January 18, 2012

Equus ex machina

a brief comment on Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse

I saw the film this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it, blubbering helplessly a couple of times, in spite of the sheer unbelievableness of it all. A miraculous horse indeed to survive the horrors wrought by humanity and emerge with its equinity intact. Horses such as this are clearly more humane than most humans.

This is a refreshingly old-fashioned film, the progress of its episodic story unimpeded by the presence of mega-star actors. A few faces were familiar enough to invoke recognition without being distracting, and there are fine moments all around. The message is simple, and obvious, and though the denouement is utterly predictable, when the whistle blew it struck a note so right that I dissolved. The catharsis was salutary and timely, as the recent state of affairs in church and world and politics has gotten me right depressed. It was very good to let go of these frustrations when faced with simple goodness, even if idealized and fantastic.

There aren't too many films about the “Great War” but this one will rank equal in value but at the sentimental end of the shelf opposite such brutal classics as Paths of Glory and Johnny Got His Gun. War Horse has its brutal moments, but is bouyed aloft with a sentiment of innocent, and perhaps therefore all the more poignant, hope.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


MarkBrunson said...

Surprisingly, two of the most moving presentations of WWI, for me, came from a musical and a comedy series.

Oh, What a Lovely War! is a great way of conveying to minds far removed from the jingoistic "nobility-of-war" mindset of Edwardians the frivolousness and detachment of the leadership, and the growing disillusionment and horror at home and in the field. I especially like the highly-presentational setting of the war councils in a seaside tent, the "great and the good" as both pieces and players in a game - Franz-Ferdinand and Sophie "removed" as the opening gambit, Nicholas and Alexandra "forfeiting" later on, etc., and the Americans ruining the game by bursting in and some filthy common soldier announcing, "Okay, we're taking over."

Blackadder Goes Forth still leaves me teary-eyed with its final image of these ridiculous characters waiting for the signal, Baldrick's final - alas, too late! - "cunning plan," the whistle, the charge, resolving into a field of red poppies.

IT said...

We enjoyed it too but I was somewhat concerned to find that the movie violence committed upon humans seemed far less distrubing (becuase more distant and familiar, movie-wise) than that committed upon the animals.... like the pit of dead horses pulling the casson up the hill.

I fear that as a culture we are also inured to human hardship than animal.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mark, I also consider the end of Blackadder to be one of the finest moments in British TV -- so unexpectedly poignant after all that silliness, and all the more powerful because of it. In that same episode the other telling image for me is the one of the General (Goeffrey Palmer) on the 'phone with BA, calmly sweeping miniature figures of soldiers off his tabletop battlefield into the dustbin. Brilliant.

IT, I'm wondering if that wasn't part of the emotional power and conviction of the piece. Though it lacked an explicit, "Look, you've just been weeping over a horse; what about the people!?!" there is that element implicitly, and I certainly felt it powerfully. Perhaps more could have been made of the analogy of shooting wounded horses and executing deserters or men who turned back from the charge... but the implications were there, and I'm not sure Spielberg was unaware of them, though they weren't pushed in my face. His directorial sensitivity to such thematic resonance is well-known, and almost musical in construction. I found moments to be as inevitable and satisfying as the closing chords of a Mozart symphony -- though with much more emotional impact. (Not wanting to engage in spoilage here... I do hope folks will see the film.)

MarkBrunson said...

I had forgotten the Field Marshall Haig scene! He really was brilliant.