“War Horse”
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, too.
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, Irving , Texas