When the smartest character in a movie about a horse is the horse . . . when the earliest emotion drawn from me was irritation, that did not bode well for what was to follow.
Though Steven Spielberg’s War Horse delivered stunning scenery of rural England and Europe, as well as some very disturbing views and sounds of the reality of war (World War I), the stupidity of its human characters began to rub the wrong way from the outset. When the smartest character in a movie about a horse is the horse . . . well, it takes away the ability to suspend disbelief and, therefore, the ability to lose one’s self and get totally caught up in the story. When the earliest emotion drawn from me was irritation, that did not bode well for what was to follow.
When a drunken fool of a farmer puts his family’s livelihood in jeopardy from bitter and foolish pride, I set my irate irritation aside for the sake of the story. Although War Horse is based on a children’s book of the same title (which I haven’t read), written by Michael Morpurgo, the screenplay was written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. Though they did a credible job of building upon and explaining this unstable basis for the whole story, the story line kept adding insult to injury. They could not get this beautiful and majestic thoroughbred, dubbed “Joey”, from one scene to another, and ultimately into and through the war, without some person, or persons, doing something so asinine I wanted to throw up my hands and turn off the movie.
Another point of contention with me was the teenage son, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), though not with his acting. His parents looked and acted very much in character, in other words, like people who worked in a rocky, rugged environment with the sparse sanitation amenities available to rural families of the early twentieth century. Even on up to the mid-twentieth century when I was a child, it was rare for rural farming families to have indoor plumbing. But here was gorgeous Albert looking like he’d just stepped off a photo shoot, with a haircut and style costing more than my weekly grocery bill.
There were other complications that brought sounds of disgust from my husband, a product of a long line of farmers. For instance, there is the scene in which the father, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), is sowing a field with turnip seeds. Mike sat up to peer more closely and proclaimed the seeds were too big to be turnip seeds, unless England has a whole different variety than those in America. Turnip seeds, he said, are so small that his farming father added sand filler to keep from planting too many in one spot.
Then there is the great storm that supposedly demolished the whole crop upon which the family was depending. I don’t have a farming bone in my body, but even I could tell those turnips were fully developed and ready for market. The storm had actually pulled them up for them. All they had to do was pick them up off the ground. Even if it was the ruined greens they were hoping to sell, the turnips would have sufficed.
Now the advent of war and the need for survival coalesce into a reprieve for Papa Narracott, who sells Joey to the English cavalry over the cries and anguish of the son who proved, not only the horse’s worthiness, but his own. But Papa is having to pay the piper for his sins on the backs of his loved ones. (I’m angry again). But, gee, at least this moves the thoroughbred plow horse up to war horse, from farm to battlefield, from peace to war.
Okay. I adjusted to that plot move. But just when I thought I might find some uninterrupted emotional continuum, here would come something so excruciatingly stupid as to override anything I felt for the characters. Because they were embedded in unrealistic situations, it turned them into merely good characters on a cardboard stage instead of real people. This turned my hard-won emotion from empathy to anger. And as character after character died, it made me suspect the input of George R. R. Martin, (Game of Thrones), who, rather than wasting his time on character growth, simply killed them all off, therefore losing any interest an emotionally invested reader might have in his “continuing” saga.
One such scene was the English cavalry charge upon an unsuspecting German camp. Just before the charge, I recall someone saying something about no reconnaissance, or no need for reconnaissance. That stupidity cost the lives of most, if not all, the English, as they were mowed down by machine-gunners from the treeline. Even the scriptwriters must have felt a bit of chagrin for this scene, since one German gunner was moved to ask if the English officers were so stupid as to think their camp would go totally unprotected. This bit of asininity moves Joey the war horse onto another tile on the plot game board – to the German side. One point this scene did make was that horse cavalry would never again be called to war. Those noble and picturesque charges with drawn sabers were already obsolete. Flesh and blood would never be a match for machine guns and modern warfare.
Now the story moves forward to involve two German brothers, Gunther and his 14-year-old brother Michael, whose job it is to care for the surviving horses, which of course include our thoroughbred Joey and his equine English buddy Topthorn. As the German army mobilizes, Gunther is ordered to remain behind with the horses while Michael marches off to the front. Gunther, obsessed with protecting his little brother, disobeys his orders and takes off after the army riding Joey, with Topthorn in tow. He snatches Michael bodily from the moving ranks of infantry and rides away. Now both brothers are propelled from the frying pan and into the fire. Gunther has pulled young Michael out of a situation where he might get killed, into one where death is a done deal. An army shoots deserters in time of war.
Then the brothers hide out in one of, if not THE most obvious landmark in the whole countryside. Yes, this is stupid, but, gee, it gets rid of two more characters and moves Joey and Topthorn onto another plot tile and into the hands of another would-be equestrian. This time it’s a young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens), who has osteogenesis (brittle bone). Her parents are dead and she is the sole focus in the life of her grandfather (Niels Arestrup).
She falls in love especially with Joey and tries to train him. Finally, after the whole countryside begins crawling with Germans, she decides to make her first ride out of sight of the farm and her grandfather — and into the arms of the enemy, of course. But, as we all know by now — gee, it moves Joey and Topthorn onto another plot tile — the German artillery.
As it turns out, these Germans need horses to pull their heavy guns. They are harnessed to the iron leviathans and forced to pull them up very steep grades, which kills the horses by the score. And yet, they leave the saddle on Joey throughout the whole ordeal. It’s not like the officers don’t have their cannon fodder to do these menial tasks, like unsaddling a horse who is destined for harness. So whats with leaving a good saddle on an expendable animal? Or, for that matter, adding an extra burden to an already overburdened beast? Did the Germans have THAT many horses?
Though I know such thoughtless acts might conceivably have happened, it’s the piling of them scene upon scene that drove a wedge between me and my involvement with the story. Add to that some anomalies that stuck out like neon signs on Buckingham Palace, and you’ve got a mess. Case in point. A panicked Joey runs full tilt into barbed wire fencing, not once, but over and over, until he is so enmeshed in barbs and posts he is dragged to the ground in no-man’s land between the two opposing armies. Every move should have driven the spikes in, cutting deep as he thrashed in terror. Yet, when he is freed of the fencing (in one of the best scenes in the movie), not only is there no blood, there is not even a scratch. Later, he is shown to be limping and in need of medical aide.
Then there is the interminable ending. The boy comes riding home along a ridge line against the setting sun. As the father and mother meet them at the gate against a magnificent sunset (like posters of Gone With the Wind), the horse is caught in noble profile. It is absolutely beautiful. But it is so staged and drawn out it had me drumming my fingers. It’s as if the sheer length of the scene was trying to force emotion upon me rather than bringing it out of me naturally, as a final and lovely conclusion. It’s like it was saying, “I don’t think you got this during the first minute, so I’ll give you a few more minutes to stare at this artistry so you will get the full benefit.”
I had high expectations for this movie and waited with great anticipation for it to come out on streaming and DVD. I was more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and overlook any small discrepancies. But it is so riddled with problems you would have to be blinded by love of the details of movie making not to see them. I love being emotionally caught up in a movie, especially one like this which promised the need for a whole box of Kleenex. But with the characters just so many props for the horse, it was, for me, an emotional desert.