By Ryan Wilson
What is it about our unyielding affection for horses on the big screen? Why does
the mount, mare, steed or charger tug at our heartstrings even more than man’s best
friend? Perhaps it’s because a horse is simply the most beautiful and elegant creature to
capture with a motion picture. We romanticize and mythologize its place in our
consciousness. From The Black Stallion to Seabiscuit the horse is always more than a
horse of course. The horse is a symbol for whatever it is we feel missing from the world,
be it innocence or optimism.
Steven Spielberg rides this well-worn tale in War Horse, a deceptively simple
allegory about innocence and optimism during World War I. But in Spielberg’s hands the
horse literally represents the end of an era, that time before gasoline and metal dominated
our lives. The horse, here named “Joey,” might well symbolize nature’s last stand at the
threshold of the industrial revolution.
We glean this through the mood and photography of the film, which begins at
Joey’s birth in those lush green rolling hills of England, a tranquil psychic home to the
audience where we are free to roam with Joey until the human uses of the world intrude
to ruin that peace. After this blissful beginning it’s all downhill. When he’s big enough,
Joey is sold at auction and bought by a dreaming farmer who foolishly believes Joey will
be a good plow horse. With the farmer’s son Joey syncs himself throughout the rest of
the narrative, your typical animal love story about a boy and his horse parting ways and
finding each other anew.
Personally, I’m not so sentimental about these partings and findings, maybe
because I’m not a pet person. But when the music rises in context with their long
separation at the end of the film, even I surrendered. It’s a funny sort of manipulation,
distinctly Spielberg. I dare you to find another director confident enough to attempt such
a well-worn cliché. We even get big fat snowflakes falling to make the moment
especially moving and magical.
The scene only works because of the preceding horrors we witness through Joey’s
journey through the war. When he’s sold to a kind British Calvary officer at the start of
the war, we can’t imagine where Joey will take us. We end up seeing the life of that
officer, then the life of a German ambulance driver, followed by a French granddaughter
on a farm, then a German artillery officer, then finally to the trenches where Joey’s plight
alarms both sides enough for them to stop their shooting to free him from their barbed
wire. These vignettes, especially the last one, create a much fuller view of the war than
most traditional war films.
Yet the film will also remind astute Spielberg fans of his other war films, most
notably 1987’s Empire of The Sun. In that masterpiece we follow a young Christian Bale
separated from his British parents in Japan during World War II. Like the boy in that
film, here the horse, also a symbol of something pure, is somewhat adrift throughout the
carnage of war. If you’ll recall Empire of the Sun, Bale’s character witnesses the
bombing of Hiroshima from a great distance but can’t understand what he’s seen.
Similarly, Joey is present during various war terrors but of course meets them with the
indifference of an animal.
A smart-aleck colleague of mine, upon seeing the trailer for War Horse,
commented that any horse roaming around the trenches during World War I might just as
well become food. Spielberg never takes us to that grizzly place of realism, but instead
pits Joey against a tank during a climactic moment of the film. The scene will remind
some of Tom Hanks futilely shooting a World War II tank with his pistol in Saving
Private Ryan. Like that scene, Joey’s plight with his tank is fraught with meaning: the
instruments of war have changed, and it’s the new world versus the old.
War Horse is a clinic in formalistic framing and editing, all meant to provoke
deep emotions. It might be the most exhausting film to watch of Spielberg’s since
Schindler’s List, given the sheer amount of suffering Joey encounters. And yet, like many
classic horse tales put to film, it winds up back at that mythic place we expect. Spielberg
has no doubt studied how to shoot myth from the best. War Horse begins by looking like
scenes from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and ends by looking like the closing
shot from Ford’s The Searchers. Like the best westerns or war films, we end up where we
expect but also deeply scarred. In the end we’re grateful that some constants endure.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2012