If John Ford had decided to direct Au Hasard Balthazar, it would look something like War Horse. I can just see Pappy saying, “I don’t give a damn about making a message, I just want a good horse picture.” This is a good horse picture. I’ll throw out another comparison; stylistically, War Horse reminded me very much of Gone With The Wind.
I have a complicated relationship with horses on film. I like horses, I’m a great enthusiast for horse racing and find the creatures to be beautiful and breathtaking. However, I don’t believe they understand that they are racing and I certainly don’t believe they understand they are fighting a war, so I went into War Horse a little nervous that we’d be presented with the tale of a very clever horse who won the war. Not so. There were a few moments where this cold, old soul rolled his eyes at the exploits of the clever horse but, like Balthazar, the horse of this film, Joey, is merely an observer and, like in life I believe, his personality is mainly projected upon him by the humans around him. First Joey is purchased by an Irish farmer, overpaying at an auction to show up his landlord. Joey is a fine horse but he’s a thoroughbred and it’s widely believed that he won’t take a plow (he does, believe it or not, saving the farm) he’s trained by the farmer’s boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and they create a bond that I truly believe exists between people and beasts, he teaches Joey how to stay, how to come, how to ride, but then the Great War comes and the farmer is forced to sell Joey to the army where a civilized gentlemen of the English cavalry promises to return Joey if he is able.
It’s hard to believe that under100 years ago, the most sophisticated nations in the world were still going at each other with swords and horses and there’s a devastating scene early in the war that illustrates in about 5 minutes the changing of the times as machinery took some of the civility out of warfare. Joey exchanges sides and eventually winds up on a French farm where he and another horse are cared for by a little girl and her grandfather. These moments serve mainly to show off just how clever Joey is but they are effective and charming. Later he is brought into the very belly of the worst of trench warfare and we get back to back scenes of horrifying realism and awesome fantasy. Albert, in the army now in 1918, is in the trenches and the ensuing battle is gruesome. Though not as immediately brutal as the opening scene of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan this moment should occupy it’s own spot in the halls of great battle scenes. It creates unbearable tension and anxiety and is filled with Spielberg’s trademark intelligible disorientation. He is a master of creating a spot or an object in an action scene that the audience can fixate it’s attention on while simultaneously creating a sense of utter chaos. This battle scene is one of his finest.
It is followed by truly remarkable scene by the cinema’s premiere living humanist as both the English and the Germans put down their weapons for a moment to help an injured Joey. Written this way this scene seems like schmaltz and I had a hard time deciding if it was bizarrely out of place or serenely perfect following the devastatingly realistic battle scene that proceeded. It worked for me. There are times when the narrative dips too deep into sentimentality and others when the director of Schindler’s List would have cut to the quick but overall this is a worthy entry into the director’s canon. His trademark visual flourishes are there, his Bergmanesque attention to faces, brilliant wipes and dissolves and his fascination with the open sky. I mentioned Gone With The Wind earlier and I can think of a handful of shots that nearly directly quote that movie but more than that, they are cousins. It’s very nice to be reminding of the power of the big Hollywood movie, and that it still represents some of the finest filmmaking there is.