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OSCARS DEATH RACE: WAR HORSE

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by Sarah D. Bunting
February 17, 2012 7:57 AM
6 Comments
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]

In his review of War Horse for IFC.com, Matt Singer noted that "I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject." The scene, of course, is the one in which said horse, Joey, makes a gallop for freedom but becomes hopelessly entangled in the barbed wire that separates the British and German lines. A soldier from each side comes out to aid Joey; for a moment, the Great War pauses to admit compassion -- and Steven Spielberg pauses to work small.

I wish Spielberg had made a short subject, or even a trim feature, of that central moment, as it's free of everything that frustrated me about War Horse in its entirety: the insistent soundtrack that shoves us to and fro with plaintive piccolos and blatting-brass "hilarity"; the cartoonish attempts to show Joey (who is, after all, played…by a horse, and only expressive in certain ways) bonding with other horses and showing great heart and willing himself to escape and blah blah courage blah; the redundant exposition about Joey's many fine and remarkable qualities; the Saving Private Neighin' set pieces that strain to point up the horrors of war. The bit does contain continental characters speaking accented English instead of their native tongues, but that has a purpose here, at least, and isn't as Alcottsy and deadly dull as the Emilie sequence. (Or as poorly done. Top Secret! had better French accents.)

The plot, in brief: Joey is bought at auction by drunk seldom-do-well Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, too broad) to show up his rich landlord. Joey's not a plowhorse, he's a Thoroughbred, but Ted's son Albert (the promising Jeremy Irvine) bonds with Joey immediately, and swears he can break the colt to plow and get the rocky field tilled by the deadline. After this Rocky-of-the-shire moment, Joey is basically drafted into the British army -- but by an officer who appreciates the special hoof-flake and promises Albert he'll get Joey home safe. Joey befriends another horse, Topthorne; escapes from various warlike tasks; gets caught in wire; and…cures the blind? Just go with it.

I rode horses as a girl, and worked as a stablehand in high school (the horse I had charge of was a goofy little blood bay named Indiana Jones, in fact) -- I wanted to like War Horse, and I went into it prepared to write off the schmaltz and soaring strings that so often go with horse movies. But it's just too long, with too many breaks for Bazooka-Joe "humor" and sick-child moralizing. I gasped at the beauty of several of the shots or sequences, like the cavalry mounting up in the tall grass, and the expert editing of the cuts between the oncoming charge and the merciless gunners getting hurdled by riderless horses; that bit in particular would have gutted me in the fourth grade.

But this isn't the fourth grade; we know Spielberg can "do this." He does it here and he does it well, but the real accomplishment from the man at this point would be resisting the urge to hold our hands every minute, or setting himself the challenge of getting it in under 110 minutes on the first cut. Hell, re-cut this one -- and boot that flatulent over-closed ending. I know many other reviews have mentioned the Gone with the Wind Technicolor skies, but: seriously! It's so over the top, you almost think he's joking! But it's Spielberg; he doesn't joke.

…Except in that barbed-wire sequence, which has a lightness to the banter, and gets at the message Spielberg is trying to send almost accidentally. The horror of war isn't always the barrage; sometimes it's the silences between, as in that scene with "enemies" working together and knowing the moment must end. The scene asks little of the horse except that he remain still, a symbol (which is how they work in our culture anyway, often), and subtracts the relationship with Albert, which starts out with a naïve sweetness but soon begins to seem rather weird. It doesn't show off. There isn't a cello. It's just a little story.

War Horse is handsome to look at; like Star Wars III, I'd have liked it more with my iPod in and some Handel playing. You want a real horse tearjerker, watch yourself some Phar Lap. You'll need IV fluids by the end.

This film's Oscar chances read to me as slim; the nominations may have been a gesture of respect, but it's not tapped for Best Director, so who knows. The score is diabetic and should not win; the cinematography could, and I would not hate that victory, but I wouldn't pick it.

Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.comFor more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.

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6 Comments

  • Al Sullivan | February 27, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    Spielberg's flaws have always been not knowing when to stop. He doesn't know how to do small. This was Dreamworks undoing. His visuals are usually stunning, but content is always a problem -- especially humor, which is generally funnier to 14 year old boys than to anyone else. His tendency to be sappy ruins otherwise very emotional moments. I think he is desperate to capture past films where he used symbolism better, and struggles to find those symbolic elements he once used effectively. I'm a huge fan of his, but his flaws do mount up in his longer films -- and these days, they are all too long.

  • Adam Zanzie | February 24, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    "The real accomplishment from the man at this point would be resisting the urge to hold our hands every minute, or setting himself the challenge of getting it in under 110 minutes on the first cut."

    But Sarah... this film is meant to be an epic. It's supposed to run well over two hours; that's what epics do. I guess I can understand if the story didn't engross you enough to make you want to sit through a long version of it, but really, isn't that a little like saying you wouldn't want to sit through a 2 1/2-hour version of Empire of the Sun just because you don't believe the story of a boy disillusioned in WWII would need to stretch over the traditional 2-hour time limit? Spielberg is, after all, somewhat returning to that territory with this film.

    I can't for the life of me imagine how a shorter version of this movie would be able to retain the important aspects that convinced Spielberg to want to make the movie in the first place (reminds me of the butchered studio cut of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven... *shudders*). To be specific, Spielberg has constructed, here, a cinematic canvas that attempts to restore a sense of dignity to each of the world powers in the First World War. Joey's presence allows them to temporarily lay down their arms and recognize a sense of humanity in each other. Think of this movie as Spielberg's Romanticized version of those real "Christmas truces" that really did take place in the trenches.

  • xurxo g penalta | February 18, 2012 5:44 AMReply

    spielberg is too obvious for you but you're clearly only able to "get it" when he's becoming almost preschool redundant, and you seem unable to manage sustained attention of a prolonged audio visual harmony with highly emotional content discussing multiple complex moral themes.

    music videos are great, you used to find them on mtv, you can now go on youtube.
    enjoy.
    part03

  • xurxo g penalta | February 18, 2012 5:43 AMReply

    and then you follow imporving spielberg's film by removing all audible content, dialog, score and sound design so you can just view it as if it was a interactive music visualizer app on you 3.5 inch iphone screen.

    part 02

  • xurxo g penalta | February 18, 2012 5:43 AMReply

    you ask of spielberg to be less evident but you choose as your favorite the one scene that spells out, slowly and clearly, the anti war message that is already embedded in 90% of the film.

    then you ask spielberg to produce a short subject, by isolating the films content, boiling it down to what basically would be an emotive television add, aired on a holiday, for your viewing convenience;

    part01

  • xurxo garcia penalta | February 18, 2012 5:42 AMReply

    enjoy.

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