War Horse (2011)

Francois Truffaut has been credited with saying there is no such thing as an anti-war film, and this is usually proven out. For all the horror, there is often a protagonist to root for and glory to be had; absent those, the imagery itself (bombs bursting in air) summons patriotic fervor, or the political considerations driving each side suggest there is a moral justification that favors waging war when necessary. Still, every once in a while a new movie renews the conversation. Speilberg’s War Horse is a particularly effective anti-war statement in a filmography that includes Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich. By following a non-partisan creature on its odyssey through mad house scenes of World War I, War Horse does its best to keep us from choosing sides; it attempts to show the idiocy anew.

Spielberg’s genius in War Horse is to give the movie a classical structure – scenes have a stately composition that calls to mind cinemascope epics from the 1950’s and 60’s. This device makes us anticipate the sentimental joys we associate with those pictures; we think we know what to expect (a boy and his horse!) and find ourselves disconcerted when the emotional through-line is repeatedly interrupted. Spielberg is too smart to anthropomorphize the horse, as a Dinsey picture would do. Instead, he uses it as a kind of noble savage, exposing the brutality and also revealing the nobility of man, while avoiding the typical pitfall of condescending to his subject.

The film is appropriately violent. It is not gratuitous. By that, I mean those who are appalled by violence will find certain parts unbearable; there is almost no blood. Spielberg’s mastery is such that our imaginations complete what he suggests. Unlike more graphic films, there were moments I had to look away from the screen to recover. Because we follow the horse, we have no allegiance to any “side” in the war. We are equally horrified when soldiers and innocents (including animals) of many nationalities are harmed. As far as the horse is concerned, there are no sides – that’s the point.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is mostly fabulous, memorably so in a scene of mounted soldiers emerging from a field of waving grain, and later in a murky no-man’s land painted with endless shades of blue and grey. The opening and closing scenes on a bucolic farm are jarring because they look like the work of a different person – they call to mind Dean Cundey’s overlit and oddly flat images from Spielberg’s Hook. It’s as if Spielberg gave the order to make the film look like a storybook, and those farm scenes convinced everyone that a different approach was needed.

It’s interesting that for every person who is affected by the (very traditional) climax of the movie, there’s another left cold, or at least disappointed, by it. Count me in the latter camp. As the cliches piled up in the closing minutes, I found myself wondering why the filmmakers didn’t just allow themselves to go all the way and have the boy and girl ride off into the sunset. (They certainly come close to that.) It’s possible that we might have been too devastated if Spielberg had followed through and everyone lost everything; it’s also possible that Spielberg took the movie way beyond the source material (I haven’t read the book) and was ultimately constrained by the adaptation. The sentimental ending rings false – it feels like a concession.

Consider the title: War Horse. It kept returning to me as I watched the movie. (It might have been “War.Horse”, but that would have jarred the classical framework.) These are two words that should not go together – an oxymoron. The concept itself suggests barbarism. Furthermore, Merriam-Webster’s third definition is “something (as a work of art or musical composition) that has become overly familiar or hackneyed due to much repetition in the standard repertoire.” I suspect this the definition Spielberg had in mind when he was making the movie. He used a familiar structure to sneak in something else for our consideration (which calls to mind another war horse, aka Trojan…) War disregards everything but its own aims. Politicians would have us believe that it preserves what we value most; excepting its final act, War Horse demonstrates that war destroys those things, on all sides.