diary (January 16) « Wonders in the Dark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s