Month: January 2012

AFI Top 100: Sullivan’s Travels

“And I say this with some embarrassment, but I don’t want to make O Brother Where Art Thou.”

It would take 60 years and two Coen Brothers to make O Brother Where Art Thou, but Joel Coen says on the DVD commentary that his 2000 film was the movie John L. Sullivan would have made at the end of Sullivan’s Travels. Sullivan’s Travels is the story of a wealthy movie director who goes “undercover” as a hobo, to research a social commentary film he wants to make. After going to see a comedy (a Walt Disney cartoon) while on a prison chain gang, he realizes that movies are sometimes good enough if they only entertain. The Art vs. Entertainment debate in both theatre and film has raged as long as both mediums have existed. Does a film always have to have a message? Can a movie just be fun? Preston Sturges, the writer/director of Sullivan’s Travels wrote the film as a reaction to the Art side of the debate, taking the point that John L. Sullivan eventually reaches in the movie. I don’t think he entirely succeeded in canceling out of the Art side of his film. It provides a portrait of poverty, and extravagance, in America during WWII and the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Sturges is no Steinbeck, but his portrayal of poverty conditions was so shockingly realistic, that the censorship office initially banned it from overseas distribution. Beyond its realistic nature, the film has its own message. In arguing for film as Entertainment, it becomes film as Art. The Art is in the message and the, excuse the expression, artful way it is conveyed.

Sullivan’s Travels is a film of its time. It features famous supporting actors who appeared in numerous Sturges films, including the successful The Lady Eve, costumes by Edith Head, and the charming and handsome Joel McCrea, who made a career of saving The Girl. The Girl in this film is played by Veronica Lake, who was six months pregnant when filming began. She did not reveal her pregnancy until after shooting had started, and while Sturges was furious that she had lied, he shot around her pregnancy. Edith Head also designed costumes to hide it, but it is noticeable in a few scenes, especially when Lake wears a wrapper. McCrea and other co-stars also reportedly had problems with Lake, and McCrea even refused to work with her a film in the future. But, Sully still gets The Girl.

I watched this movie as part of my goal to watch all of the AFI Top 100. This film was added to the list as recently as 2007. Recommended if you liked Key Largo, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Man With the Golden Arm.

The Artist

I knew this was going to happen. In fact, I am writing this the night before Oscar nominations are announced, after just having seen The Artist. I was upset about this movie from the first trailer I saw. My father mentioned to me that they had made a new silent movie, and as I watched the trailer, still on the phone with my dad, my heart sank. They were making a mockery of silent film! This trailer (which was a very early one and has since not been used to publicize the movie) billed it as “one man’s love letter to silent cinema,” and honestly, my first thought was, “Has this man even seen a silent movie?” The acting is atrocious, measuring by silent standards. The plot is ripped from Singin’ in the Rain. The cinematography steals scenes directly from Citizen Kane. The director absolutely bashes the audience over the head with symbolism. And I am not alone! Michel Hazanavicius is not being “lightly criticized;” more than one patron coming out of the movie theater complained of the stolen plot from Singin’ in the Rain. I will concede that Jean Dujardin is a fantastic actor. I was enchanted by his rapscallion charm. His acting is exempt from my criticisms because he did not pantomime. Pantomine is not silent acting. But Dujardin used his physical expressions in a self-aware and endearingly self-mocking way. He didn’t take it too seriously, and he comes out on top. He deserves every award he wins, starting with the breakout win atCannes for Best Actor. If Michel Hazanavicius wins for that poor work, I will be sorely disappointed, but sadly not surprised.

Let me begin with the acting. In this interview with Hazanavicius, he is quoted as telling his female lead (and coincidentally or not so, his wife) to develop “her own style.” She was studying silent greats like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, women who successfully made the leap from silents to talkies, the journey which forms the entire crux of Berenice Bejo’s character, Peppy Miller. Hazanavicius told her to stop. Why stop studying the greats? How else do we learn? Yes, copying a star’s acting exactly will never work. I’m sorry, but you will never have what Brando had. Don’t do a Brando impression. But studying their techniques and styles will only help, especially when working in an outdated form. Silent acting is vastly different from stage acting and especially from today’s film acting. Telling your stars to “wing it” will not yield the results you want. Telling extras to wing it will make everyone, including the director, look stupid. In the opening sequence, the audience at George Valentin’s premiere is a perfect example of pantomiming. People were not that stupid just because it was 1927. Women really didn’t clasp their hands together and almost faint. Indicating is such a taboo in modern acting, so what makes it ok to indicate in a silent film? Indicating means not creating a real emotion but, basically, going through the motions. An unconvincing actor is often indicating. Silent acting just means you need to better express yourself with your facial and body movements. It does not mean use over exaggerated, ridiculous body language. The audience isn’t idiots either. We will know you think something is funny if you only chuckle. No need for that fake belly laugh. Dujardin, who starred in Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 series, a spoof on James Bond films, brings a light-heartedness to his role. He doesn’t take the acting to seriously, and he lets his emotions be little and his comedy be physical. He is charming and dashing and fully self-aware of his antics. He only pantomimes for a joke. It’s interesting that Hazanavicius lets him get away with it, when clearly Bejo is much more controlled and directed, but Dujardin did well.

The plot is not entirely Singin’ in the Rain, but the similarities are undeniable. The film opens with the premiere of another successful, and silent, George Valentin film, co-starring his trusty Jack Russell terrier and his wife, played by Uggie and Penelope Ann Miller, respectively. Valentin is on top of the world, when a fan girl falls into his arms outside the theater. A snapshot of the two winds up in the paper, and when she appears on his film set the next day as an extra, he gets her a bigger part. “The name’s Miller. Peppy Miller!” she winks. With the advent of talkies, George’s career goes into decline. The studio wants “fresh meat,” and he is out, while Peppy is in. George makes one last silent film, spending all of his money, and the film opens the day the stock market crashes. No one goes to the premiere except Peppy. George’s wife leaves him. George loses his house. George sells his tuxedo to get a few bucks. George fires his valet and loyal friend, Clifton. George’s bad luck continues. In a fit of rage, George burns the films he has stored in his house, and since film negatives are highly flammable, almost dies in the blaze. His Terrier saves him, and Peppy nurses him back to health. But, when she offers him a part in her new talkie, he refuses, angry that she has to help him financially and in his career. He goes back to his burnt-out apartment and is about to pull the trigger when Peppy rushes into his arms. She saves him, with one last great idea. They will tap dance on film! Not unlike Singin’, but strangely darker. George is just beaten down and beaten down. Scene after excruciatingly scene of bad luck for George. And it ends in a classic Fred and Ginger, sweeping tap duet, happy ending.

The cinematography throughout is good, but not reminiscent of a silent film. Hazanavicius claims he didn’t want to make a silent movie, visually, but a movie without sound. Apparently his DP came to him saying “This is so Citizen Kane, this is the 1940’s, not the 1920’s,” and Hazanavicius’s response was “I don’t care.” He probably should have cared, because he allowed scenes from Citizen Kane to be put exactly into his film. (To say nothing of photoshopping Dujardin’s face on top of George Fairbanks in a print of Mark of Zorro.) George’s wife really serves no plot purpose other than as one more nail in his coffin of depression, but Hazanavicius spends a lot of time establishing their discord, through the classic Citizen Kane break fast scenes. Absolutely anyone who has taken a film course has studied those scenes as groundbreaking cinematography in which form mirrors content. The distance at the breakfast table, created through newspaper and camera angles mirrors the distance between husband and wife’s relationship. Simple, obvious. Why are we giving this man awards? To him credit, the DP, Guillaume Schiffman, who was not allowed to study silent films either, did a great job with the direction he was given. The menacing, Hitchcockian spoof camera angles as George rips the dustcloths off the relics of his former success is beautiful camerawork. Unfortunately, it’s been done, and not in this kind of film.

In addition to his obvious references to Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain, Hazanavicius virtually beats the audience over the head with the symbolism of sound and silence. A trio of monkeys statues, representing “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” become a certerpiece of George’s demise, as we see them in his mansion during the good years, on the auction block, and later in storage at Peppy’s house, where her pity has placed them. We get it. The monkeys are supposed to mean something, but they become only a device. The falcon in The Maltese Falcon is a supreme example of a physical symbol that is not overused. The falcon appears only in the last 20 minutes of the film, and wrapped up until the last 5. I don’t mean to digress, but the absence gives the symbolism more weight. The monkeys have no meaning. They become just some kitschy plot device. From the opening sequence, when backstage at the premiere appears the sign “Be silent behind the screen,” to the final calls (audibly) of “Cut the talk! Silence!” Hazanavicius overdoes it, no he more than overdoes it with the silence symbolism. The symbols come to be devoid of meaning through their overuse. George, unable and unallowed to transition from silents to talkies is hushed by Peppy’s maid and says wistfully (in intertitles of course) “If only he could talk” (of his dog). George’s dream in which he can hear the sounds others make and the sound of his glass clinking against the table but no sound comes out of his mouth, and his waking nightmare when the audience sees a close-up of a policeman’s mouth, but George hears nothing, communicate, rather blatantly, that George feels powerless about his silence. It would be too numerous to list every groan I uttered at another jab at silence. The final blow comes when John Goodman requests, verbally, one more take, and Jean Dujardin, in his lovely French accent responds, “With pleasure.” The film should have ended there and gone out with a little bit of grace. Instead, Hazanavicius takes a slow pan back and back and back, revealing the movie studio the stars are filming in, as we hear those last cries of “Silence!” and then, “Action!” as it cuts to black.

Hazanavicius not only borrowed from other movies (better movies) plots and cinematography, but music. Kim Novak, star of Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, claimed that Hazanavicius stole Bernard Herrmann’s music for his own film. She called it rape. Hazanavicius’s statement was this:

“The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I’m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I’m sorry to hear she disagrees… I used music from another movie, but it’s not illegal. We paid for that, we asked for that and we had the permission to do it. For me there is no real controversy…. I feel sorry for her.”

Non, Michel. C’est une traveste.

‘The Artist’ Director Responds to Kim Novak Slam Over ‘Vertigo’ Music

‘The Artist’ director defends use of Hitchcock score


Supporting Actors: Alfred Hitchcock’s Stand Bys

Alfred Hitchcock was a one-note director. Not in a bad way; he wasn’t called the “master of suspense” for nothing. Hitchcock was an amazing director, cinematographer, casting director. He worked with the same actors over and over on his films (Cary Grant, Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly), his “women” are an especially well-known group, and he even preferred the same supporting actors. He remembered the actors who had performed well in his films in later years on his TV shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His supporting actors were as meticulously chosen as his leads, for they were joining a company, in essence. Highlighted here, as part of my “supporting actors” series, are a few Hitchcock repeat offenders.

John Williams

Best known Hitchcock film: Dial M for Murder as Chief Inspector Hubbard and To Catch a Thief as H.H. Hughson, both films co-starring Grace Kelly

Other notable credits: Audrey Hepburn’s father in Sabrina, Brogan Moore in Witness for the Prosecution, Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery (TV, 2 episodes)

Hitchcock TV appearances: 10 episodes of Presents


John Williams is easily recognizable as the slim, fatherly chap with a dry sense of humor. Not to be confused with the composer John Williams, this John was born in 1903 in England and died in la Jolla, California in 1983. He made numerous television appearances, transitioning from movies to TV seamlessly. Williams began his career on stage, and in 1953 appeared in the stage production of Dial M as Inspector Hubbard, a role for which he won a Tony Award. Williams took a break from acting during WWII to serve in the RAF, and returned to a successful career.

Hume Cronyn

Best known Hitchcock film: Stanley “Sparks” Garret in Lifeboat

Other notable credits: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Beginning or the End, Cleopatra, Richard Burton’s Hamlet, The Pelican Brief

Hitchcock TV appearances: 2 episodes of Presents


Hume Cronyn had a successful career aside from Hitchcock movies and TV, but he got his start in Lifeboat, the only Hitchcock movie to win a Best Picture Oscar (Olivier won a Best Actor for Rebecca). Cronyn married actress Jessica Tandy in 1942, and they often worked together, occasionally with Cronyn directing. They were awarded a joint Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. Cronyn also won a Tony for Richard Burton’s 1964 stage production of Hamlet, in which he played Polonius. He also played Polonius in the film version released that year. Cronyn had originally worked with Burton on 1963’s Cleopatra, in the small but memorable role of Sosigenes, Cleopatra’s tutor. He appeared on TV and in TV movies later in his life.

Barabara Bel Geddes

Best known Hitchcock film: Midge in Vertigo

Other notable credits: I Remember Mama, Panic in the Streets (directed by Elia Kazan), Five Pennies (co-starring Danny Kaye), Robert Montgomery Presents (TV), Dallas (TV)

Hitchcock TV appearances: 4 episodes of Presents


Barbara Bel Geddes plays the glasses-wearing best friend to Jimmy Stewart’s vertically-challenged hero in Vertigo to perfection. Hitchcock was impressed as well, and cast her in several episodes of Presents later in her career. Bel Geddes is best known for her roles on TV, including Dallas, as Miss Ellie from 1978-1990. She also earned great stage success, but was often replaced in film versions (by Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl and Debbie Reynolds in Mary, Mary). She was typecast as a soft-spoken best friend type more often than not.

Thelma Ritter

Best known Hitchcock film: Stella, Jeff’s nurse in Rear Window

Other notable credits: Miracle on 34th Street, Call Northside 777, All About Eve, Pillow Talk, The Misfits

Hitchcock TV appearances: 1 episode of Presents


Thelma Ritter may not have appeared in many Hitchcock films or many films compared to others of her generation, but once seen in a movie, she was unforgettable. Straight-talking and sympathetic Stella to Jimmy Stewart’s peeping tom Jeff in Rear Window brought her to Hitchcock’s attention, and later, he cast her as Lottie Slocum in “The Babysitter” episode of Presents. Lottie Slocum is hauntingly annoying and unsympathetically sympathetic. Ritter also had supporting roles in other important films: Jimmy Stewart appeared with her in Northside 777 and The Misfits was the last film appearance for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. She was nominated for an Academy Award for All About Eve in 1950, and in the five following years. She never won, but in 1958, she won a Tony Award for her role in New Girl in Town. In 1966 she appeared in a touring production of Bye Bye Birdie, with her daughter, actress Monica Moran.

AFI Top 100: Frankenstein

The 1931 version of Frankenstein features ? as The Monster, an actor we now know as Boris Karloff. This monster movie is representative of the time it was made in, aesthetically and theatrically. The acting style looks almost foreign to us today, and the cinematography, without modern camera equipment, uses more live theatrical staging techniques.

The characters of Frankenstein include all of the necessary types: the juvenile, the handsome, young, usually engaged lover (in this case, Dr. Frankenstein’s brother, who is in love with Elizabeth, his fiancée); the heroine, the young, beautiful maiden, Elizabeth; the blustery old man, Baron Frankenstein; and the tragic anti-hero, Dr. Frankenstein himself. Compared with 1933’s King Kong, the characters match Jack Driscoll, Ann Darrow, the ship captain, and Carl Denham, respectively. The Monster is The Monster. The actors play their types, in the time before Method acting. Marlon Brando (the Hollywood star famous for Method acting) and his “mumbling and scratching” did not rise to popularity until almost thirty years later. Method acting, favored on the New York stage in the 1950’s, involves immersing oneself into the character. Being the character, in a sense. It also involves tangling your personal emotions and memories to the props, sets, and situations the character is in. The actor draws upon his or her own emotional and physical experiences to endow a prop or co-star with emotional significance. However, the type of acting displayed in Frankenstein was a much earlier form of realism. The realism of Ibsen, Chekov, and Stanislavsky, and not of Uta Hagen and Stella Adler, it looks almost melodramatic to modern audiences. The heroine places the back of her hand to her cheek delicately as she screams shrilly as the monster advances! It seems silly to modern eyes, used to modern acting, which is much more minimal and uses endowment exercises that allow subtle movements to convey more emotions. Instead of conveying fear with the eyes, as modern audiences expect, the heroine uses much grander body movements. It isn’t a lack of emotional connection, but a difference of emotional cues. The actor is conveying an emotion, portraying an emotion, and the communication method was formalized and stylized differently in the 1930’s.

The cinematography and visual aesthetics differ from what modern eyes are used to in that, without digital and modern equipment, cinematographers and directors were forced to stage shots more like a play is staged. For instance, in the scene in which the Monster is first introduced to the light, the camera is lower than the Monster, filming him at an upward angle as he rises from the chair and stretches toward to the light. The Monster looms large and awesome, because of the combined effect of the camera placement and the Monster rising. A stage director, not having a camera to direct an audience’s eye uses techniques like leveling (one actor standing on a platform, one slightly below him on the stage) to emphasize power and importance. The cinematographer worked this way in movies made during this time.

While Frankenstein may look outdated, and its famous lines (“Throw the switch!” and “It’s alive!”) have been parodied many times, it is a perfect example of 1930’s film, and still stands as a well-crafted monster movie.

I watched this movie as part of my goal to watch all of AFI’s Top 100 movies; recommended if you liked King Kong (the original 1933 version or Peter Jackson’s 2005 version), the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, or Dracula.

Supporting Actors: Paul Henreid

I’m starting a new series on supporting actors in classic films. That face you see in the background, that cop who arrests the villain, or that voice you know you’ve heard before: the supporting actor. To kick off the series, I’ve chosen a more well-known second fiddle: Paul Henreid.

Henreid is best known for playing Victor Laszlo in 1942’s Casablanca. While Laszlo got the girl at the end of the film, Rick, or Bogie, got the fame. Henreid went on to many more film roles, and even directed several films, but never achieved Bogie’s level of success. Most of Henreid’s notoriety came from his on-screen pairings with Bette Davis in movies such as Now, Voyager (While the male lead, he did lose Bette Davis in the end.) and Deception (Here, second fiddle to Claude Rains). Born Paul Georg Julius Hernreid Ritter Von Wassel-Waldingau in Austria-Hungary, he began his career on the stage, working under the direction of famed German director Max Reinhardt. He refused to join the Nazi actor’s guild in Berlin and emigrated to England and then America. He was fervently anti-Nazi, and according to reports, helped a Jewish friend escape from Berlin.


In his pre-Casablanca roles, Henreid bucked type several times, playing Nazi officers and villains, as well as heroes. In Night Train to Munich, co-starring Rex Harrison (a very young and very thin Rex Harrison), Henreid is the Gestapo officer who first romances Margaret Lockwood, but loses her in the end. He did not play a hero until 1941, when he signed with RKO Pictures. Henreid’s opposition to Nazism only fueled his performances in Night Train and Madman of Europe. While many actors (Bogie included) made cheesy propaganda films supporting the Allied cause (see: Action in the North Atlantic), Henreid made a different sort of propaganda. He used his supreme talent as an actor, and vilified the Nazis, without over-playing one. Karl Marsen, in Night Train, is subtle and not at all the stereotypical, hate-spouting Nazi officer.

Henreid’s career peaked with Joan of Paris, Now, Voyager and Casablanca in the early 40’s and by the mid-50’s, he stepped behind the camera. His most successful directing turn was 1964’s Dead Ringers, starring Bette Davis. He also directed for TV, including several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Henreid’s acting skill was underappreciated in Hollywood in a time when typed actors were the norm and versatile, subtle actors like Henreid were rare.

Paul Henreid’s American citizenship application

NYT and Los Angeles Times obituaries

Best Picture Winner 1958: Gigi

Gigi is credited as the last of MGM’s traditional movie musicals. It was made during the golden age of the movie musical, and its director, Vincente Minelli, was already established as the king. Leslie Caron, the star of the film, had convinced Gene Kelly to cast her in An American in Paris in 1951, and since then, the French dancer had been appearing in Hollywood musicals. I was wary of watching Gigi because I detested Caron’s character in An American in Paris. An American in Paris is overrated as a whole, but Caron especially got on my nerves. And when she skipped onto the screen, masquerading as a 16-year-old girl in Gigi, I was more than a bit skeptical. Nor are movie musicals my favorite genre. I have a special place in my heart for Annie Get Your Gun, Bye Bye Birdie, The Music Man, Crazy for You, and most Gershwin songbook musicals, because I appeared in stage versions of them. However cheesy, I do enjoy those movies because of the stage memories I have associated with them. The Music Man is probably my favorite of those, and it’s a great feel-good movie. I love the silly pick-a-little, talk-a-little ladies, Buddy Hackett in anything, and the impossibly happy ending. Gigi surprised me by being another feel-good musical.

The music and musical numbers are very bland, and even the singers dubbing the main characters are not fantastic. But, after finishing the movie, I still found myself humming the title song. Nondescript, but catchy. The writers had just come off a successful Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady, when approached to write the music. The story is based on a novella by Colette, telling of her life growing up with what are referred to variously as “kept women” or “courtesans.” Alan Jay Lerner is credited with the lyrics, and he persuaded his partner Frederick Loewe to write the music. The melodies are very similar to My Fair Lady, and even include a song rejected from it. “Say A Prayer for Me” was written for Eliza Doolittle, but used instead for Gigi. The production styles are similar as well, in that the lavish costumes and sets (designed by Cecil Beaton, who also designed for My Fair Lady’s Broadway debut) and period high collars. Sweeping through London and Paris respectively, the productions also bear similarities in place and visual aesthetics. Reviewers often cite Cecil Beaton and Vincente Minelli as the best creative minds on this project (I mean, Lerner and Loewe did use material they rejected from a preivous production) for the visuals and creative camera and directing work.

While the music may have been bland, it did not interfere. It did not add much to make the movie outstanding or unique, but it did not detract too terribly. The poor dubbing was obvious, but to be expected with musicals of that era. (Interestingly, the same singer dubbed Audrey Hepburn in 1964’s My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story in 1961.) The only truly heinous musical moment was the first song. “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” sung by Maurice Chevalier’s character. Chevalier plays the bachelor uncle to the young male hero, an uncle with two jobs: “a lover, and a collector of beautiful things. Not antiques; much, much young things.” Chevalier’s character isn’t sadistic or leering, but even his genial rendition thanking heaven for 7-year-olds is off-putting. The character directly addresses the camera, as was oddly popular in movies set in Paris, and almost exclusive to movies set in Paris (think Love in the Afternoon, also narrated by Chevalier, or Irma La Douce), which makes his declaration of love for young girls even stranger. He is not ashamed, he does not hide it, he acts like it is completely normal. Even the mother sitting next to him on the park bench as he sings seems totally unfazed when he takes her daughter on his knee. The age difference between the hero Gaston and Gigi is emphasized, but is almost not noticeable. Gigi is still in school, but for the amount of time she is allowed to spend with men and the “lessons” she receives from her Aunt Alicia, she must be at least 16. She is forced to grow up fast, the moment her aunt and grandmother decide she should become Gaston’s mistress, and she does. She is still afraid of having to leave home and be with Gaston and runs crying from the room, but when Gaston takes her to dinner, she proves herself poised and mature. The title song emphasizes the age difference between Gaston and Gigi, as Gaston describes her as a literal baby. By the end of the song, he is in love with her. In this song, it is seems less offensive, because Gigi is not really a baby and not really all that much younger than Gaston, who is probably in his mid-twenties, or at least under 30. Uncle Honore, however, really does chase much younger girls. Chevalier was 70 when the movie was filmed, and apparently, the song “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” was inspired by Chevalier complaining on set that he was too old to romance women and would much rather sing in cabarets. It is an off-putting undertone to an otherwise stock, smooth-sailing movie musical.

I watched this movie as part of my goal to watch every Best Picture Oscar Winner, and I would recommend it if you enjoyed: Funny Face, An American in Paris, Love in the Afternoon, or The Music Man.

New York Times review of Gigi

Gigi at TCM’s film database

War Horse

I saw a review with the tagline “War Horse, or Bore Horse?” which was interesting because the article listed below raved about the “beautifully filmed live-action film.” Having seen the stage version, at Lincoln Center, this past fall, I was eager to see the film, especially directed by Steven Spielberg, with music by John Williams, and director of photography Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). War Horse, the film, was a sore disappointment. Sore Horse. Get it?

According to, War Horse was filmed over three months in the fall of 2010, but from the quality of the picture, I expected it to have been filmed in the fall of 2011, to be released quickly for Christmas. Opening on Christmas day, War Horse grossed $15 million its first week, and $45 its second week. It currently sits at number 4 on the US charts, behind the fourth installment of Mission Impossible, the second installment of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, and the third installment of the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. It is, however, sitting above the highly anticipated Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but barely. The quality of War Horse suggests hasty shooting and its somewhat dismal situation on US box office charts. Several characters were changed considerably from the play to the movie, in attempts to “dumb” it down, music from the stage production was not used (Spielberg couldn’t afford the rights?), and many scenes were very obviously and poorly shot on a sound stage.

Ted Narracott, the protagonist Albert’s father, is an alcoholic. In the stage version, he buys Joey, a horse not suitable for farm work, with the rent money when he is drunk and egged on by his perfect older brother. Ted and his older brother have a bitter rivalry, that extends back to when Ted had to stay home from war (presumably the Boer War in South Africa) to take care of the farm, while his brother went off and became a prosperous war hero. Ted’s wife Rose is fed up with his drinking and squandering money. Ted is decidedly a villain, in the stage production. He exudes danger and wild drunkenness, especially in scenes where he threatens Joey. Ted storms (stumbles) up to Joey, determined to get him in a plow collar and make him into a farm horse, and when Joey kicks at him, Ted gets his gun. In the film version, the scenes at the auction and the scene with the gun both appear, but the older brother character is gone, replaced by a sneaky landlord with a mustache. Nothing yells “VILLAIN” to a movie-going audience more than a mustache. The landlord continually threatens to take the farm in extra scenes, as well as scenes that appeared in the stage version originally. Rose also defends Ted’s drinking in the movie. Immediately following the scene in which Ted threatens Joey with the gun, and Albert must step in the line of fire to stop him, Rose shows Albert Ted’s war medals. He earned several in the Boer War, including the highest honor he could receive. She gives Albert Ted’s regimental flag, which becomes a symbol of hope and continuity throughout the movie, as Albert ties it to Joey’s bridle, just before the horse is taken to France. Rose explains to Albert that Ted drinks to forget all of the brave things he has done, and it is better that he is ashamed of killing than proud of his medals and achievements. She enables and defends her alcoholic husband, making him a more sympathetic character to the audience. Ted is not a good guy. He hurts his family continually with his poor behavior, but it’s ok because he has a limp and is sad. At least, that’s what Spielberg tells us by villainizing the new landlord character and putting defensive speeches into Rose’s mouth.

Movie-goers aren’t stupid. I like to believe that on the whole people are not stupid, but often they go to the movies so they “don’t have to think.” Many people enjoy romantic comedies for their lack of relation to reality and lack of plot. Movies today are regarded as an escape. In the 1930’s, box office sales boomed because people living in the Great Depression wanted the very same escape. I agree that movies don’t have to be real and gritty to be entertaining. I will suspend my disbelief and follow unrealistic plot twists. However, I want my movies to be well-crafted. Filmmaking is a craft, and today we often forget that. In the time of the big studios, in the 1940’s when they had their heyday, movies were churned out, and stars (like Humphrey Bogart) who fought for good scripts, good parts, and good directors were rare. It was still a craft, created by specially trained people. Today’s studios have enormous budgets to provide viewers with SPECTACLES. War Horse is no exception. We all want to see the heart-warming story of love (even if between a young boy and his horse) triumph over all human evils. And we want it to look good. The stage production was hailed for its innovative use of large and mechanical puppets instead of live horses. When a puppet (if one can even call it a puppet, it was a cage rolled by performers that would not look out of place in Cirque de Soleil show) tank rolled onto stage, there were gasps. War Horse, the film, was shot on location in Devon and other parts of the north of England, but also at a studio in England. The shots filmed in the studio are obvious, as such because even with today’s technology, people do not meld seamlessly into a green screen. The image generated behind the actors in post-production can look as real as possible, can even be filmed on location and added in post-production, but the break between actor and green screen is still obvious. It’s something about the outline of the actor and their relation to their environment. In old movies you often see it in the way the view from a car window looks odd and flat. Kiminski, the DP, has done outstanding, award-winning work, and I was disappointed that his cinematography showed the use of green screens so clumsily. Untrained eyes could spot it easily in this movie. The shots and angles were stock, and in some scenes, oddly placed. Spielberg and Kiminski worked together with success previously, but this effort left a lot to be desired visually. The stunning, sprawling hills of northern England looked flat and the majesty of the closing sunset was horribly cheesy for its falseness.

John Williams, the composer, also worked with Spielberg multiple times to award-winning success, but his compositions felt dated and stock as well. In the stage production, billed as a musical, there is a Song Man and Song Woman, who sing folk songs during transitions. The melodies ring true of northern England, with Irish and Scottish influences. Only one small melody of the stage production’s music made it into the film. It is very difficult and expensive to get rights to shows still playing on Broadway (it’s how the machine works), so I can forgive hiring a new composer and changing the music. Williams also changed the type of music, which altered the mood of the movie. The use of folk songs created an atmosphere onstage that was more authentic, while the soundtrack to the movie sounded, frankly, canned. Movie soundtracks are often composed to be background and not take over and steal focus from the visual elements also telling the story. The style of movie compositions has settled into a sameness, and Williams, who pioneered composing for movies, even before he composed Darth Vader’s theme in 1983, wrote a score very much in the present style. Classical, but with modern hints. Never distracting, always swelling at the right moments, and no personal touches. It should feel sterile, and if heard separately, without the movie playing, could not be linked with that particular movie, but really any movie that features a lot of emotions. This time around, the music seemed to be composed for the purpose of lulling the audience into feeling and not into entertaining or engaging the audience.

A lot of emotions and themes were swirling around this movie. It is billed as a “tear-jerker,” and there were many sniffles in the theater towards the end. The themes, heavy-handedly mentioned of course, included bravery, family, honor, tradition, patriotism, and love. Most themes were picked up by a character and dropped a few scenes later when the character picked up a new theme. For example, two German brothers were added to the movie as characters. One brother rescues Joey and the co-starring horse, Topthorn, from being shot by insisting they can pull ambulances. He picks up the theme of man-nature, the love between a boy and his horse, from Albert, but he drops this theme just as fast when his brother is ordered to march to the front. He swoops in (literally, he’s riding Joey) and saves his brother, and as they bed down for the night, hiding in a windmill, he makes a speech about family and honor and the shame their father will and will not feel. It boggles the mind. The critical mind, I should say. This movie was not made for critical minds, but to lull audiences with buzz words and key moments of emotion. When Emilie, a young French orphan who adopts Joey and Topthorn is torn from her grandfather (literally) screaming, audiences feel something. They are not meant to think about how the actress’s accent slipped on several vowels, or how her character is supposedly sick and frail, yet runs everywhere, or how she is an arbitrary addition to the storyline for the screen adaptation. They are only meant to feel her screaming and struggling to get back to her grandfather, her only family left.

The emotions were presented raw and easy-to-read, like an orphan girl screaming, and a lot of nuance and dramatic tension were lost between the stage production and the movie. Several scenes and storylines were cut, one featuring a German officer and a French woman and her daughter and another was altered in which a German and English soldier cut Joey free of barbed wire in no-man’s-land. The German officer was replaced by the two German brothers, in order to hammer home the themes of Family and Honor. Capital F. Capital H. The German officer was played very well on stage, and his miscommunications with the French woman and her daughter set up and explored an interesting dialectic. I call it the “translations” method. Translations, a play by Brian Friel, includes a pivotal scene between an Irish girl and an English boy, each speaking a language the other does not understand. But, in reality, they are both speaking English, so that the (presumably English-speaking) audience can understand both sides. The characters do not know that they are saying the same things to each other, but the audience understands both. It is a complex, second-level dialogue way to explore ideas of humanity, universality, and in the case of War Horse, war. War is caused by misunderstanding, more often than not. (Yes, sometimes it is caused by atrocities, but sometimes, just sometimes, people don’t understand each other.) In the stage production, when the German and English soldiers meet in the middle (physically-speaking) to cut Joey free, they are supposedly speaking two different languages. But, using the translations method, they are actually both speaking English and audiences hear both sides. It is a funny and insightful moment. In the movie version, the translations method is not used. The German soldier speaks English. “You speak good English,” the English soldier observes. “I speak English well,” the German soldier corrects him. A cheap joke that expresses nothing.

I like movies. I really do. But I like well-made movies, and while I loved the stage production, was blown away by the stage production, the movie War Horse felt lazy and shallow.

Rated PG-13 for intense war violence

War Horse at Internet Movie Database

Bore Horse, discussion board review of War Horse

“Beautifully filmed” Review

The L Magazine reviews War Horse; interestingly, the print version of the review was much more impressed with the film