Thursday, January 5, 2012

Horses Have Every Right To Go Crazy In War As Men Do

War Horse(2011)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis

The above quote is from the war movie classic, The Big Red One(1980), which I just recently rewatched. The opening of that film takes place in World War One and depicts a horse that has gone crazy in a lonely deserted battlefield. It's only a small portion of this incredibly involved film, but just one of the many memorable vignettes depicting the insanity of war.
I've always been fond of history and have been an avid fan of war films for a great number of years. When I heard that Steven Spielberg was doing a World War One picture, I was definitely interested, especially considering his work on Saving Private Ryan(1998). However when I read the plot, which was about a horse that found his way home, images of Son of Lassie(1945) sprang to mind and I cringed. Spielberg has not been the most consistent director in the last decade, producing largely unmemorable work, especially the lamentable fourth Indiana Jones installment, which I won't go into.
Saving Private Ryan was probably his last consistent film, but the memories of cinematic past have made it so that audiences still remained interested in the director's product.
I had no real opinion of the film going in, feeling rather indifferent, but went along on a Christmas night viewing with my best friend and his family, which are essentially my family. All of us are seasoned film buffs and really knew not what to expect.

As the film began, I found myself prone to some mildly cynical laughing and a few good natured quips here and there, but soon found myself giving in to the film's narrative power. I damned John Williams, but it wasn't just the work of his master musical manipulation at work yet again, it was just an absorbing well made film.
I honestly miss old-style filmmaking. Being a cineaste, like myself, one often finds themselves as fans of fine art. Proper cinematogrpahy in good films, reflect this artistic influence, as each shot is meant to resemble something like a great painting. That's what Spielberg achieves here; a lovely, vast landscape of immense beauty and wonder, while still hiding horrors unimaginable.
The film begins as a fairly standard, "mortgage on the farm" plot that must have seemed old hat nearly fifty years ago, but is given some levity from decent performances. Jeremy Irvine is the rare male lead that actually appears both sincere and totally without a side of grey. In a cinematic world drenched in blackness and ambiguous heroism, it's actually a treat to witness a performance that is so honest and likeable. I'm not familiar with this actor, but judging from his work in this picture, i'll keep my eye open.

Irvine portrays the son of a poor farmer(Peter Mullan) who buys a thoroughbred horse that the young man takes care of. The father is a heavy drinker with a past steeped in war, in this case, being a veteran of the Boer War. The son dreams of what it would be like to share such heroism. As problems escalate on the farm, the father is forced to sell the horse(named Joey) to the British military for service in the Great War, which has just broke out in 1914.
The son gives the horse a ribbon that his father won for valor and entrusts him to a Captain Nicholls(Tom Hiddlelston) who swears to take care of the horse. And thus begins the odyssey of this horse and the war that would change the world. Some may attack this film's ensuing episodic nature, but that would be missing the point. Credit must be given to the many horses that portray Joey for having as much character as they do, but the war horse is less a character than he is as the eyes of the war itself, witnessing the many instances of man's inhumanity to man.

It's difficult to pinpoint a single memorable moment in this film, as several spring to mind. How can one forget the heroic(yet foolish) cavalery charge as the British ride right into German machine gun fire, with only the empty horses seen darting through the forest? It was moments like that that linger in the mind far longer than most escapist fare geared towards us today. What surprised me most was how each vignette offered well drawn characters in such a short period, even though some of the dialogue admittebly wasn't up to snuff. Too many lines about the horse's nobility border on the cheezy and the ridiculous, but the images of war that surround them are unforgettable.
The execution of the young German soldiers who attempt escape, the sweet interlude with the horse and a French peasant girl, turned unexpectedly dark and those trench scenes will be hard to shake. Spielberg utilizes very little blood in his tale, but the sense of grue and horror lurks behind every corner in what has to be one of the darkest family films ever attempted.
That first trench scene as the soldiers ready themselves to go off into "no man's land" is reminiscent of the D-day invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan in both intensity and grittiness. The violence quotient is high, but coupled between these dark bits are doses of humanity meant to represent the light in the black that lurks behind all conflict, whether it be a temporary armistice as Germans and Brits attempt to free our battle worn horse from barbed wire, or a last reel bit of compassion that forms the heart of the film(Niels Arestrup deserves a supporting Oscar for his performance as the Grandfather who makes a courageous choice towards film's conclusion). By the time the picture ends with that great John Ford-inspired conclusion, complete with orange sky and soaring music, War Horse has entered the realm of the mythic and lands hooves first into the pantheon of great cinema.

To the more jaded moviegoers of today, a film like War Horse is bound to look sentimental and sappy, but few films in the last decade have been able to be as artistically viable, while offering as much genuine emotion as this one has. It's always a pleasure for a film buff to make a discovery like this without any preset notions and indeed, this was a delight. The war sequences are among the best in modern cinema, being both horrfiying and wonderous, all in equal intervals. The performances are solid from a cast of professionals and everything feels period authentic, without a need for pandering to modern sensibilities that often feels neccesary in contemporary cinema. What makes War Horse such a relief is that it is so refreshingly old-fashioned, adhering more to the mythic guidelines of old Hollywood and the basic art of good storytelling. This is a picture guaranteed to grow in the hearts of filmgoers through the years and hopefully educate future generations on the futility of war and that the only real glory in war is surviving. Yes, that's also a quote from The Big Red One.

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