Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bait & Switch of "War Horse" : A Movie Review

It had all the ingredients:  boy and his pet, against-all-odds underdog, poignant World War I setting, and yet, as the credits rolled, I realized War Horse had left me cold.

The film is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, who purposed to tell the horrendous suffering of an entire continent and beyond during World War I.  Morpurgo spoke of his inspiration in 2010:

One of the kids who came to the farm from Birmingham, called Billy, . . .the teachers warned me that he had a stammer . . . and told me not to ask him direct questions because it would terrify him if he had to be made to speak because he doesn't speak.  They said, "He's been two years in school and he hasn't said a word, so please don't confront him or he'll run back to Birmingham," which is a long way from Birmingham and they didn't want that.  So I did as I was told and I stood back and I watched him, and I could see that he related wonderfully to the animals, totally silently, never spoke to the other kids at all, and then I came in the last evening, which I always used to do, to read them a story.  It was a dark November evening and I came into the yard behind this big Victorian house where they all lived, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking.  Talking, talking, talking, to the horse.  And the horse, Hebe, had her head out of, just over the top of the stable, and she was listening - that's what I noticed, that the ears were going, and she knew - I knew she knew - that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen, and I knew this was a two-way thing, and I wasn't being sentimental, and I stood there and I listened, then I went and got the teachers, and brought them up through the vegetable garden, and we stood there in the shadows, and we listened to Billy talking, and they were completely amazed how this child, who couldn't get a word out, the words were simply flowing.  All the fear had gone, and there was something about the intimacy of this relationship, the trust building up between boy and horse, that I found enormously moving, and I thought, "Well, yes, you could write a story about the First World War through the eyes of a horse, let the horse tell the story, and let the story of the war come through the soldiers: British soldiers first of all, then German soldiers, then a French family which whom the horse spends winters, and that maybe you'll then get a universal idea of the suffering of the First World War...

This concept works well in written form (and I am actually eager to read the novel).  In the book, the author could give voice to the horse's thoughts and perceptions, but even in the usual capable hands of Steven Spielberg, the concept falls flat in live action form.  The human characters are not sufficiently developed, thus no emotional connection is truly made between them and the audience.  You care about "Joey" the horse, but even his owner Albert is one-dimensional and weakly portrayed by newcomer Jeremy Irvine.

The ending is meant to be "feel good," but the journey to get there has been too rough.  There is very little pleasant about the movie.  Comedic and heartwarming scenes are followed immediately by brutality.   The movie is not a film about  a boy and his remarkable horse with WWI as a backdrop.  The movie is true to the book  in that it is an overtly antiwar film showing the sheer horror and heartache of war with the horse's journey as a backdrop.  That's the marketing bait and switch.  War Horse shows, in a line repeated several times in the film, "War takes everything from everyone."

War Horse was filmed in a style reminiscent of old-time classics like Gone with the Wind and other sweeping, epic films of that era.  Glorious sunsets, soaring John William's score, and breathtakingly beautiful cinematography aren't enough to redeem this emotionally manipulative movie.  It is indeed a tearjerker, but without the emotional satisfaction with which a fully realized film leaves its audience.