War Horse - the Film

Tax bill duly paid (and oh the pain of sending off that much money in one go, but at least it's done now), the Badger Exchequer felt it could handle Going Out.  I have reviewed War Horse - the book; War Horse - the play and War Horse - the Exhibition, so felt duty bound to complete the set by reviewing the film. Actually getting to the film was the usual pell-mell rush, complicated by family taxi duties, and in the kerfuffle, forgot to ensure I had stuffed my pockets full of tissues. Bad move, I thought, as this movie has been billed as the ultimate weepie, and I am notorious in my family for crying at anything. I cry at happy; I cry at sad. Babies being born reduces me to floods every time. It is amazing that my copies of Black Beauty, The Ten Pound Pony and The Railway Children  are not warped and tear stained. Fortunately OH had an unused handkerchief he was prepared to hand over.

Totally unnecessarily as it turned out. I remained stony hearted and dry-eyed throughout, only thinking of welling up at the reunion between the returning hero Albert and his mother. My husband, who is more used to having to deliver sympathetic pats to his sobbing wife, was instead more worried about restraining me as I bounced up and down in fury beside him, hissing about the arrival of yet another horse playing the part of Joey. Fair enough, one can't necessarily expect to use the same horse, particularly at the end, when Joey needs to appear a bit ragged, having been mired in wire. It's like using vintage cars: you need them in a period film, but no owner of a loved and slaved over vintage car wants it smeared in mud, and likewise no one in their right minds would starve a horse for the sake of cinematic verisimilitude. For the same reason, the horror of what horses when through in the First World War is only suggested.

So letting that one pass, the noise. The horse noise. All that whinnying. It's as if Spielberg was aware that the movie was supposed to be about a horse's point of view, and as horses can't act, nor portray subtleties of emotion, that gap had better be filled by whinnying. And harrumphing, and general horse noise, which horses actually don't generally do. They're usually pretty silent creatures (as you are when you are a prey species as the last thing you want to do is alert those hunting you to your presence). The audience obviously needed to have the horsiness rammed down their throats in case they forgot what the film was nominally about.

What the film was about, as the soupiness of the John Williams score constantly reminded you, was emotion. But the score and the film seemed strangely at odds: without the horrible relationship between Albert and his father being better delineated, and the cruelty of Mr Narracott's behaviour to Joey being as explicit as it is in the book, Albert's fascination with Joey becomes just another teenage horse obsession, rather than a combination of rebellion and desperation to find something meaningful in an otherwise grim existence.

The film itself felt episodic; with the removal of Joey as the narrator, the story lost the coherence it has in the book; and to some extent in the play. It was simply a trot round different people one might meet in a war, which therefore lost something the book stresses; the neutrality of a horse. They don't care who looks after them as long as it's done well.  Humanity was also blanded out; Albert is not a character I enjoyed particularly in any of his incarnations, but even less so here. The softening of Albert's father from the brute he is in the book, and the sidelining of characters like the German officer who ordered the horses to be shot lessened the emotional impact of the film. Had one never read anything about World War One, the over-riding impression left by the film was of a collection of rather nice people suffering a bit.  The actors did their best with what they were given to do, but for me the best performances occurred outside the war section. David Thewlis and Emily Watson were great.

Having read several reviews praising the film once it entered the War, I was expecting the film to move up several gears once war started, but was disappointed again. The war section did provide the two scenes I really did think well done:  Joey's entanglement and subsequent cutting free from wire in No Man's land, which was wittily done (the wire cutters being thrown from the German trench was a particularly good touch) and the awful tension in the trenches before the men went over the top.

The film looks tremendously lush while it's in Devon; rather more so than it ought. The artfully applied neglect didn't convince; the layer of tattiness applied to what was obviously a good thick layer of recently applied thatch on the Narracott farmhouse (again I can see that you wouldn't want that removing if it was your house but still...) and the overly tidy barns. There was plenty of clutter, but none of it had that slightly sordid air you get from decades of undisturbed junk slowly mouldering away.  It was just too clean. So unlike the homelife of my own dear outbuildings.  And I know it's yet more nitpicking; but the farm is supposed to be grindingly poor, and the area not wealthy; but the village looked polished and rather twee; acres of beautifully painted pastel windowframes and lovely pointing.

I could have forgiven the extraneous horse noise and the lush prettiness, and even the soupy score if the film had done even half the job the book does of explaining the horror of war from a horse's point of view. I must admit I cannot think of any way that the film could have been done by relying on real horses; they just can't act, and as with the excruciating scene where Joey "shows" Topthorn accepting the driving collar is ok, it is obvious the horse is simply doing a trick it has been trained to perform. In the play (of which I am not a wholehearted fan either) the use of puppets obviously manipulated by man does at least enable the portrayal of emotion.  Maybe I failed as a viewer; failed to be able to overlay the horses with emotion. Whatever, my over-riding emotions once the credits rolled were irritation and disappointment.


Linda Newbery said…
Enjoyed your review, Jane, and am fully expecting not to be overwhelmed by the film. I often notice inappropriate horse noises, as you say. The excitable snorting often heard on films seems to be that of a stallion in the presence of an on-heat mare. Horses just don't do that all the time! It amuses me as much as all the "Whoah, there, steady, boy"ing whenever a horse appears in The Archers.
Bluejun said…
Oh JOY! Lovely Jane Badger. I loathed the shrieking noise of the play (and you didn't even mention all that shouting "Joeeee! Joeeee!" Gag-eeee.

Not that I ever had the slightest inclination to see the film, but i do like to have my prejudices confirmed. Am reposting pronto.
Jane Badger said…
All that horse noise is very stallion-y isn't it? Like the rearing. There is a lot of rearing in War Horse. I can see why you get horse noise in radio, as otherwise how are you going to know there is a horse? Though having said that, Shula does a lot of patting and "Good boy!"

Meg - thanks for the repost! There were some things that irritated me so much in the film I had to edit them out in order to carry on watching, and "Joeeeeeeee" was one of them. And the Albert character's intonation, which was horribly similar to the same character's in the play. The scene where Albert is reunited with Joey made me cringe with embarrassment; so much so I couldn't watch it and closed my eyes.
Sue Howes said…
As an antidote to unnecessary neighing you really should watch 'Young Frankenstein'. There is a running joke in that film about Frau Blucher the housekeeper, in that any time anyone says her name, all the horses neigh in fear.

We had a horse once who would neigh incessantly if left alone, even for five minutes. We used to amuse ourselves in a very childish way, attempting to time our 'Frau Bluchers' with his neighing.
Rebecca said…
How refreshing to see a bad review of this film. I haven't seen it and won't until it comes out on DVD but all the praise has been surprising. I also often notice too much horse noise sound effects and they irritate me every time...

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