It’s easy to like “War Horse.”
Characteristically, of Steven Spielberg films, cute children and
precocious teenagers play a large part. The
heroes overcome great adversity, and despite character flaws their commitment
to each other never wavers. We begin
with dramatic tension, then intervening events play havoc with everyone, but
we can still end with the bucolic and serene, cue the beautiful sunset and the
rescued heroes in silhouette, and the lovely orchestral score.
The trouble is, when you try to portray,
realistically, the horrible trench warfare in World War One, either the
carnage is so awful you have to rate it R, which excludes the adolescent
audience, or you have to somehow show people falling down without any
bloodshed. There’s one scene where
the camera backs up for an aerial view of all the fallen on the battlefield,
and there’s not a single drop of blood anywhere.
Like they’re all just taking an afternoon nap in the field.
The other problem, when the central
character is a horse, is to show adversity and pain and struggle without
actually hurting the horse. In the
screening where I watched this, there was no audience reaction to soldiers
dropping like flies, but the one time the horse fell to the ground, everybody
audibly gasped, as if intuitively we know that the human casualties aren’t
real, but it’s hard to fake a horse taking a fall.
Spielberg’s too intelligent and sensitive, of course, to incur the
wrath of P.E.T.A. in any of his films, so in the end we know that’s fake,
And there’s the basic problem with
“War Horse.” It just doesn’t
quite feel real.
Oh sure, there are some winsome aspects,
and some good performances. Jeremy
Irvine, as the boy Albert, though he looks too old for this part, has real
promise, as does Celine Buckens, in her brief role as Emilie.
Emily Watson (as the Mom) is always a pleasure to watch, and Peter
Mullan (as the Dad) adds some real depth and nuance.
But once we get off the farm and go to War, there’s a problem with
the unevenness of the accents. You have
to make a decision: either the
characters speak their “real” languages and you subtitle, or else the
characters all speak English, and you ask the viewer to pretend that
everything they say is already translated. The
problem here is that some of the people playing German soldiers are speaking
English with a German accent, some with a British accent, some with an
American accent, and what’s worse, the French civilian sounds like he
learned his English from the Germans. It’s
all so uneven that it adds to the difficulty of just not quite achieving
suspension of disbelief.
But the story itself is compelling.
The horse, a good-looking thoroughbred, is bought at auction for a
plowhorse, but the War intervenes, and is sent to the front and used for an
ill-advised cavalry charge. (Yes,
typically in War, at first you use the tactics of the previous couple of wars,
until you realize the newer technology will no longer allow you to do that,
and some of those initial mistakes are very costly.)
Then the horse is captured by the other side and used to drag artillery
pieces, then it’s used for an attempted desertion, then it’s hidden, then
used to remove the wounded from the battlefield, and finally, the
battle-hardened soldiers look up and realize that there aren’t any horses
left; they’ve been replaced by machines (there’s a long scene of a tank
chasing the horse in a ditch where’s there’s no escape to illustrate
this). Sure, at the end, we’re
rooting for the horse, named several times by several soldiers, but somehow he
now represents all the innocence that’s worth fighting to save in the midst
of our inhumanity to each other.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor,
St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,