An Existential Reading of "War Horse"

by Matthew Hammett Knott
February 13, 2012 8:59 AM
3 Comments
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I went to see War Horse last night. I wasn't sure what to expect - from a scholarly perspective, I had been well-drilled in the Knegtian school, which I felt had prepared me to at least enjoy the film. What I left with was far more unexpected.


I am not opposed to sentiment in film, not at all. Nor broad strokes - I think they are one of cinema's greatest faculties. One of the most authentic and well-sketched characters I have ever fallen for on screen is the protagonist of Muriel's Wedding, and at no point does P. J. Hogan aspire to verisimilitude in his portrayal of that woman's rises and falls. Sentiment can be genuine without feeling like a precise mirror of real life experience.

So I was actually hoping for a film that told me - or rather fed me, in huge, delicious dollops - the message that War is Bad but Horses are Nice. I didn't particularly need that message to be subtle. Subtlety often limits audience size, and I'd rather mass audiences were fed a simplistic pacifist message than - for example - Women are Whores but Fighting is Cool, which I feel is the implicit subtext of many mainstream cinema releases.

But War Horse didne dollop! Instead it attempted to lull me into a sort of lovely, flaccid inertia. I was genuinely disappointed that there wasn't more cheese. The constant flipping of perspective - now we are rootin' for a pretty Devonshire farm boy, now a sassy French quasi-Lolita, now a pair of unconvincing German brothers - made it difficult to really invest in any character other than War Horse himself (I'm sorry, I can't refer to him as Joey). But that seemed intentional. There was a funny set of mock film posters recently, presenting films as they really ought to be advertised. My favourite was the one which re-titled War Horse as "My Lovely Horse". For the entirety of this film, I felt that the implicit message was not "War is Bad but Horses are Nice", but a gentle, paternal voice (we hear ya, Spielberg!) repeatedly intoning "Mmm, Lovely Horse". That really did seem to be the implied context any time the music, or the cinematography, or the story, asked us to feel anything. Nothing too bold or traumatic. Just "Mmm, Lovely Horse".

Whither all this, Spielberg? Was this really your intent? From the director of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List - which both unsubtly but effectively depict some of the true horrors of war - I was surprised. The realities of war had no place in this film - to the extent that the depiction of the trenches, and war time Britain, wasn't just cosy and stunted - it was genuinely inept. The sets were so fake! I found it far easier to believe in the presence on earth of both E.T. and Jaws than ol' ma Emily Watson, grumpy ol' pop Peter Mullan and Jeremy Irvine up in that Sylvanian Family house on that hill just over yonder from Ballamory. (NB Did the British soldier really ask the German "How is it in yonder trench?" SPOILER ALERT he did).

I haven't mentioned how predictable and unrealistic the plot was, from beginning to end - but it was. All the way through, War Horse is regarded as some sort of miracle horse - stronger, more beautiful, more important to preserve. This sense builds increasingly as the film progresses, providing ample fuel for any cynic's scoff-o-meter. (Not that I approve of openly scoffing in a public cinema. Generally I prefer the ideal of cinema viewers being alone with their own emotions for the duration of a film). Nonetheless, the rest of the audience seemed to be lapping up - the woman next to me was so entranced she was feeding her popcorn up her nostrils, from the sound of it.

By the closing scenes of War Horse, it hit me that Spielberg wasn't failing to make the "War is Bad, Horses are Nice" film I expected of him. He really was having a crack at 146 minutes of "Mmm, Lovely Horse". At the film's conclusion, even the most hardened, masculine characters reveal their need to believe in War Horse as some sort of miraculous blessing. "A ha!" I thought. "It's a film about man's absurd but touching compulsion to believe in miracles at a time of incomprehensible suffering". "Mmm" thought the woman next to me. "Lovely horse".

Now, I have nothing against the woman next to me. True, I have singled her out for mockery, but bitch needs to work on her popcorn ingestion if she wants to avoid that fate. But seriously, I think the woman's reaction is important. Because it strikes me that there is something profoundly disappointing in the fact that Spielberg chose not to show us any of the real pain and suffering of wartime experience. Maybe he - or the studio - was thinking specifically of a family audience, or a particular rating. But it's not that I wanted more heads exploding and soldiers eating rats (hey, I'm not asking for verisimilitude). It's the emotion displayed by the characters that was weirdly absent. Come on, Stephen! You've got Emily Watson playing the mother of a young boy at war. You could have fed me some of that maternal pride and fear any number of ways, I would have gobbled it up. But no - just more of that lovely bloody horse.

Which I'm not saying hasn't proved deeply moving to many audiences. But that's not necessarily a badge of honour. What I wanted Spielberg to do was work harder at contextualising the miraculous effect that War Horse has on the people it encounters, so that we were moved by their need to cling to its supposedly miraculous qualities. Instead we were merely encouraged to cling to War Horse as the characters did, but in doing so, remained ignorant of why they, and we, were clinging.
 
Perhaps what troubles me most in all of this - and what explains this post's somewhat hyperbolous title - is my own inability to cling, to join the applauding masses in yonder trench, in a state of what I may call flaccid inertia, but to them was true and heartfelt captivation. Maybe it's more satisfying to be able to cling than to understand the need to cling. Is it? O god, is it?!

War Horse, have you plunged me into a crisis of faith? Ghastly beast! No wait - you're actually kind of lovely. Mmmm....

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3 Comments

  • dennis | February 16, 2012 6:11 PMReply

    spirit animal. mmmm....

  • movieman | February 14, 2012 9:18 AMReply

    Another great Spielberg production, I have been a great admirer of him all the time and this film is a bit different to me, but not in a negative way. www.cinecraze.net

  • Derek | February 13, 2012 1:15 PMReply

    Brilliant.

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