Saturday, December 31, 2011

A boy, his horse and the war to end all wars

As an editor, back when I worked for that place with a printing press, I occasionally would piece together a story by writing an expansive first paragraph, then tack on vignettes – often from other reporters working on the same project – that fleshed out the article.

That’s pretty much the approach Steven Spielberg has taken with his latest film, War Horse. Instead of taking the time and effort to develop characters and background stories for context and to create a sense of time, place and drama, Spielberg has us dash along with Joey as the horse gallops across one little vignette after another.

Collectively, the film manages to capture the absurd and grisly nature of war, the capriciousness of death and the anguish of loss. At times it even manages to do all this in a grand and entertaining fashion. But ultimately, War Horse comes off feeling like a collection of short stories that is attempting to play out like an epic novel.

It all begins when Joey is purchased, ah, cute and comes to live with the Narracotts. Son Albert quickly takes charge of the animal, forming a special bond that will have you laughing, cheering and reaching for your hankie before the final credits roll.

The opening scenes – the warp and woof of life of a poor farming family in rural England, struggling financially in a world that is on the brink of a world war – end abruptly when Joey is sold off to the British Army. We had just settled in with the Narracotts and their problems, met up with one of the film’s villains – the local landlord – and started to lose ourselves in the lovely English countryside. Suddenly we are off with Joey, charging into battle.

Over the next two hours or so, Joey becomes the focus of all those little vignettes I mentioned above – facing off against the Bosch, an army that has gone high-tech, taking part in the end of a quaint bit of warfare played out with sabers and swords; running away with a couple of deserters, then finding a moment of peace with a young French girl and her grandfather.

Each story brings with it new characters and new problems. The pieces are much greater then the whole, small bits that push along the story and pull at our emotions.

Spielberg raises questions but spends most of the film grazing the surface. Then he snaps his fingers and works his magic, capturing the absolute absurdity of war in a harrowing scene that has Joey wrapped tightly in bands of barbed wire, lost, frightened and wailing on a muddy battlefield before two soldiers – one German, the other British – come to his aid.

Albert, of course, becomes part of the fight eventually. All the emotion created in the opening scenes between boy and horse has to land somewhere, right? The landing offers few surprises, which is not to say it’s not satisfying. Go figure and grab a hankie!

Despite its problems, the beautiful scenery, rich cinematography and John William’s soaring score make War Horse a film worth spending a few hours with this holiday season. After all, Spielberg firing only on one or two cylinders generally manages to produce films that are entertaining and emotionally compelling – a trick many other Hollywood directors have yet to discover with all their special effects, car chases and explosions.

A footnote: Spielberg paints with heavy and broad strokes in the closing moments of the film, pulling together the musical score and cinematography in a nifty homage to another war movie – Gone with the Wind. Sounds weird, but it works.

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