Monday, 2 April 2012

War Horse

With War Horse now in the cheap theatre, I finally gave in and went to see it. I got my money’s worth.

Steven Spielberg is one of my all-time favourite directors (with more films in my top 150 than any other director). Even so, there is often a superficial simplicity to his films that usually disappoints me. War Horse is another example of this. It’s advertised as the story of a boy’s beloved horse that ends up in the front lines of WWI. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was much more the story of the people who, however briefly, found themselves in possession of the horse. These stories were often compelling, but they were generally too short, too sentimental, too simple and too superficial.

But let’s start with the good news. War Horse is an old-fashioned epic of the kind that are rarely made anymore. I appreciate that. It humanizes both sides of the war in a way that makes no one the “bad guy”. I very much appreciate that. It makes the war look pretty stupid. Also appreciated (especially the scene where a German soldier and an English soldier join forces to rescue the horse). It provides a fascinating frame for the heart of its story by showing how the boy loses the horse to a nice man and then gets it back from a nice man. Those two scenes are among my favourite in the film. The cinematography is stunning and John Williams’ music is appropriate. The acting is not particularly outstanding, but it’s solid.

Now for the bad news, which may refer more to the story or the play than to the film. Since I haven’t seen the play or read the book, I cannot say. The biggest flaw in War Horse is the many contrived melodramatic (and often far too coincidental) scenes that made me cringe. Just one example: A wounded horse is about to be shot. A young wounded soldier, with eyes bandaged, cups his hand to make a special sound. The horse looks up. The soldiers part in awe. The soldier claims the horse belongs to him. When he describes the horse as having white feet and a white mark on its head, he doesn’t realize that those parts of the horse have been conveniently covered with black mud. As a result, the officer doesn’t believe the horse is his. In an overly melodramatic way, another soldier sees the mud and washes it off. Ouch! And this kind of thing happens again and again. Sorry, whoever is responsible, but this kind of scene usually doesn’t work for me (the ‘frame’ scenes described above notwithstanding). I suppose I should forgive an old-fashioned family epic for including such scenes, but they really drained my enjoyment of the film.

In the end, War Horse was, for me, a would-be grand epic with numerous precious moments that ultimately failed to impress me. It gets *** for effort. My mug is up, but keep your expectations under control.

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