Au Hasard, Joey

Since WWI finally ended on Sunday, I thought I’d watch something suitable. Unfortunately, the film that leapt out at me was Spielberg’s WAR HORSE, which I’d picked up cheap on DVD and never watched. I had just been picking out clips to show students to illustrate the art of scene blocking, which Spielberg has a real gift for. So I was feeling positive, even though friends had described WH as a right load of old guff.

I have smart friends.

The Spielberg fireworks display goes full blast in this one, and there’s much to admire from a technical standpoint. But this was a children’s book, turned into a play that used technically impressive but stylised theatrical techniques, now turned into a big budget film with a Hollywood-real aesthetic. So it’s like somebody adapted Tom Sawyer into Equus and then into GONE WITH THE WIND. The qualities of the children’s story which were perfectly acceptable in a storybook — the naiveté and sentimentality and romantic implausibility — all become glaringly obtrusive on the big screen with real people (well, actors) and a real horse (when it’s not CGI).

“Don’t do it, Steve,” said Fred Schepisi when he heard Spielberg was going to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. “You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.” An immortal line. To the extent that Spielberg did not fuck it up, we can credit his success to the decision not to storyboard and to go handheld when possible. Handicapping himself. His decision to shoot the start of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN like a documentary also helped stave off problems. But since WAR HORSE is about long-ago events more remote than the forties, he evidently decided to let himself go full David Lean. There are some beautiful images ~It is, in fact, absolutely pornographic. The famous debate about the tracking shot in KAPO is very relevant here. But imagine ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT crossed with LASSIE COME HOME and that gives some idea. But don’t forget that, on top of all that, it has a thick coating of John Williams poured all over it. And Richard Curtis on script.

(All the nice WWI art is, in a sense, sickening. The giant display of poppies (sponsored by the British weapons trade) spilling like blood from a wound was striking, but what it accomplished was the transformation of something raw and bloody into something pretty and inoffensive. As effective a pro-war statement as you could wish for. I’ve seen people saying “Dulce et decorum,” on social media, leaving out the fact that Wilfred Owen used those words with savage irony.)

Despite the skill and effort put into it, it’s insulting. Horses charge a German camp. Stylish mayhem. The machine guns open up. Charging horses. And then suddenly horses are leaping over the guns. And we realise they’re all riderless. A clever cinematic idea, but the empty horses gag simply couldn’t happen, because you can’t shoot a man off a horse whose riding right at you because the horse’s head would be in the way. Any effective shot would also fell the horse. Now, you might get away with that kind of impossible illogic in a kids’ book or play (but it’s an inherently cinematic idea, you have to give it that) but its an absurdity here. I wouldn’t accept it in an Indiana Jones movie, but it wouldn’t bother me much.There’s one scene that manages to apply a bit of restraint: Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann (I think) underplay a scene where they rescue the titular horse from barbed wire in no man’s land. The restraint pays off and the dialogue is less on-the-nose. And in reality, soldiers did sometimes risk death for their horses… generally to put a bullet in their brains as a mercy. So there’s a basis in reality… except here the horse lives and it’s all combined with a bit of Christmas Day Armistice sentiment. Can I have an extra rum ration, sir?

To take the taste away we had to run Losey’s KING AND COUNTRY. In order to FEEL something moderately genuine. The war horse in that one is a dead donkey full of rats.

WAR HORSE stars Swanney, Jackie Du Pré, Professor Lupin, Loki, Alan Turing, César Luciani, Koba the bonobo, Inspector Lestrade and Davos Seaworth.

KING AND COUNTRY stars Dr. Simon Sparrow, Billy Liar, Gerald Arthur Otley, Klang, Bob Rusk and Dinsdale Gurney.

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10 Responses to “Au Hasard, Joey”

  1. He also said Spielberg was “an asshole.” John Baxter quotes Kubrick saying the same thing.

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I actually liked War Horse a fair bit. I think the important thing in the film is the horse is the symbol of the force for random survival in war. And of course the idea of a majestic natural figure as a horse in the middle of a landscape scarred by mechanized warfare is something Spielberg sells. War Horse is a children’s story about World War I and I think it’s more honest and refined than that Wonder Woman movie which also had David Thewlis as the bad guy.

  3. Thewlis and Mullan square off in the ultimate Mike Leigh-Ken Loach grudge match.

    Well, it’s not more real or dignified or illuminating than Wonder Woman to me. The horse won’t do as a random survivir because he’s the title character. He’s preordained to be there at the fade-out and the only way to counter that would be to shoot him dead.

    I’m a great admirer of cinematic beauty but it’s tricky to do war movies without using battle as a pretext for photogenic action and giving the audience a thrill.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I am actually skeptical of the idea of cinema or art being a tool to end war. That seems like granting art a religious dimension rather than a human one. I mean making war look attractive or fun and making violence exciting are legitimate aesthetic issues but if you make a film that’s unwatchable I don’t think you are any nearer ending war.
    To me Rivette’s Tracking Shot of Kapo as well as the idea of making war look good and so on, are great moral arguments, but I don’t think it’s a workable criteria for all films.

    Like GW Pabst made Westfront 1918 which I saw earlier this year on Criterion. Great film and masterpiece and it deserves to be ranked alongside Barnet’s Outskirts, Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Vidor’s Big Parade, Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan among the pantheon of best world war I films. But then ten years later, he was working for the Nazi film industry and tacitly supporting their war drive. I mean there might be decent-ish reasons for that, but since Pabst left Germany for France and America and then went back, I think it’s giving too much of a benefit of a doubt to believe that he hadn’t gone over to the dark side for a brief period, albeit biographers are still trying to work out what happened to him (as per Jan-Christian Horak on the Criterion DVD).

    The fact is World War I didn’t end all wars, nor its own war. I mean it’s a little known fact that on the day of Armistice, American and other Allied troops were engaged in battle with the Bolsheviks in Siberia. The Commies called it, “the Battle of Armistice Day”. And I feel that non-sacral works like War Horse actually do contribute in eroding that memorialization by refreshing how we see that conflict even if they don’t touch the politics of that.

  5. I don’t think there’s any likelhood of a war film ending war. It could potentially discourage somebody from enlisting which would be good, but that’s not necessarily the purpose of cinema. But some kind of cinematic beauty which is at the same time truthful or thoughtful would be welcome.

  6. Worth remembering that a big factor in ending Vietnam War wasn’t art, but television, delivering what were then unprecedentedly unfiltered views.

    Perhaps the best art can do is focus on what doesn’t get caught by news cameras: survivors’ stories (civilians as well as soldiers); the circumstances and conniving before, during and after; the psychology, emotion and morals.

  7. Since television has backed away from the kind of imagery that helped end Vietnam — bodybags coming back, etc — there is space for art to pick up the slack. But really that should be TV’s role. They get explicit on other kinds of crises but if it’s UK or American military action the blinkers go on.

  8. I’m so glad I’ve avoided WarHorse – but I thought the cavalry was hardly used at all in WW!? reading letters from my Great Uncle George survived by being on the big guns artillary (far enough away) and his best friend Pansy McHendry ! who was in the cavalry who also survived because I think he saw little action being on a horse…

  9. Cavalry were largely obsolete because of the invention of the machine gun, which didn’t stop intransigent commanders deploying them, usually with awful results… which, to be fair, is exactly what happens in the film.

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