The National Catholic Review
John P. McCarthy
Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse'
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Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel “War Horse” is narrated by the title character, Joey, a comely and exuberant half-thoroughbred. In the award-winning play based on the book, puppets are used to represent equines—to striking effect. The challenge facing anyone adapting Morpurgo’s story for the screen is whether and how to capture Joey’s point of view and thus communicate the “inner life” of horses to a plausible and dramatically constructive degree.

A short list of filmmakers best able to clear this hurdle would include Steven Spielberg, a director who made his mark by getting millions of moviegoers to sympathize with a man-eating Great White shark and who many times since has shown he can bridge the epic and intimate sides of a narrative as effectively as anyone in the history of popular cinema.

With all due respect to Spielberg and the talents of the stallion portraying Joey—plus the entire equine ensemble—“War Horse” does not represent the animals’ point of view in any sort of memorable way. In fact, the problem is sidestepped.

Staying within the bounds of realism, Spielberg and company decline to adopt the horse’s vantage point or give Joey any kind of “voice” using technical wizardry (although, for safety’s sake, animatronics and computer-generated effects are employed during the most perilous sequences). Choosing not to “get inside” the animals does not doom the picture. The horses on screen are expressive. Moreover, anything “Mr. Ed”-like would seem ridiculous in this context.

No, the problem is structural. The absence of a guiding, unifying viewpoint contributes to the movie’s diffuseness. Lacking a full-blown protagonist and consequently a textured relationship between man and animal, “War Horse” feels lukewarm and abstract. The viewing experience is akin to being deposited in an immediately recognizable and yet unfamiliar landscape somewhere between sweeping wartime adventure and quiet interspecies drama.

Still, “War Horse” offers a relatively understated anti-war message, a historical lesson concerning the role of horses in World War I and an optimistic take on humankind. It’s salubrious enough to warrant a Christmas-day release aimed at a broad swathe of moviegoers.

Morpurgo’s book covers considerable ground without any psychology or superfluous commentary. Joey dispassionately recounts his odyssey, which boils down to the tale of a horse, a boy and the conflict that conspired to keep them apart. Prior to the First World War, English teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the spirited colt his heavy-drinking father buys to work their small farm in Devon.

When the war erupts, Joey—a gorgeous red with a black mane and distinctive white markings—is sold to a British cavalry officer. Across the Channel, Joey faithfully serves a series of masters, frequently alongside another sensitive, spectacular-looking specimen named Topthorn. They lead an ill-fated charge (demonstrating the cavalry is outmoded) before stints hauling German artillery, transporting wounded soldiers and helping a frail French girl and her grandfather on their idyllic farm. Initially too young to enlist, Albert eventually appears in the trenches, determined to make good on his promise to find Joey. It’s not a question of whether they will be reunited, but rather when and how.

While handsome, the production isn’t as polished as one would expect. The editing is erratic, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski appears flummoxed by the changeable English weather. Shots in which he is obviously paying homage to “Gone with the Wind” look garish. Lighting fluctuations detract from many early scenes, suggesting continuity lapses as opposed to any unbridled naturalism or calculated symbolism. The bombastic music by another longtime Spielberg collaborator, John Williams, is equally distracting. For all the effort expended to contrast the bucolic countryside with the scarred battlefields, there are only a handful of arresting images (for example, the British cavalry stalking a German encampment from a wheat field.)

The human performances yield no surprises. As Albert, Irvine resembles an Abercrombie & Fitch model—and acts like one as well. Even if the first-time performer could shoulder the emotional burden, he isn’t given much opportunity by Morpurgo or screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, who supplement the plot by adding a villainous, upper-class landlord for Albert’s family, an explanation for his father’s fecklessness (traumatic service during the Boer War) and some bleak business concerning two young German soldiers. Nothing they introduce provides a consistent storyline or a guiding focal point.

Again, the reluctance to anthropomorphize Joey or use gimmickry to convey the equine experience is understandable. Aside from the practical impediments, it correctly implies that the relationship between Albert and Joey goes beyond rational understanding; it can’t be fruitfully explained or analyzed, and belaboring it visually would quickly become tedious. Nevertheless, the camera remains in the default position of omniscient narrator throughout, which results in an indeterminate perspective that prevents the viewer from strongly identifying with any character.

Is this Spielberg’s celebrated instinct for privileging his audience? An example of his ability to anticipate viewer needs and present tasty and easily digestible entertainment? Perhaps, but in this case the end product is both bland and not all that easy to swallow. Joey’s opaqueness would be less of a sticking point if the movie offered fuller human characters. Regrettably, they’re mostly stereotypes—Euro ciphers. And unlike Morpurgo’s narrative, there is no contrast between those who treat horses well and those who treat them inhumanely.

This leveling and depersonalization weakens an essential point regarding the clash between nature and civilization—between rural life and the mechanized tools of war that force men into trenches and pock the countryside. It also renders “War Horse” less gripping, visceral and emotionally resonant than it might have been. As evidenced by the stiff, plasticine feel of many scenes set in Devon and on the French farm, Spielberg is more comfortable with the bigger action sequences; but the latter aren’t as impactful as they could be either.

Granted, “War Horse” is family-friendly fare, so graphically portraying the brutal wartime conditions and the suffering endured by man and horse alike would be inappropriate. And the film’s tonal restraint has its virtues. Following Morpurgo’s lead, the creative team does not push the anti-war theme too hard; there is no stridency or pronounced ideology. On the other hand, when the danger of sinking into twee and mawkish terrain is so prevalent, it is possible to overcompensate. The movie’s skittishness and disjointed quality stems from the effort to avoid a complete submersion in schmaltz.

Sentiments, ideas and spectacle all suffer due to Spielberg and company’s reluctance to take chances and boldly shape the material. You can’t help wishing they would have really gone for it—short of having Joey talk or resorting to puppetry. Joey is accurately described as a “miracle horse” given that only 62,000 out of 1 million horses survived the battlefields of the Great War. The sense of awe and wonder denoted by “miracle” is missing from “War Horse.” Because it tries too hard to be “universal” and downplays any genuine dissonance, the film is both too subtle and too obvious.  

Cynics might accuse Spielberg of just going through the motions and checking World War I off his list. That would be unfair, though there is no doubt he is painting in some of the broadest strokes of his career, skimming the surface and never penetrating the canvas. Of course, “War Horse” might have been a complete disaster in the hands of a less talented or seasoned director. Nevertheless, the film’s plodding quality suggests Spielberg got caught in a peculiar no man’s land, one where “National Velvet” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” can never meet.   

John P. McCarthy reviews films for Catholic News Service and various publications.

Comments

Christopher Rushlau | 1/3/2012 - 1:37pm
Spielberg produces informercials, and the lifestyle offered here, it seems, is "war is unpleasant and thus best left to the professionals, although we've just had some good ones, haven't we?" Perhaps the public is moving out of his range of persuasion: confusion has its merits as a device of denial, but you get to the point where you're willing to face facts. I like the idea that it's the horse's job to find the human.
David Pasinski | 12/31/2011 - 12:53pm
I have not read the novel or seen the play, but concur with this review in nearly every aspect. As someone who has always been enchanted by Spielberg, I was left surprisingly cool in this drama for the various reasons mentioned.
It was of interst to me however, to see the role that horses had in WWI that I had not not known. I am not sure those figures are correct, as I believe there were millions in service and many more than 62,000 that survived according to other sources I've looked in recent days.
Chris Bowie | 12/24/2011 - 6:41am

I think basically it's Joey, not Albert, the hero of War Horse, As it's the horse's journey, and the horse's job to find his way back to the boy he left behind. A boy who is now huddled in the trenches with the rats and the gas masks, wondering if he will ever see his pal Joey again.


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