Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse: You Can’t Go Home Again



Steven Spielberg’s equine bildungsroman has been called old-fashioned, and it is, I suppose, to a point. Because it’s essentially about the very idea of old-fashioned-ness itself. It starts off in a kind of bucolic, poetic reverie in the lush countryside of Devon; the first scenes are admirably wordless, as boy (Jeremy Irvine) meets horse. Then it settles, for a little while at least, into a kind of particularized geniality that has led many to recall John Ford films like The Quiet Man and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Seemingly uncinematic problems -- such as whether a thoroughbred can be made to plow a field, or whether a kind-hearted, drunk farmer with a limp (Peter Mullan) will be able to make rent -- are filmed with a wide-eyed momentousness.

Some will find this hard to take, but that’s what epics do: They make everything bigger and bigger until the whole world seems monumental, and then they force us to choose what’s important. And if War Horse seems old-fashioned at first, that’s because it has to be. It’s about how the old world was torn to shreds by the new -- which is, after all, the ultimate story of World War I.

So these early scenes are bathed in golden hues, and the rolling fields are filmed with a sensuousness that renders the whole thing unreal, as in a dream. (Meanwhile, John Williams’s score goes into full Ralph Vaughan Williams mode.) The film occasionally goes back to this register, even as the plot departs England and moves on to the continent; the fields and farms are now just French ones, and they don’t look too different.

But as the cruel pestilence of war spreads across the film’s imagined countryside, each idyll is upstaged by the thundering, churning machinery of combat. The rich colors suddenly turn stark and virtually monochromatic, and the exchanges between characters veer towards madness. A track-in to a sword on one end of a battle is mirrored by a track-in to a machine gun that’s about to tear an entire battalion apart. This is all part of the film’s most bravura sequence: a cavalry charge that begins in a dreamy, softly-lit field of tall grain and winds up in a massacre in the dark heart of an unnamed forest. The guns effectively rid the galloping horses of their riders, like an absence factory. That scene virtually encapsulates the entire movie. The noble values of the old meet the mechanized ferocity of the new. One wonders if this might be the last cavalry charge in human history.

War Horse is far from perfect. Much of the dialogue bears a certain staginess that betrays its theatrical origins. This eventually becomes its own stylistic thing, but it also lends some key scenes a kind of hard, awkward edge that left me curiously cold. Yet the film has a compelling sense of narrative design. Not unlike Spielberg’s earlier Munich -- which took its ever-falling characters from relaxed apartments to dark, cramped safe-houses where they had to sleep next to the people they had to kill -- War Horse’s very trajectory seems to be its point. The weaponry keeps getting bigger and more surreal throughout the film – from swords, to machine guns, to heavy artillery, and finally to gas. A similar pattern follows the soldiers as well – they start off as noble officers and gradually become more cynical and murderous as the film progresses – so that their redemption in the final act has the force of a genuine deliverance.

For all the alleged indulgence of the film’s stylization, there is in fact a very pointed, melancholy quality to the camerawork and lighting here. A distinctly Spielbergian crane up in the first act reveals a rich, black, freshly plowed field, while the same camera movement towards the end of the film gives us dull, dark acres of British corpses; in both cases, our horse hero was made to drag the instruments that made this possible. The film’s final scene is deceptive – it’s bathed in a kind of otherworldly red that may make you think we’ve returned to our rolling idylls of before. But we haven’t. The red never goes away, and the actors move in silhouette, like shadow puppets. The scene might as well be taking place on Mars. It’s ostensibly a happy ending, but it leaves us feeling queasy and unfulfilled. We barely get to see anybody’s face.

Despite all the associations (mine included) with John Ford and David Lean, the director War Horse evokes most is…well, Spielberg himself. In some weird way, the film feels like a précis of the director’s career – a kinetic portrait of how the boy who dreamed big fantasies of friendship and wonder eventually became the man who wound up making movies about genocide, terrorism, slavery, and war, even as he tried to find ways back home from the chaos. Yes, it’s melodrama. Yes, it’s broad. Yes, it’s old-fashioned. But there’s also an unfathomable darkness to War Horse that will consume you if you let it.

6 comments:

  1. This is a very beautiful review, Bilge, and you've done the best job in the blogosphere thus far in determining the range of Spielberg's aethetic here. While I will say the film's ending did leave me fulfilled (Albert's reunion with his parents had me sobbing like crazy), the combination of the blood-red sky, and Joey's onward looking, left me reconsidering the depths of the ending afterward. It's a truly wonderful film.

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  2. Wow, thanks for that note, Adam. Means a lot. Glad you enjoyed the review and the movie.

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  3. I was lucky enough to see a sneak preview and both my daughter and I found it to be amazing. It was tear wrenching in certain scenes and definately hard to watch how horses were treated during this war. It ran deeper though, touching on relationship (not just on that between horse and boy) between father and son, and the effect that the war the father had served in had effected him. It was only by serving in war himself did the son come to understand what his father went though. There is so much more to this movie than this article would lead you to believe. I can only advise you see it and then judge it for yourself.

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  4. Great review, Bilge. I thought the film took a turn for the better during the incredibly intense battle sequence -- in which Spielberg almost recreates the battle sequence from Paths of Glory. There were insinuations that the film had a darker streak before, but that sequence carried to a much more awesome and interesting territory. War Horse was a very pleasant surprise for me.

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