December 21, 2011

A War Movie Without the War

For years, I’ve seen ads for the play War Horse while I flipped through my New York Times on Sunday mornings. Never had a clue what it was about, but the imagery in the ads was striking. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard it was being made into a movie or that Stephen Spielberg was the one making it. After all, the man’s made a few war movies in his time.

Then, a few weeks ago, I saw an ad for the movie on TV, complete with excerpts from the obligatory John Williams score and a Christmas Day opening. Just based on what I saw, it involved a horse, a boy, and World War I. I turned to K and said, “a feel good Christmas-day movie about the cavalry in World War I? That’s an interesting choice.”

You see, World War I is where the cavalry went to die. Literally. The days of massed men on horseback were numbered as far back as the American Civil War, when smoothbore muskets gave way to rifled ones with greatly increased range and accuracy. By the time the First World War came around, the game was over.  Men on horseback were simply no match for machine guns. So how does one make a heartwarming movie in that milieu?

The answer for Spielberg was to ignore it. Seriously:
Despite stunning stagecraft that evokes the horror of war in general, War Horse keeps its focus narrowly on the boy-stallion relationship, saying little about the First World War itself. It sounds like the film treats the conflict in the same way. ‘I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first World War,’ Spielberg said in an interview earlier this month. ‘I didn’t know very much about it. And I also don’t consider War Horse to be a war movie. This is not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story between the connections that sometimes animals achieve; the way animals can actually connect people together.’
To be fair to Spielberg, War Horse’s source material is a children’s book, so it’s not exactly the hard hitting meditation on the horrors of war those NYT ads suggested to me. It’s a boy-and-his-dog story (except the dog is a horse), not Full Metal Jacket. Nevertheless, it’s hard to call a move that takes place in the middle of a war zone and whose main characters are doing the fighting something other than a “war movie.”

None of which has anything to do with whether the movie is good or not, although at least one early review is not too kind. Kurt Loder called the experience of watching the film like:
being lowered into a vat of warm tears, there to remain for nearly two and a half freakin’ hours
and notes that the
movie so boldly old-fashioned that much of its true target demographic must be long dead, or nearly enough.
Ouch. Maybe I’ll pass on this one.

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