Apparently more money is given to animal charities than to their two legged (and depressingly non winged) counterparts in the UK. Perhaps it is with this in mind that Spielberg recently announced he had finally ‘realized that I’d made my first British film with War Horse. Through and through.’ In this sprawling epic, whose glowing sunsets, hopeful close ups and a score that is bordering on the dictatorial, the lingering sense is one far more akin to ‘golden age ‘ Gone with the Wind Hollywood than to a ‘British sensibility’. This is despite the obvious dialectic effort made by actors attempting to re-create an authentic Devonshire accent, whilst remaining intelligible to American audiences.
In this way, War Horse falls into a bracket of Hollywood films enraptured by the picturesque ‘old worldliness’ of our Isle. Braveheart, the heroic tale of a commoner who single-handedly unites 13th century England and Scotland, starred the once-bankable Mel Gibson, who also directed the picture. Similarly sentimentally gluttonous in all its sensory modes of assault, for me Braveheart failed to tap out so much of a tear, other than those spent on its eye-searing length of 177 minutes.
It is then to a hero’s face-off that War Horse packs it’s watery punch (I cried continuously from approximately 7 minutes in until the end); an easy defeat. If likeability could be measured in face-length, bewigged Mel is reduced to a speck in Joey the horse’s lengthy features. Obviously Spielberg has been taking tips from the Advertising gurus behind The Brooke Charity ‘donkey rescue’ advert. Here the donkey narration ‘yesterday, today, tomorrow, every day the same. I work till I can’t take another step’ is enough to lead the most stiff-lipped to Plathian depths of despair. Joey shares this heavy load, from his first encounter with a harness and plough, to the genuinely frightening flight sequence through ‘no-man’s land’, barbed wire fences in tow.
Perhaps it is peculiar to the horse, whose natural physical majesty evokes such extreme attachment. The sadness of animal-cruelty has been cinematically exploited on a regular basis, with the ‘horse-tales’ lead by National Velvet, featuring a young Elizabeth Taylor, and of course, the equine godfather Black Beauty. In both, episodes of horse sickness and/or maltreatment are denouements of emotion, often used to mirror exterior troubles. In fact, my childhood memories of these films can only recall a strangling desire to ensure the welfare of the horses, eclipsing any wider social commentary, and I’m unsure if it would be different now. Here War Horse differs, perhaps through a combination of the intertwined narrative of War and Joey, with Spielberg’s extensive preoccupation and practice in ‘shooting’ the battlefield, ranging from Schindler’s List to the War Horse-esque Saving Private Ryan. The emotional pull of War Horse is a kind of hybrid of all of these films, with references extending to the casting of David Thewlis, famous for his work in Harry Potter, The Big Lebowski and Kingdom of Heaven, though ever remaining, for me, the caring-yet-sickly ‘Jerry’ from Black Beauty.
War Horse is undeniably simplistic, particularly in its sustained correlation between ‘goodies’ and horse-lovers, vs. ‘villains’ who care more for winning the war than tending to a lame horse. The result is a plaintively emotional film, that throws you in a darkened room and forces you to watch all the goodness, bravery and sunlight in the world be repeatedly held at gun-point, whilst pummeling your stomach with a bat if your sobs aren’t quote convulsive enough.