I wanted very much to see this movie and waited for it from Netflix for three weeks. For three weeks I saw the title War Horse sit atop my queue with the red print alert VERY LONG WAIT. Fine, I don’t mind waiting for something I believe will be really really good. I knew it had been nominated for several Academy Awards and it had been turned into a play now showing on Broadway. I knew the movie had been based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and that the always excellent British actress Emily Watson was in it. Not to mention Spielberg’s acclaimed direction. All this combined with the touching story of a brave animal’s survival during WW I, how could it go wrong? I have no idea, but it does, at least to my taste. Not sure whether the movie was intended for kids, like Morpurgo’s novel, but something is off. It was as if Spielberg attempted to emulate the elegant and genuine naivete of the likes of A Christmas Carrol’s (the 1938 and 1951 versions), and kept missing it shot after shot.
My first contact with horse-related novels was the classic by Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, which I must have reread as a child until the pages started falling off. And although I only rode horses a few times when I was a kid at the shore in south Brazil, horses are somehow always present in my life. Grandpa owned a race horse named Salsa and mom used to tell me how many presents and beautiful dresses she got on account of Salsa’s wins at the track. I enjoy going to the races here in America – PA or NJ tracks are the only ones I have visited so far – and whenever a movie involving horses is released, like theunforgettable Seabiscuit, I want to see it (got heart broken when HBO suspended Luck right after the third horse died during production. The complete series is scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1, 2012).
For the purpose of Spielberg’s movie, the war horse’s convoluted fate begins when farmer Narracott opts for buying a slender thoroughbred instead of the Clydesdale (the bulky and big-boned Budweiser type of horse) he needs to plough his land. Big mistake. It’s 1914 and his son Albert falls in love with the horse, calling him Joey. When the crops fail, dad is forced to sell the horse to the British cavalry. Joey is shipped out to France to fight the German army and their powerful machine guns. What follows is a succession of very shallow events and poor acting performances, the most painful of all being the elderly man that lives with his granddaughter in the countryside and temporarily adopts Joey and another black horse – Joey’s best friend. Both thoroughbreds are majestic – maybe one should consider watching War Horse just for the pleasure of seeing such beautiful horses in action – however, they alone cannot carry the entire movie; not even if they talked like Mr. Ed in the old TV series.
As that bloody war was taking place on the screen, I battled my own inclination to wander around the house, went back and forth between kitchen and family room, glancing at the screen and waiting for a miracle to happen so much I wanted to love this movie. It felt too long (much longer than its 146 min, a symptom that something is not right), too empty, too superficial. I missed Black Beauty all the time; kept wishing someone in Hollywood could turn Sewell’s novel into a really good horse movie.
At one point, when Albert comes home , the reddish skies in the back, framing the contour of his mom’s (Emily Watson)long dress are so unmistakably resembling of another Hollywood production, my husband and I almost said in unison , just like in Gone with the Wind! Without Gable’s and Leigh’s performances though, I put the disc back in the Netflix self-addressed envelope wondering what audience had Mr. Spielberg intended for his movie, an obviously well cared for production of $66 million. I found War Horse’s greatest merit to rest behind the camera all the time actually. It belongs with the people who trained the animals, the camera operators who were able to capture the horses’ movements in detail and even their fleeting expressions, mostly of the eyes.
It may sound banal but I guess it finally hit me: the quality of enjoyment one gets from a movie is directly contrary to the level of expectation one holds about it. Interesting. It took me over forty years to figure this out…