War Horse Review
Spielberg Has Created A Film Which Stands Awkwardly Between Chidlren's Fairy Tale And Realistic War Epic And Does Not Seem To Be A Good Example Of Either...
An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, Steven Spielberg’s 2011 cinematic release, War Horse tells the story of a thoroughbred horse Joey and his trainer Albert and their journey through the First World War. After purchasing Joey in a drunken battle of pride at an auction, Albert’s father, Ted, is forced to allow his son to train the colt for ploughing and farm work so as they can pay their rent and keep their farm. Despite gallant efforts, the family must sell Joey to pay their debts and he is passed on to a soldier in the British cavalry at the beginning of World War 1. Albert attempts to enlist, but is too young to do so, however he vows to find his horse no matter where he may travel.
Joey’s adventures see him move from cavalry to pulling German ambulances and artillery to the death-riden trenches. His experience with the plough save his life on occasion, whilst he finally learns how to jump out of necessity while being chased by a tank in a small valley. His extraordinary adventure coincides with many soldiers and civilians throughout the war who are touched by his nature in some way.
Now, I have always and will always be one of those annoying people who values an animals life above that of a human in films. Whether it is the dog doing a last minute jump from a firey explosion in ‘Independence Day’; or a simple episode of ‘Futurama’ where Fry attempts to bring back his pet from the past (I actually change the channel when this episode is on now, I’m that bad); and don’t get me started on ‘I Am Legend’...
So, the idea of watching a film about horses sent into the cavalry during World War I would inevitably end with me bawling my eyes out into a pillow of some kind. But the fact is. It didn’t. Not one tear. Not even the threat of a tear. No, I haven’t sold my soul to the devil any time recently, nor have I got less compassion for horses than I do any other movie animal (I live on a horse farm, surely this should make things worse!) The sad fact of the matter is this was one of the worst films I have seen this year and no amount of pathos or sympathy could make me think otherwise.
While the story itself is twee and cliche, this can be forgiven when we remember that it is based on a children's’ novel. However, it is Spielberg’s treatment of it as an epic War film which takes away from this childish charm and makes way instead for pathetic pathos, almost anthropomorphic treatment of the horse’s character and overall Hollywood tat. Much like ‘Homeward Bound’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Lassie’ before it, exaggerations may of course be made for family stories of pets and animals’ abilities. However, when this is paired with a realistic form of story telling and epic Hollywood treatment, the scenes are highlighted as ridiculously unbelievable and over-the-top. If this film was in any way realistic it would have ended when they attempted to make a yearling thoroughbred colt pull a large metal plough through a field of rocks! Rain or not, this would have broken the poor thing’s back and made for a much shorter film!
The lead actor is wet and consequently unrelateable, making it difficult to care for his ultimate struggle to retrieve his horse. The subsidiary characters whom Joey meets along the way are much stronger and sympathetic, especially Tom Hiddleston and Niels Arestrup who actually make me feel something other than a sick saccharine feeling in my stomach that can only be described as the early stages of diabetes caused by the overly sweet nature of this film. Sadly, this host of exceptionally strong actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, Eddie Marsan and David Thewlis; only seek to highlight the lack of character in the lead role who serves only as a way point for the true lead of the film, the horse.
The horse’s character is wonderfully developed throughout the film, however it is Spielberg’s treatment of his him as a human actor which makes it difficult to take seriously. Whilst this may be seen as essential to create a likable protagonist out of an animal actor, it only damages the film’s integrity. One scene shows the nervous Joey entering the stables of the cavalry a la a new recruit entering a barracks full of hardened soldiers. He is met by a large black horse who he obviously finds intimidating but becomes instantly attached to, like some legendary older sergeant who the new private admires and would follow into battle. The use of close up reaction shots on the horse’s expressions and Hollywood tropes such as these character building scenes, make these scenes almost comedic in their anthropomorphic treatment of the horses rather than connecting them to us.
All of this being said, the cinematography is beautiful and opulent, reminiscent of old classic cinema. The final shot of the film might has well have been lifted from ‘Gone With The Wind’. The music is forgettable, apart from during the more heightened scenes of action such as those in the trenches and the sound effects are no doubt atmospheric and suitably effecting when dealing with the War itself but also Joey’s individual physical struggles.
However, these technical achievements in no way make up for Spielberg’s use of them. He has created a film that stands awkwardly between a children’s fairy tale and a realistic war epic and does not seem to be a good example of either. The characterization of his lead ‘actor’, the horse, is marred by over-direction and poor dialogue from the characters around him. The sympathy for all human characters is lessened by the fact we are led to hold more sympathy for the horse; yet, as his ultimate goal is reaching a person we have no feeling for (Albert), even this connection is tenuous.
Overall ‘Battle Pony’ (as I refuse to cast this film in the same light as the play ‘War Horse’ and believe such a comedic title to be far more fitting to this joke of a film) is a poor example of the animal story. It’s twee, cliche and overly pathetic treatment of this story made me actually believe ET was going to come and beam Joey up at the end of the film as his work was done. In fact, if this had happened, I probably would have an iota of respect left for Spielberg.
Anastasia is a Freelance Illustrator, Writer and Actress based in Wales, UK.
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