I’m going to get some crap for this review
Judging from the reactions of the Swedish film blogging community, War Horse is not going to be a hit here. Everyone seems to hate it and I’m not talking about some halfhearted disliking. They hate it with passion.
Fiffi, for instance, describes in her usual entertaining style (unfortunately not easily translatable to English with Google Translate) how sick she felt after watching it, claiming that she would rather had spent 146 minutes at a painful dentist appointment or standing on glowing charcoal than seeing this.
Sometimes Fiffi and I are like imagined twin sisters, loving and hating the same movies. But on some occasions the sisters disagree vehemently and this is one of those.
I hesitate to say it aloud since I expect to get a lot of crap for it, at least from my fellow Swedes, but I actually liked War Horse quite a bit.
What worked for me
I think there were a few things that made it work for me where it didn’t work for Fiffi.
- Fiffi compares it to the classic Little House on the Prairie series that we both grew up with. The comparison is absolutely relevant, but while she seems to do it in a rather pejorative way, I do it in an appreciating way. War Horse is just as sentimental, celebrating American ideals of sticking together and never giving up, no matter how hard the circumstances are. It’s a brew that I as a grumpy, realistic, down-to-Earth Swede only can stomach in small portions. It would be unbearable to live in a world where all movies were like this. But once in a while it’s wonderful to get a bit of Little-House-ness.
- Fiffi apparently doesn’t like horses. I do. I read the books about The Black Stallion repeatedly as a child and I could see a bit of a connection. They’re both stories about the magic bond between a horse and his owner, a bond that will make them overcome all sorts of obstacles and hardships. They’re both stories about a horse that keep surpassing people’s expectations.
- I was in a terrible shape when I watched the movie due to a stubborn cold that had deprived me of sleep for days and didn’t seem to go away anytime soon. When you feel that way – feeling sorry for yourself, in desperate need for someone to parent and take care of you – you regress mentally, in my case to about the age of a 12-year-old. And since the movie apparently is intended for that age, it couldn’t really have been much better. All my shields were down.
I won’t deny that there are a couple of things about War Horse that feel a little bit odd to me.
- First there was this score by John Williams (who shockingly enough seems to be alive and still going strong). It felt rather invasive. Whenever something happened on the screen there was a response in the music. Field in the sunset with galloping horses? Get on with the violins! More violins! Yet more! Someone does something that is supposed to be a little bit funny? Enter a funny clarinet tune! It didn’t break the movie for me but it took me a little while to get used to.
- With the exception of some really harsh battle scenes from the muddy fields where soldiers are dying left and write and the horses struggle until they fall down dead on the spot, there was something slightly artificial about the look of the film. It made me think of the illustrations in the publications that some Christian groups spread trying to make you join. Everyone has sparkling eyes and perfect skin and teeth. This is probably intended. If it looked like a gritty, realistic European movie, you couldn’t bring your kids to watch it.
- Finally I couldn’t fully embrace that French and German people spoke English between each other. Once again – if you’re going for a young audience, it might be the way it had to be, as long as they’re not used to subtitles like we are where I live. So I forgive it, though I don’t like it.
A boy and his horse
In the end War Horse isn’t intended to be a documentary. I think it can bring a bit of insight to young people about the horrors of war and the nastiness of WWI, which I think is fairly unknown to most 12 year olds of today. And that’s good.
But most of all it’s a fairy tale about a boy and his horse. It’s told in an oldfashiond manner, which is a nice change to all the fractured, non-linear and ambiguous storytelling we usually see in modern films.
Does Spielberg “manipulate” the viewer, pulling strings to get emotional responses? Hell, yeah! But there’s nothing wrong with that. I was entertained and I got tears in my eyes once in a while and as the movie ended and the auditorium took up a spontaneous applause I was close to joining them.
I’m a little bit nervous about the next meet-up with the Swedish movie blogging community though. I’ll be alone in a land of haters, that’s for sure – pretty much like Joey the horse in the battle field. I can only hope I’ll do as fine as he did. Wish me luck!
War Horse (Steven Spielberg, US, 2011) My rating: 4/5