I wrote previously how I loved the stage production of War Horse. My husband had wanted to go see it last April, and, after he described it to me — young boy goes into the battlefield looking for his horse, which is portrayed on stage with puppets — I thought I was quite clever in my one-word response: Neigh!. But, T really wanted to see it, so, in advance of another trip to the Big Apple, without telling me, he purchased tickets. “It won the Tony!” he explained. “You shouldn’t prejudge it.”
So, reluctantly, I went. At dinner beforehand and during our walk to Lincoln Center, I tried out every horsey joke I could think of. When they failed, I suggested that if one wanted puppets, we could probably still get tickets for that evening’s performance of Avenue Q, which we knew was funny. After all, who couldn’t use a little bit of bawdy Muppets? A horse in war? That was a different story — one that didn’t sound either entertaining or thought-provoking. It was a beautiful evening in August and there were bunches of happy people around Lincoln Center. I considered for a moment if I could just sit outside for a few hours while T and our friend saw the play, but sometimes choices like that don’t aid in the mood of a trip.
At intermission, as we stepped into the lobby to get a drink, T asked if someone had a gun to put down that horse and put us out of our misery. “What?” I exclaimed. “How can you not like this? It’s wonderful!” And so it goes sometimes when we have expectations and they are shattered. I found the play to be emotional, the music and the use of images projected behind the stage to be evocative, and the themes of war and loyalty to be engaging. My husband saw none of that; he thought it was simply a love story about a boy and his pet horse. And he hated the puppetry. While the puppetry at first was a bit jarring — I didn’t think that I could get around the fact that there were four men operating a huge skeletal frame reminiscent of a horse — I quickly lost my interest in the mechanics of the puppet and saw it as a character in the play.
Since our enjoyment of the play was so different, War Horse became for a while a household joke. Even before I knew that there was to be a movie made of the play (which was based on a book), I joked at the occurrence of minor wrongdoings, that recompense could only be made by sitting through a movie version of War Horse. I was watching movie trailers in September when I saw the first promotion. I had a fit of giggles at how sappy it was and had a difficult time quieting down when the feature began. Later, I tried to explain to my friends what was so funny. The trailer, however, had already been forgotten.
Was the play really sappy and sentimental as my husband thought it was? Two months later, I still found that the idea of how the nature of war changed when barbed wire, tanks, and automated weapons quickly made the cavalry and their swords obsolete resonated with me. Earlier in the summer, in an antique shop, I had come across a book of photographs from a pictorial magazine about the war, published just a few months after the Treaty of Versailles had been signed. While that book did not go into much detail about this dawn of a mechanized, sophisticated and modern warfare, looking back nearly 90 years later, it is evident in the pages.
I remained eager to see the Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of War Horse even though I was skeptical from the treacly trailer. Without saying which movie, I asked my son who is still home on his holiday visit, if he wanted to go see a movie. He eagerly said “sure” before I told him that there was only one movie I had in mind. He knew he had been tricked, but I told him that if it was really bad, he could tease me mercilessly for dragging him along. “I’ll go,” he said, “but you’re buying the tickets!”
I laughed from nearly the first frame. In the play, there is a goose puppet that represents the farm life of Albert and his family. In the movie, the goose is there too, but it is an irritant and played for laughs. I really didn’t understand its purpose, although the audience seemed to respond to it. The goose was a pain, but he didn’t like the dastardly landlord either. “It’s going to be a long movie,” I thought and was glad that I hadn’t worn my watch. But, soon the action was underway. Albert loves his horse and his mother, he struggles to train the horse to help save the farm … yada yada yada… fill in the blanks in any story you’ve already heard a thousand times about a poor family on a hard scrap English farm.
Eventually the action shifts to the war, and the horse is sold against the boys wishes. The farm is saved, but Joey the horse is lost. Except there was another 1:45 left. You can fill in the blanks in this part too; I don’t need to give any spoilers.
Some of the action is different from the play. I don’t think that it either adds to or detracts from the movie. Spielberg is good at filming scenery that, despite the beautiful cinematic effects, leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that War is Hell. Those scenes don’t disappoint. Unlike the movie, the play shows officers on both sides who were at odds with killing and who were afraid to die. The characters are a bit more stereotypic in the movie, although it doesn’t stoop so low as to portray “the evil Hun”. Instead, it is a difference between the infantry and the leaders on both sides. Regardless of which side of enemy lines the horse is — and our horse Joey is befriended and used by English, French and Germans — the horse is recognized as a beautiful horse and all of his caretakers fall in love with him. The anthropomorphizing of the horses is a bit overdone. Joey doesn’t want to leave his mother, Albert, a horse he friends and, as the storyline suggests, whose life he saves. Joey nuzzles his caretakers, protects his charges, sits beside a dying companion (horse, not man). I try not to be too jaded, but while the rest of the theatre audience was sniffling, I was suppressing giggles.
The idea of barbed wire and the obsolescence of the horse cavalry is still present in the movie, but it is a faint echo of the major theme of the play. In the play, because it is the stage, the representational quality of the drama, told in episodic tales, works to present a whole while underscoring the themes of loyalty, family, and the evil of war. In a movie, because of its more realistic nature, those episodes seem choppy, contrived, and overdone. How many things can happen to one damn lucky horse that nobody is betting on?
Still, for a movie that is intended as a family event for parents, kids and grandma, War Horse is not a bad choice. At 2 hr 24 minutes, it is a bit long. The battle scenes are well done and there is violence, but nothing graphic and gory. Bottom line: beautiful cinematography; overdone plot, just long enough to make some bored and fidgety.
The biggest surprise of my trip to the movie this afternoon? As the credits were rolling, my son said: “Much better than I expected. I actually liked it!”. So maybe you don’t want to go by my opinion, at all!
POTD (Picture of the Day)
Nothing to do with the movie. I’m sure that I could do much more with this picture in post processing, but that isn’t happening tonight! I like this photo for two reasons: the colors (captured exactly as I saw them this morning!) and because the sunrise so obscures the horizon line that it looks like it is rising over a large body of water. Alas, it is only over pavement and a small tree-lined creek. Pretty, but no sea.