I’ve been on a bit of a World War I kick lately. I realized a few months ago that I basically knew only the rough outlines of the Great War, and couldn’t tell the difference between the First Battle of the Somme or the second (or third). It’s led to some new reading material, like the The First Day on the Somme which I’m moving through right now, along with a number of free eBooks such as the Story of the Great War by Churchill, Miller and Reynolds, which is available for free download in many places (all eight volumes).
So it’s with this bit of interest I caught an advanced screening of War Horse the other night in Hong Kong. I hadn’t heard much about this film being so far removed from the “upcoming releases” and rarely seeing any trailers, but the pre-release buzz, based on the book and the play, was pretty strong. Steven Spielberg was directing so the film has all the grandiose cinematography that we’ve come to expect from his sweeping epics. A relatively young and unknown cast (unless you watch quite a bit of British TV).
War Horse tells the story of a horse (surprise) during the first World War I. A beautiful thoroughbred is bought by a drunken farmer in a petty spat with his landlord and adopted by the farmer’s son. The boy teaches the horse, which should be racing as ascot, how to pull a plow and behave around the farm. But the drums of war are approaching and when times get tough on the farm, the horse ends up in the service of a British cavalry unit, led by Sherlock Holmes (well, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch) on their way to the front.
Act II takes place with the British forces, and is quite the “pip pip” and all that of massive horse charges (beautifully filmed by the way) and tragic consequences of the ‘Flower of England’ going to war in the trenches. Another act with a refugee family before the horse finds himself in the service of the Germans, pulling large artillery pieces through the trenches past the corpses of many a horse that has pulled before.
The final act sees the unification of the whole story, with the farmer’s son now on trench duty in the First Battle of the Somme (1918) (there was another in 1916 for those who don’t know). Will the horse and master reunite, or is it a chance encounter of two ships simply passing in the night.
The film was enjoyable, but for me I think I suffered from “over expectations”. Some of the reviews have been positively gushing, even reports of Kate Middleton sobbing as she saw it at the London Premier. But for me it wasn’t quite all there. The lead character is a horse, of course, but having an emotional connection with a horse is something that just didn’t come through it for me. That it was able to move through the war from one side to the other and stay out of harms way was great and all, but as a film, the horse never jumped into something more, something I could relate to or have a deeper connection with. When human actors appeared, they came and went before you barely got past your stereotypes.
There are good moments, wonderful moments of the film. But while I’m all for a good cavalry charge, it doesn’t quite make a movie (ask the directors of The Lighthorsemen). In fact, for those who have never seen this nearly unheard of film, let me just show you the most important scene. If you are in a rush, spin to minute 3:27 for the be all, end all of cavalry charges in film. The horse charge in War Horse ranks right up there though. It was visually amazing and stunning in the display of the tragic futility of modern warfare against a more ‘noble idea’ of warfare on horseback.
I guess one other thing is that I don’t really “get” horse films. It seems there is a whole genre of films based around horses that attract this subset of film goers who just “must” see every movie with a horse. It’s kind of like “ski” movies. You can take any idiot (and they do), pair them with some girls in bikinis (because skiing is all about bikinis) and then films a few minutes of guys going down a slope and people will pay money, over and over again to watch this. There is a built in audience for horse and ski movies, and I’m not in either crowd.
This film thankfully isn’t as violent as Saving Private Ryan, but neither is it as memorable. The relationship you had with the men under Tom Hanks command is stronger than those you’ll form in this film.
Should you see it? Yes. Should you expect a life-altering two hours? No. Just go with the concept you’re going to spend two hours watching something beautifully films and you’ll come out pleasantly satisfied.
Opens in Hong Kong the first week of February, after Chinese New Year.