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 imdb.com, 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