Tuesday, January 31, 2012

“War Horse”: Private Ryan Meets My Friend Flicka

Stephen Spielberg has made great war films, including “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” He also knows a thing or two about fantasy, as proved by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET,” two of his earliest hits.

Sometimes, though, the most successful film director of all time mixes up his genres with head-scratching effect. His first big letdown was “1941,” a 1979 comedy about Pearl Harbor (haha) starring John Belushi. Now comes “War Horse.” The Oscar folks have nominated it for “Best Picture,” but I’d call it a skillful, messy failure.

Based on a children’s novel of the same name, and a 2007 stage adaptation of the novel, “War Horse” follows a beloved thoroughbred from an English farm through the trenches of World War I, the last major war in which horses were used to carry men into battle and to drag materiel.

Peter Mullan—a dead ringer for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in his rookie year—plays the farm boy who trains Joey, the war horse-to-be. Then he must watch as his equine best friend is commandeered by the army and disappears, apparently forever. The early scenes on the farm are lit and shot and scored with 1950s studio technique and a gee-whiz acting style, reminding me of heart-tuggers like “The Yearling” and “Old Yeller”—or maybe that old Sunday-night TV staple “The Wonderful World of Disney.” With these scenes, Spielberg sets us up for a fairy tale in which a horse is the central character and the miracle ending is straight out of Screenwriting 101.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the long, long middle of this two-hour and (yawn) thirty-six-minute movie, a reel of “Saving Private Ryan” gets edited into the mix. Remember the opening scene of that Matt Damon film about D-Day, when the transport doors open on Omaha Beach and machine guns mow down the troops like scythe on wheat? “War Horse,” which wants to be a feel-good family movie, suddenly gets some of the most gut-churning scenes of hellish WWI trench warfare you can possibly have bargained for. Just when adults are waking up from the sugar coma induced by early scenes, children will be screaming in terror over young men being ground up by machine-gun fire. Who exactly is this movie for?

Then another twist: Joey gets caught in barbed wire, and “War Horse” becomes realistically surreal. In December 1914, with the war only five months old and the opposing English and German forces already entrenched within shouting distance, a famous, documented “Christmas truce” occurred. The Germans began it, placing Christmas trees in front of their trench and singing Stille nacht, heilige nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night). Before long the two sides were engaged in a carol singalong, a 24-hour truce was declared, and men came out of their trenches to celebrate Christmas together. “War Horse” has a two-man scene quite like that.

Then the fairy-tale reunion (you just can’t be surprised) and the inevitable return home of boy-turned-man and horse-turned-hero. The final scene is shot against an orangey studio sky lit up just like the Southern horizon against which Scarlett O’Hara swore she would never be hungry again. I expected the theme from “Gone with the Wind” to strike up.

Put a boy and a horse in this scene and you’ll know what I mean.

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