battle of somme, black beauty, celine buckens, emily watson, horses, janusz kaminski, jeremy irvine, nick stafford, niels arestrup, peter mullan, saving private ryan, seabiscuit, secretariat, shakespeare, spielberg, the godfather, war, war horse, world war I
“More than the Somme of Its Parts?”
Grade: C+ (Rent It)
WHEN WILL HOLLYWOOD stop horsing around? From “Black Beauty” and “The Black Stallion” to “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat,” equus ferus caballus, otherwise known as “the horse,” is rivaled only by our other favorite quadruped, the dog, for sheer screen time. Wouldn’t the lasting power of “The Godfather” be somewhat diminished had studio head Jack Woltz awakened not to the severed head of his racehorse buried in those satin sheets but to a headless Fido or Rufus?
Early on in the new Spielbergian spectacle called “War Horse” a British soldier named Perkins tells Albert, as he’s forced to let his beloved horse head off to war, “He’s a horse – not a dog!” And there’s a difference: one is allowed to share its master’s bed and the other remains a beast of burden, capable of dazzling strength and speed but always left out in the rain.
It seems as if wherever “War Horse” has galloped, it’s garnered awards. When British playwright Nick Stafford adapted the original 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo for the stage, he met instantaneous critical and commercial success, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2008 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2011. The stage production continues to pack theatres in London and New York.
Now there’s the major motion picture adaptation by Steven Spielberg, his first directorial effort since 2008’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (more horses). With a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, Spielberg’s version is just the kind of visual intoxicant we come to expect from his bigger-than-life aesthetic. The on-screen “War Horse” is also meticulous. With the photographic help of longtime collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg brings each locale to life. When we’re in the English countryside, the hillsides pop in verdant greens whereas, later, in the rat-infested trenches of war-ravaged France, bullets whistle past and soldiers explode with all the sound and fury of the Normandy invasion scenes in a far more powerful anti-war film by Mr. Spielberg: “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
The war horse of the title is a half-thoroughbred named Joey, purchased at the film’s start by a dipsomaniac named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan). Ted is still traumatized by his own service to the British Empire in the Boer Wars. Taking a deep and intimate liking to Joey, Ted’s son Albert (a glow-in-the-dark Jeremy Irvine) sets out to break Joey’s wild nature. Alongside Emily Watson as his mother Rosie, Albert inhabits a rural town in Devon so small that nearly every villager comes to watch as Albert puts Joey to the plow. From there, the plot is a fairly simple one: bridging cultures and breaking down the barriers constituent of warfare, Joey repeatedly changes hands and owners: from English to German hands with a brief stop along the way in a French farm operated by a jam-maker (a stirring Niels Arestrup) and his angelic granddaughter (Celine Buckens). Still, the charms of “War Horse” are chiefly visual: the most striking scene involves little more than a confrontation between Joey and a tank, all life and organicism on one side and steely death on the other.
Weaker yet, there’s something not a little perverse about representing World War I, in which an astounding 8,700,000 lives were violently lost (including 780,000 British – nearly a entire generation of English men), through the eyes of a boy and his horse. This is the great trauma of the twentieth century in which poison gas was introduced at the Second Battle of Ypres and the British use of tanks on the Somme (both in 1915). The great moral and political potential of fiction is that it can be used to teach us something about history, even if it exists in the background, but “War Horse” relegates history too much to the sidelines and, paradoxically, uses the cacophonous battlefield to shake the viewer out of its default setting: sentimentality.
It’s all eerily similar to Shakespeare’s Richard III who, deranged and defeated, has lost sight of what’s truly important when he hobbles across stage, shouting: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”