War Horse – a Lassie Film (Illustrated Edition)

Why are you interested in this adaptation?

Rachel-

I want to see War Horse because I am a connoisseur of Pony-movies. Yes, I was one of those little girls obsessed with ponies. I took it a few steps further by actually riding ponies through college. Then it all got too expensive (it was always too expensive, I supplemented my habit by mucking stalls), now I just watch pony-movies alone in my living room while crying into my wine glass over my lost youth.

Beauty, The Pie, Denny (!!!) and Thowra vs The Brolga. Give me pony-movies or give me death! (Yes, even The Postman.)

Elena-

1.  Spielberg + war movie always = win.

2.  WWI is an underused war right now, and for a girl who loves war movies that setting makes the movie intriguing.

3.  I grew up with horses, and a little country girl’s love for horses.  I read all the horse books—pretty much everything written by Walter Farley and Dick Francis (at least, written by 1995 or so), My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, all of it.  I have a soft nostalgic spot for horse stories even now, especially non-racing stories.  Not that I don’t like the racing stories, too, it’s just that there are so many more of them than there are of other types of horse movies.

4.  Every time I see a preview for this film, I think it’s an adaptation of one of my favorite childhood books.  Even though it’s not, I want to see it to see how close the stories are.

Rachel-

I agree with Elena, that WWI is an underutilized point in time for story-telling nowadays. I found it FAR more interesting a topic than WWII when I was doing that whole learn about the past thing and that makes this movie fresh. At least potentially, plus costumes. Duh.

PS – Elena, while Walter Farley is the Emperor of Pony Adventures, did you own the entire series of The Saddle Club? Were you a Stevie? YOU WERE WEREN’T YOU?

What would make it suck?

Elena-

If it’s totally cheesy.  Some cheese is fine, but just a sprinkling.  Believe it or not my icy heart is not opposed to being warmed by a story; I don’t need the movie to be a tragedy.  In fact if it’s a tearjearker where the horse dies just as he’s about to run back to his old home or trying protect his boy by carrying him off a battlefield or something, the movie will totally suck.  I just convinced myself that want a heartwarming story, in fact.  But not one that seems forced, where the actual narrative structure leads toward the tragedy so that the happy ending feels unnatural.  That would make it suck as much as a movie where you never for a second doubt the outcome will be happy.

I actually trust Spielberg as a director enough that I don’t feel the need to include my usual rants about how it better not have a ton of CG.  Spielberg typically has the vision to do epic scenes, well, epically.  This very much seems to be a movie of story and atmosphere, so I’m also not even concerned about the acting.  Really I’m just worried about the story itself rather than any part of its execution.

Rachel-

If the pony dies! Also, if no one can actually ride. (This is one of those snotty girl who rides comments…but whatever. It’s DISTRACTING!)  If the pony talks or narrates at all…please, god, no. If Thowra never talked… no horse ever needs to talk. Beauty included. Did I mention if the pony dies?!

Elena-

That might be a snotty girl who rides comment, but…IT’S TRUE.  I still can’t believe in Brokeback Mountain because neither of them could ride.

And what would make it awesome?

Rachel-

If the pony lives!

Okay, so I fully expect the horse to die in some atrocious yet noble way because that’s how stories about horses as pieces of technology always go. Like lab animals and stories about elephants. GUILT. SO MUCH GUILT….

Elena-

If it has some realistic WWI battle scenes.  It’s a war I studied in a couple different contexts in college.  I find it a more interesting and in some ways more horrific war than WWII, mostly because it is the bridge for Europe (where the Civil War was for the U.S.) between the old style of warfare and modern warfare.

Also if the story manages to strike the right balance between sentiment and reality.  I have always liked war stories, and having a protagonist who is a horse and not a man could be a really different vehicle for making statements about war and humanity.

Additional thoughts on casting or production?

Elena-

The book I keep thinking it’s based on is called The Red Doe, which is set in America during the Revolutionary War.  It’s about a young man who signs up with the irregular rebel army in South Carolina and wants to be in the cavalry but has no horse until he steals one from a British officer.  Naturally the horse turns out to be an exceptional horse.  The officer’s family breeds horses, and this is their special breed…there is a scene where the officer shoots his first horse (the rebel steals his back-up) because it won’t be caught and he can’t stand the thought of his aristocratic family’s carefully bred line ending up in the hands of anyone else…especially a colonial.  I don’t remember much else about the story except that the young American is in love with a red-haired girl nicknamed Fire, and I recall a scene where he’s riding next to her either on her horse or a carriage trying to talk to her, maybe?  It has been a really long time since I read The Red Doe, but somehow that first War Horse preview immediately put me in mind of it, even though it’s about a different war.

Other than that I have no real thoughts about the production beyond what applies to Spielberg being the director and WWI being a somewhat unique war to use as a setting.

Rachel-

I’ve never heard of The Red Doe but War Horse IS A book. A book called War Horse (I know right?) written by Michael Morpurgo, and it has already been adapted into a highly successful play. The play has large, beautiful horse puppets and the original cast included Kit Harrington (AKA, JOHN SNOOOOOWWWWWWWW), so that’s awesome. I’ve been wanting to see this play for a while just for the puppets alone. They’re incredible. People actually RIDE them! The people who made the puppets studied horses and their movements to get it JUST right. Google it. Your jaw will drop.

As far as the film adaptation I don’t think I’ve heard of a single person in the movie.

But Spielberg has proven he does war well, so…okay. The trailer looks a bit on the sweepingly saccharine side, but there is a pony and guns. It’ll be awesome!

Elena-

Wait, Jon Snow was in this?

(Googles it).

Oh, my lord, why was he not cast to play Albie in the movie now that he has star power, at least with the genre-minded HBO subscribers?  That would have been smokin’ hot.

Rachel-

Probably because Kit is busy at the Wall. And by busy I mean… well I won’t spoil it. But John Snow knows NOTHING! (Except about this thing that Lords do, THAT he knows.)

Elena-

“This thing that Lords do, THAT he knows”?  Does that mean Jon Snow knows where to put it?

Reaction to film?

Rachel-

Well, damn. Up until this point, I thought all I needed was a pony and some movie around the pony. But turns out…that doesn’t make a movie.

What the hell was that shit?

At one point I was scrounging around in my purse for a mini-bottle of tequila I had received in my stocking (what? what do YOU get in your stockings?) because I needed to make it stop. Unfortunately for me …no mini bottle. ALSO…and I can’t stress this enough…THIS TRAVESTY WAS 3 HOURS LONG!!!

For the first hour you endure a no conflict extended scene of life on a shitty English farm with a drunkard father. Albie and Joey do this thing where they plow a slanted field in the rain, and it’s impressive because Albie’s drunk father had never bothered to clear the surface rocks from the field. Also, because Joey the horse is not what we would call a draft horse, i.e., not very strong when it comes to horses that pull stuff. Also, it was raining. The whole town came to watch including this kid with a mental illness who I spent the entire movie trying to decide if he was Albie’s brother or not? Town jester? Status unknown. But it doesn’t matter, because later on he survives WWI just long enough to die in a gas attack. Ooops, Spoiler. Don’t worry, you won’t care about that character for a second, ever.

I think the first hour is supposed to endear you to Albie and Joey the horse, but you won’t be. Because interspersed with Albie’s creepy longing looks at Joey the horse, are scenes in which Albie trains Joey to do tricks as if he were a dog. A DOG. There’s whistling, and Joey is out-acted by a goose, and Albie trains Joey to pull a plow by miming how to pull a plow? I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.  Also, the painted background/sets as homages to the stage show (I assume) are distractingly weird.

(Snobby horse person rant: Wtfrackity? That old, fat trick horse they used for the first hour WAS NOT A YEARLING, he wasn’t a YOUNG horse at all and …well I get that if you need a horse with dog skills he won’t be a young horse with awesome lines, but that horse was basically Trigger. Kid who played Albie couldn’t ride. The British soldier who buys him can.)

Elena-

That British officer?  HAWT.  The second he showed up I was like “who gives a fuck about Albie, why was THIS GUY not the hero? I want to know more about him! And, yes, he rode well. And handsomely.

Ahem. Carry on….

Rachel-

The next two hours are Joey’s adventures through WWI and the doomed friendships he makes along the way. The saddest of which is the awesome black horse that Joey mentors through half the war. He even senses that Blackie is having leg problems and bravely canters up a muddy hill to take his place in pulling a German gun. I SWEAR THIS HAPPENED. If you replace the horse with Lassie then the movie begins to make sense. I get that there’s a message here about technology, the horror of war, the tactics of new warfare and the transforming experience of war in general. Fine. It was just hard to pay attention to these messages while being gooped upon non-stop by a poorly acted, poorly edited, horribly paced story that is just damn torture to sit through.

Where was I?

There’s also a not sick at all sick little French girl, two doomed German runaways, a creepy groom with a terrible outlook on life, and Colin the British soldier in dire need of some wire cutters.

Okay, so that scene was actually great. The one you see in the trailer, of Joey the horse running through no man’s land. Epic. Emotional. About 15 seconds long. It ends with Joey brutally caught in barbed wire (seriously, I became immediately concerned about how they filmed that scene!) There’s a bit where Joey jumps over a tank that was fugging dumb. I’m pretending it never happened.

But yes…that short scene was beautiful. I’ll give you that. Except for one thing. You know how in the trailer the old French man is talking about how sometimes you just have to keep going forward, you can never look down? And it’s interspersed with this footage of Joey running through war, and you think “Oh, God, what a beautiful metaphor for how these horses trusted their masters to not put them in harm’s way” and they were in fact killed horribly and by the tens of thousands in stupid war maneuvers and it’s just sad and then you hate yourself for having ever been part of the species that could hurt these noble and majestic steeds? You remember that part?

The old French man is talking about pigeons.

Elena-

So I totally felt like Westley in the Fire Swamp after seeing this movie.  I heard from a lot of directions that it was bad—ranging from “epically terrible” to “like the last ten minutes of Ole Yeller stretched out for two hours”—so my expectations were pretty low by the time I actually got into the theater.  And coming out?  “It’s not that bad.  I mean, I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home here it’s the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s not that bad.”

War Horse actually had a few really, really excellent scenes, in fact.  I mean, overall it was probably a C+ movie, but there were scenes that were A+.  And some that were F+.  Yes, I’ll get to those, too.

In the awesome column we have the following:

The first battle scene, of the cavalry charge.  The set-up to the attack made the cavalry seem so romantic…the rustling golden wheat field…the horses running in unison…the horror of slashing down men, even enemies, who had no idea the attack was coming.  And then it ran that old version of war straight into the teeth of machine guns.  An epic illustration of how far the military technology had outstripped the tactics at that point.  I loved the scenes interspersing the riding charge with the view in the woods of horse after horse jumping over the ditch riderless.  And then that last shot, of the battlefield littered with bodies of horses and men.  So ugly and pointless and awful, and all without an explicit killing or gratuitous splash of blood.  That sequence should be shown in history classes as a five-minute visual of what the fighting in that war was like, with old-school tactics and modern weaponry.

That scene also kind of chronicles the death of the cavalry—from then on, the horses had no use in the war except to carry messengers and as draft animals.  So it kind of makes the name of the film ironic.

The battlefield scenes near the end were also really effective.  They showed the absolute wreckage that kind of trench warfare made of armies of men, and the recreation of the trench lines seemed spot-on.  The sequence with the horse running through the barbed wire was just awful.

I thought the scene between the British corporal and the German—Colin and Petr—was really well done.  It was the kind of enemies meeting just as men that has become so cliché it’s almost unusable nowadays, unless you can manage it in a fresh way.  This one did.  I enjoyed the meta-humor of German practicality and technical precision.  “Would you like a pair of wire cutters?”  The mutual concern for a wounded animal felt like a really natural bonding/peace-making connection.

I thought the way the deserting German boys’ death was handled was great, as well.  The film didn’t pull punches, in my opinion, despite hiding the actual bullet strikes with the windmill.  In fact I think the way they showed their deaths, standing one moment and then with the pass of the windmill blade—like the blink of an eye—on the ground lifeless, was maybe actually a little more chilling than showing them shot down by the firing squad would have been.

Also, is it sad I consider it a win that this movie ended where it did, instead of with the inevitable 20-years-later-the-horse-dies epilogue?  Because I totally expected that to be there.

And in the not so awesome column:

The first part of the film. The first 45 minutes (hour?  Maybe Rachel’s right and it was a full hour) were excruciating.  I am not sure if it was a failure of script or acting, but that kid’s relationship with the horse seemed…fetishistic.  He was just too obsessed with it.

That was not the only problem.  The drunk father and mocking neighbors scenario was pretty cliché, and the timeline exceptionally confusing.  I grew up with horses.  We handled young foals SO much differently, and though our way might be some newfangled way from like…1975, the way all of this opening happened just felt like it was written by someone who doesn’t really know much about horses.  I was confused as to how old the horse was supposed to be based on its size versus the seeming actions (it looked three or four but was only then being weaned and sold?), and unconvinced by the John Henry style labors.  Also, was that kid really not going to bother to spend one afternoon taking the biggest rocks out of the lower field before trying to plow it?  Emily Watson was what got me through the opening, but once the horse got sold the movie kept the Lassie effect in check pretty well, and became a movie about normal people and a horse that was, yes, extraordinary, but not quite so…Disney-esque.

There was actually a really amazing missed opportunity at the end that would have redeemed that opening: (SPOILER ALERT) if the French girl had not died (because, seriously?  What purpose did her death serve in a narrative sense?  Would her grandfather not have gone to purchase the miracle horse for her, if it turned out to be Francois, if she were still alive?  WTF y’all…END SPOILER) and Albert decided to give her the horse at the end.  Such a parting of him and the horse, such a gift to that young girl, would have shown his maturity as a man, his having been through the horror of war and growing up, while recognizing that to this little girl the horse might be the whole world the way the horse had once been for him.  He could also have restored to her life one small part of the innocence the war had taken from it.  That would have been a beautiful ending, and it would have put the opening in a different light—that of a child’s first great love.  The movie would have bookended his love for the horse and hers.  Instead the opening was not redeemed by the end, and the relationship between boy and horse seemed…special in the wrong way.  Like I kind of thought maybe the kid was mentally challenged, you know?

Everyone else who encountered the horse seemed to recognize him as an extraordinary animal but not with the same kind of wide-eyed fanaticism.  Maybe it was just an acting fail, now I think on it.  I BET JON SNOW COULD SELL IT TO ME.

The story on the whole wasn’t really that outstanding.  It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great.  The strength of this film really is in the scenes that are telling not the story of the boy and his horse but the story of the world around them.

Rachel-

What’s that Lassie? Elena fell victim to the “Spielberg needs to retire but no one seems to have noticed” trap? Well, sometimes life is hard, Lassie. What can you do? Here, have a treat. Tastes like horse!

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