Friday, January 6, 2012

Horse Book & Movie Review: "War Horse"

"War Horse" is pretty much the quintessential animal movie. Boy falls in love with horse, dramatic events ensue, boy and horse are separated, both experience hardships, horse and boy reunite. Replace "horse" with "dog" and you have the plots for "Lad," "Shiloh," "Lassie," "Homeward Bound," etc.

The movie is based on a play, which was adapted from the book, which is based on a very few actual historical details, combined with the rather lackluster imagination of of Micheal Morpurgo, the author.

I'm pretty sure they did the play just to be able to use these totally awesome moving puppets.

Morpurgo was in a pub and got to talking with a World War I veteran about the horrors of using horses against tanks and trenches. Later, he founded a charitable organization where underprivileged city children could experience life on a farm for a few days, and was impressed by the way one little boy interacted with a farm horse. The resulting concoction, published in 1982, was "War Horse." It's not a bad story. It's just not a good one. The main character, Albert, is straight out of a Victorian morality tale; through hard work, determination, piety and respect for his parents, he manages to train a young colt (Joey), temporarily rescue the family farm, and later reclaim his lost horse. Albert's father is an appropriately pitiable character, ruined by drink, the mother is properly caring-yet-subservient, and the upper classes of English society are represented as noble, straight-laced chaps with stiff upper lips. The whole thing is presented in simple language, just right for a grade school student. It's narrated by Joey, the horse, in a too-human voice, and takes roughly an hour to read. I have no idea why Spielberg decided to make a movie of it, except perhaps that the stage play had already scripted most of the lines for him.

The movie does improve on the book in regards to characterization. Albert's father isn't just a drunk anymore; he's suffering from PTSD, admirably stubborn pride and the yolk of class-ism. That classism presents itself at home, in the form of an upper-class abusive landlord, and in the trenches, in the form of privileged and arrogant officers. Albert's mother isn't just submissive; she's loving despite, and in part because, of her family's faults. Albert himself is left mostly untouched; he's still pretty much a one-dimensional golden boy, apparently with no desires in the world other than to play with his horse, work his father's farm and serve his country. Oh, he does take a glance at a girl. Once.

Sadly, Joey loses his voice in this movie; other than some snorts and neighs, he's a silent character, not even getting a voice-over part. He also gets shoved into the role of "loyal dog," making him more relate-able to the public. He has a few horse moments, where he rears, spooks or bolts; my favorite is when Albert tries to jump him over a fence, and the totally untrained Joey simply stops abruptly, dumping his rider. In general, however, Joey acts like a well-trained Labrador. A scene that especially peeved me was his "training," where Albert simply talks him into going from barely halter broke, to coming when called, to being a fully trained plow horse in the space of a day or two.

Everyone knows that if you just nicely tell a horse what to do, it will listen, right? Right.

The movie is pretty realistic in regards to the war scenes. In the beginning, the British are typically convinced of their superiority, and send a big group of dashing, sword-wielding cavalry to attack some encamped Germans. Unfortunately, it's 1915, not 1815, and most armies have nifty things like machine guns. It's not much of a fight, and the horses suffer even more than their riders; after all, they're bigger targets. This is indeed historically accurate; both sides tried using horses at the start of the war, until they realized that tanks don't poop, and can do a lot more damage.

Things get even more grim as the movie progresses. Through Joey's journey across war-torn Europe, we see young boys executed for desertion, families robbed of food in order to feed troops, and the wholesale slaughter of men and animals. Battle devolves into a messy, awful trench warfare where horses are only used to haul guns and hospital wagons, and suffer from hunger, cold, artillery bombardments, mustard gas attacks and tank charges. In one scene, Joey bolts across No-Man's Land and rips through several sets of barbed wire barricades at full gallop, eventually entangling himself so badly, he can't move. In a sweetie-sweet scene meant to display man's love for animals, the goodness found in the heart of every soldier, and the ability of enemies to find common ground, blah blah blah, a German soldier and a British soldier work together to free Joey from the wires. They flip a coin, and the British are awarded the horse.

Then comes my favorite scene. The horse is taken to a field surgeon for treatment (though Joey is remarkably able to walk just fine, despite having been literally covered in barbed wire). This doctor-for-humans takes one look at a shallow cut on Joey's leg, in the dark and the snow, and pronounces: "It's tetanus! Shoot him. He'll die anyway." I nearly laughed. Of course, the general public can't be expected to know what tetanus is, or that it can't exactly be deduced from a glance at a cut, so I guess the scene worked for the majority of people. 

At this point, Albert is told that there's a "miraculous horse" in camp, and, although blinded from a gas attack, he immediately knows it's his horse. They're reunited, Albert convinces everyone not to shoot Joey, Joey is cured, and aside from a last-minute hitch wherein all cavalry horses are due to be sent to French butcher shops (a true historical detail) the movie ends happily from there. A few Dickensian twists leads Albert to meet one of Joey's temporary caretakers, regain his father's war trophy and honor the legacy of a dead little girl. Joey, of course, has a few tiny scars, but Albert is blessedly unwounded and able to see. They both go home, where the family farm is prospering and Albert's father finally connects with his son. Also, kittens frolic through rainbow-colored meadows.

Aside from the contrived plot and sentimentality, I think one of the biggest problems with this movie was lack of focus. It was nice to see the journey of both boy and horse, but touching on all the lives and locations came at a price; we never got to truly see much of horse or boy. With Albert's one-dimensional character and Joey's lack of lines, it's even harder to identify or empathize with either of them, much less decide who the lead character is. I didn't feel like cheering anyone on here. If I could have done that, I could have forgiven everything else.

Final verdict: Overly-sentimental, fairly inaccurate in regards to horses, lacking a true main character, still mostly watchable if you like animal stories. C+

P.S.   This was the quietest movie audience I have ever encountered in my life. Everyone who was not crying was sleeping, or trying to turn up their hearing aides.

P.P.S There's an interview with the top horse-trainer for the movie here, a time-line for WWI here, and you can watch a demonstration of one of the fully-articulated, life-sized, rideable horse puppets from the theater production here.

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