A bit over a year ago, we heard Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, on the Mark and Brian Radio show. He had just come back to L.A. from a visit to New York. He could not stop talking about a play he had seen there which was done with puppets. He did not reveal any plot line or discuss the actors performances, he was simply entranced by the story and the stage craft.I happened to mention it to my daughter Amanda and I was surprised to find that she had heard about it. The play is called, “War Horse”. The reason she knew about it was the previous year in her cinema class on the movies of Steven Spielberg, the day they had Spielberg himself in, her professor was promoting this play to Spielberg as the next movie he ought to make. Now having seen the film, I can understand the enthusiasm he had for Spielberg to work with this material. It’s the story of a boy and his horse, set against the background of World War One. There are quaint vistas of early twentieth century England, the countryside of France, and horrific battle scenes that punctuate the story. This is Spielberg territory.
This movie is simply beautiful to look at. I am sure that the cinematography will be long remembered for displaying the rich countrysides in a variety of European locations. There are some dramatically lit night time battle scenes set in the trenches of both sides in the war, and a disturbingly dark and visually discrete sequence set in the barbed wire of no man’s land between the trenches. As the action shifts from a farm to a battlefield on another farm and then plunges us into the woods, the lighting is used to show location and mood very effectively. There are also some tense and dramatic scenes set in a windmill that also show the cinematography here is not just noticeable because the locations are incredibly beautiful. Of course what will be easily scoffed at by detractors of the film will be the golden tinted skies over Devon England, and the rich colors of the land that the tenant farmers are trying to plow to eek out a living. The poster shows you some of the beauty that Spielberg will inevitably be criticized for lingering over in a harsh dramatic story. It’s as if some people want to sweep aside the craft that made movies from the forties and fifties so vibrantly colorful. I remember people bitching about how gorgeous “The Color Purple” was while all the rape and wife beating was going on. I really think mood can be enhanced not only by highlighting the dark areas of life but also by contrasting those bright spots with the dark events going on in that world.
So, it is a horse story but it is not “National Velvet” or “The Black Stallion”. The title tells you right away that this is a violent story of war that this horse is going to be a part of. There are heroes and villains on both sides of this war. None of the villains are deliberately cruel, rather they are brutally cynical and rationalist about the events that go on in the story. The only character that I thought was clearly evil, was the landlord introduced in the first part of the movie while events are still set in England. After the war story begins, the cruelty is not of the malicious kind from a “Snidely Whiplash” type character. The terrible things that we see are part of the nature of war, and so the experience feels more universal to us. It often comes down to how people relate to animals. If you can’t imagine a bond between a person and an animal that is emotionally deep, then you are not going to be as strongly effected by the fate that befalls many of the animals serving in this war. Of course you are also not going to be able to relate to this movie either.
I found the relationship between the humans and the horses in the story to be very real. The farmers connect to the horses in a different way than the soldiers do, but regardless of side, soldiers still find something to connect with about the horse. There is also a very big sub plot concerning the relationship of two horses to one another. I imagine this was the hook that made the puppetry on stage work so well. Here it felt slightly underdeveloped, probably in part because of how expansive the story turns out to be. The two most emotional scenes in the movie from my point of view, concern the emotional sacrifice that one horse wants to make for another, and the suspension of hostility between soldiers that see the horse as a truly wondrous animal. The second scene was the one that everyone in our group was talking about after the movie. This film is rated PG-13, but it is a tough PG-13 rating. There are some deeply disturbing moments that do not show blood and guts but do tune us into the costs of war in emotionally scarring ways. so be warned.
We are all probably a little jaded sometimes by animal stories. The sentimentality seems like a cheap way to tap into our emotions and give us a feeling that has not been earned. To be honest, that works for me most of the time, but I felt like Spielberg was holding back on making use of the natural inclination of many to attache to an animal. I thought the final emotions were earned by the story telling and not just by the setting and characters. I would love to see how this story plays out on stage with puppets standing in for the horses. Until the play makes its way out west her, I guess I can live with the fine film that Steven Spielberg has made out of the play. Some of the images will live in my head a long time, they were not always pretty, but they sure looked amazing as I was watching.