Saturday, 18 February 2012

War Horse

I saw the film.

Lately, I've been seeing films because it's easier and quicker than reading the book. Sacrilege,  I know.

This is due to job changes I've posted about here from time to time.

The film left me feeling extremely cross.  I tried to analyse the reasons.

1.  I would rather have seen it with someone else, in order to share.  Because of my extreme working conditions I go to bed before 9.00 pm six nights out of seven, so if I want to see a film, I have to take an afternoon off.  Not many people I know are in this position, so increasingly I am seeing films alone (unless it is a Saturday, when Mr BB often gallantly accompanies me).

1.(a) I digress, but it annoys me that I am subject to these extreme working conditions, due to the whims of an all-female board who cut the staff budget by 50%, yes, by half. So much for female solidarity.

 I am doing the work of my ex-deputy, who worked a five-day week, as well as about a fifth of the work of my ex-boss, who worked a five day week.  I am doing all this in three days a week, because I have two jobs, and this is only one of them. Yes, work that out.  How many hundred per cent extra am I trying to do? 200%, so no wonder I am completely exhausted.

1.(b)     "Not many people I know are in this position" (ie able to take an afternoon off to see a film).
 I digress again, but check this out.   Mr BB, an old man of 57, who was brought up by the model 1950's stay-at-home mum, still believes that all women choose their husbands on the basis of looking for a meal ticket (god, that term is so offensive it is bringing me out in hives).  He believes, against all the evidence, that most women are enjoying a life of luxury while their husbands are out slaving away to provide.  Actually, the only women I know who are not working full-time are EITHER retired, because they have final salary pension schemes (whch they worked for themselves) OR are single and never had  children, so accumulated their money over a life of frugal work. Everyone else is working away, often supporting a husband who is either ill, has had a breakdown, a business collapse, or just doesn't earn much (often due to lifestyle choices, eg wishing to "escape to the country").  So it annoys me that the perception is so far from the reality.

1.(c) All this makes me cross.  Now back to the actual film.

2. I felt that the film was a poor compromise.  If you saw the play, you were enchanted and moved by the unusual premise of the puppets, and the enormous skill involved. The film just showed real horses.

If you read the book, you were taken right inside the minds of the horses, seeing things from their point of view.  A film can't do this.  You saw the horses, carefully trained to pretend emotion (eg, greeting each other, and showing affection by bumping noses), but in no way did it take you inside their minds and hearts.

3. Mr Spielberg, whilst a master of cinematic art, does tend to manipulate the emotions.  This started from the opening frames, and went on throughout. OK, this is why the guy is so successful, but from time to time a little subtlety would have provided variety and contrast.

Throughout, it was like

"See the horse show affection, show fear, show nerves and overcome them".

"See the nasty toff and his whey-faced weakling son.  Contrast that with the good-hearted sons of the soil."

"See the sweet French peasant family, and see the noble, kind-hearted upper-crust type who idealistically charges machine guns on horseback and is killed on his first day in the field."

 The music overdid manupulation as well.  It was non-stop brainwashing.

Then there was the cinematic cliche.

Do you remember this scene in Doctor Zhivago?  I mean the 1970's classic, David Lean version.  A group of young boys charge through a beautiful golden corn field and are mown down by machine gun fire.  We had this, but on horseback.  The corn was extremely high (to hide the horses). Perhaps it came from Oklahoma.

Tolstoy's classic story, in which a young man rides at a gallop up a blind summit, only to find a nest of enemies on the other side, was referenced also, by the young French peasant girl, temporarily owner of the horse, who does exactly that,  thus losing the horse to the Germans.

Then we had the horses recognizing each other in the heat of battle (Elizabeth Jane Howard used this motif in her "Cazalet" series, reputedly based on the experiences of her own family).

The horses worked to death pulling gun carriages was lifted from "Black Beauty".

The fraternization of German and English over the wire of No-Man's Land, one of the most enduring images of trench warfare actually took place at Christmas 1914 (before things got really nasty).  In the film,  Tommy and Fritz (Colin and Peter) bonded over cutting the wires in which the horse was terminally entangled, thus saving its life.

Actually, the depiction of the Germans is one of the outstandingly non-cliched aspects of the film.  The two young German brothers, shot at dawn for desertion, are movingly played against the type of the German trench soldier.  The German peasant, (honest-faced and stout) who later takes charge of the horses and tries to save them from being worked to death, convinces without sentimentality.

The final scenes trump everything, of course, as horse and boy are reunited at last.  However, this annoyed me more than anything else.  To work the plot, the boy needs to be blind, and to recognize his horse intuitively, calling him with a signal he trained the horse to recognize before the war in pretty rural Devon.

The blindness comes as a result of a direct gas attack in the trench. 

Wilfred Owen (died in the final days of the war, 1918), wrote the definitive first hand description of a gas attack, which has become a synonym and epithet for the hypocrisy and waste of war.  "Dulce and Decorum Est" is the title of the poem.  The Latin words hark back to an earlier era of heroism and nationalism when people really did believe that "It is Sweet and Fitting" die for your native land ... "Pro Patria Mori"

He recalls seeing someone who did not get the gas mask on in time.

 "I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,  -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria Mori."

I have read that poem dozens of times, and it still has the power to bring tears to my eyes.

Albert, the boy, rosy-cheeked and breathing normally under the eye-bandages after the gas attack, soon recovers his sight and walks around normally, after the miraculous reunion with the horse.  This infuriated me more than any other aspect of the film.

Vera Brittain, nursing gas victims in a field hospital near the front line, wrote a similar description and indictment of war and old men's incitement of it. She wrote the following words at the time, long before the poems of Wilfrid Owen were widely available.

"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on and on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case, to say nothing of 10 cases - of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally , sometimes permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closed and they know they will choke...."  Albert, however, without a mark on him, uses his unharmed lungs to whistle for the horse.

Above all, this was the Spielburgian euphemism and sanitisation which infuriated me.


  1. I studied Wilfred Owen at school - Dulce et Decorum Est was one of the poems. I haven't read it for probably 20+ years and just read it now in your post - I am covered in goose bumps. That is the definition of powerful writing.

  2. Crikey.....there is such a lot here that could be commented on - I will go away and return later with some thoughts.

  3. Ooh, libby, am really looking forward to reading your thoughts!

  4. Okay, thoughts, but in no particular order, and perhaps not as perceptive as yours but I am still in my jamas and not quite awake have been to the pictures by yourself...that is good...I haven't managed it myself...although I HATE going as I prefer to watch a film at my leisure and not be interrupted by noisy people. You are overworked and need to learn how to say NO. Not easy I know but try it. I too am 57..that must make me an old woman (its ok I know that I am!), and although I like the idea of being just a stay at home and spend my husbands money (Ha) type of gal.....I married for love and so we have been and will be again no doubt, skint for most of our lives...well ok not skint but sometimes too much month at the end of the money. As for War Horse... I did want to see it in the Theatre and I'm not sure I will watch the you say sometimes being manipulated by the film maker just goes against the grain....especially if the film maker, however good, has pinched themes/scenes/ideas from other classic films in a lazy fashion. I loved Testament of Youth (Vera) on the TV many years ago and also I did get a bit teary eyed reading the W.Owen too. Overall though it seems to me (shoot me for being interfering..and in reality I guess you don't have much time but....)you might feel better if you had a G+T followed by tea and cake and a sit down with a good book....get you back on an even keel?

  5. libby, you are very kind and helpful. I love it that you have addressed ALL my issues in your comment. You are of course, right, about everything.(Except that alcohol has a very bad effect on me, destabilising in the extreme), but tea, cake and a good book - yes, they are the way forward.