War Horse (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

War Horse (2011)

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"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires."

- Wilfred Owen, "Anthem For Doomed Youth"

War is an ugly, brutal thing. War Horse, the latest from Steven Spielberg does its best to try and gently remind of this fact again; if it fails, it's half because gentleness doesn't go as far as it used to.

Set during the onset and waging of the Great War, in Britain and across the trenches in Europe, War Horse tells the story of Joey, a proud steed who is separated from his doting master and first finds himself as cavalry, then a means of escape, then a pet, then an artillery worker, and finally as a symbol of something far bigger than himself.

Through this journey, he sees the evolution of the war via both the technology and the changes in those around him, as the initial patriotism fades and the trudge continues unabated and without relief. There is only communal despair here, and joy only returns when peace reigns.

Peace only reigns when there's a horse, of course.

With this as the background, Spielberg does his best to give the proceedings the grandeur of melodrama. The film jumps between characters and sides of the war, and each character encounters some phase of the society's ideal dissipating. None of the character's are particular interesting outside of their symbolic meaning to Joey, but their fates serve as lessons repeated, as they must be.

There are a couple of issues that restrained the affection that I developed for the film, and the first is the score. John Williams, whose issues with subtlety are well known, turns in a bombastic, grating piece that belongs on the other side of the multiplex. It doesn't so much underline emotions but trumpet them from the mountaintops. For this kind of movie, that may have worked if Spielberg wasn't attempting to work in quieter, more melodic ways.

The other issue I found was how the titular horse was portrayed. Crafting the movie around an animal is both a bold and meaningful choice-- animals don't have war. They don't have human emotions that lead to such things, and the film makes the mistake of trying to assign humanistic traits to Joey. They're rare moments, but it undermines the feeling of these creatures being truly foreign to humanity, something that's needed to keep Joey's distance. When he shuns this, it lessens the lessons the our protagonist is demonstrating.

This twerp is not the hero of the story, and you can't prove it.

Some of the putdowns of War Horse paint it as a pitiable exercise in grand dramatics, and I can kind of see that point. The film's old fashioned in its veins, evoking John Ford and Luc Bresson in equal measure, but certainly nothing like the flashy action that is common these days. If you're reading this and unsure, yes, you can guess the ending of the film from the trailer. This is a movie very much about the journey, emotional and otherwise, rather than what its ending will undoubtedly be rather than say.

One of the more depressing criticisms comes from people complaining that it's not a real war movie without gushers of blood and profanity. I saw the same criticism about Sucker Punch last year, and both reveal the critic's detachment from filmmaking as an art rather than a gratification. Would Sucker Punch have been the same movie with breasts and blood? No. Why do people demand it? Because giving the male audience what they so nakedly crave-- tits and gore-- is anti-ethical to the movie's moral. Critical demand indicates simple, repugnant desire, both a complete misreading of the film and a sad comment on the writer's view of women. Sucker Punch may as well have carried the title Cocktease, and if it had, it would have done so proudly.

Are people who cry out for blood and swearing in War Horse depraved lunatics? Let's be nice and say no-- that there are great war dramas that do indeed carry both. The Hurt Locker, The Thin Red Line or Catch-22, for example, all good movies. Now let's look at a few that didn't carry that warning: Paths of Glory, The Sands of Iwo Jima,  Hell, The Great Dictator. The difference between a war movie with blood and profanity is the visceral impact, and the supposed 'grittiniess' the audience desires. This has been sold over and over again, from popular modern videogames to patriotic action films to television shows to the goddamn commercials for the military that play before every thing you see in the theater.

War is honor, explosions are awesome, let's fucking kill some people.

Despite the death toll in the movie, nothing in the film is a viscerally repugnant as when Joey gets tangled in barbed wire. The tragedy isn't men killing men, but what effects the war are on those who have no stake in the matter.

Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make a true anti-war film because cinema serves the viewers desires for a visceral thrill, ergo creating something violent and bloody will arouse rather than disgust. There's nothing glamorous in Spielberg's depiction of the Great War, and that's exactly how it should be; it attempts to run against the tide, to say something about warfare and ugliness that most films in the last decade refused to do except in footnotes. I won't say it's the perfect anti-war film, but you can see it aching, desperately, to try and be so.

We live in a country that glorifies war to the point that we've had two go on for the last ten years and no one's seemed to mind one bit. I don't think people who wanted this rated 'R' do it because they wanted an anti-war movie, which War Horse so clearly is; I think they do it because all of the blood on their hands isn't enough yet.

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Posted by Danny

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I didn’t know if I want to see this movie, not a huge fan of war movies. But I can tell a lot of movie buffs look forward to see this. But it seems interesting from your review. Thanks for sharing!

    • I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I was being sincere when I said that you can’t go in not liking broad, grand melodrama. It felt like a sincere exercise, but few people apparently read it that way. The internet is a depressing place. 🙁

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