There’s a scene fairly early on in Michael Morpurgo’s excellent book for children “War Horse”, when two English soldiers are training horses they have recently bought from villages and farms around the countryside, preparing them for the imminent battles ahead. In this scene, they start talking about the titular ‘hero’ of the novel, Joey the gallant horse.
‘Is he not the finest mount in the entire squadron? I’ve never seen a horse so well put together as he is, have you?’
‘Oh he’s special enough to look at, sir,’ said the Corporal of Horse. Even his voice put my ears back. There was a thin, acid tone to it that I dreaded. ‘I grant you that, but looks aren’t everything, are they, sir?‘
This snippet of dialogue sums up for me Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse. It’s beautifully made with great technical skill and no little visual flair. It’s very, very ‘well put together’, it certainly is ‘special enough to look at’. But the Corporal of Horse is right to be suspicious. Looks aren’t everything.
Indeed, I found this film very disappointing. It seems a long, long way from earlier masterpieces like Jaws, Raiders and ET. This is schlocky film-making par excellence. It’s true there are some terrific moments; when the cavalry emerge from the cornfield for their first battle-charge, when Joey runs amok through the trenches and into No-Mans-Land, and the scene at the windmill. However, too much else is hackneyed, manipulative, sentimental tripe, and there are so many irritating and unnecessary changes to the book I almost lost count. But more about those in a moment…
Throughout the film, the score is overpoweringly loud, and signposts almost minutes in advance what to expect and feel. It’s a constant Fantasia on Themes by Ralph Vaughan Williams, folk tunes and a smattering of Aaron Copland harmonies (presumably to keep it familiar for a US audience). The film tries desperately to make Wiltshire (the actual village) and Dartmoor (the fields and landscape) look similar, despite an entirely different geography, stone, trees, grass. The lighting choices often beggar belief with ‘golden’ sunlight like I’ve never seen in the UK. Why they couldn’t find a suitable village location in Devon I’ll never know, but honestly I don’t really care.
The adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s brilliant children’s novel is pretty awful. He’s written on several occasions about the impact of war on children, families and communities, and in this story he uses a truly innocent observer, a horse, as the narrator. Joey doesn’t judge humans except by their behaviour. There’s no difference between a kind German and a kind Englishman. He describes what he sees, and trusts the intelligence of his reader (whether s/he is 9, 19 or 99 years old) to draw conclusions.
The film, on the other hand, manipulates and signposts even minor points at every stage. More significantly, it attributes human virtues to Joey at every possible opportunity. Where the book simply describes Joey’s feats and allows us to interpret them for ourselves, the films smacks us in the face and expects us to be grateful. Joey is repeatedly described as a marvel, a gem, a horse like no other. Again and again shots linger on Joey’s glistening flanks or his deep, deep eyes. Meanwhile, John Williams tells us what really lies behind those eyes with his surging / limpid / heroic score.
The story is altered throughout: the father’s back-story is rewritten completely, which changes the whole set-up of his debt problems. It also tries to justify his drinking problem with a military history and traumas that are entirely absent from the novel. Spielberg and his screenwriter Richard Curtis also introduce a ‘baddy’ in David Thewlis who isn’t in the book, and set up a ridiculous ploughing sequence that’s ludicrous in the extreme. There’s a comedy goose I can’t even begin to explain.
After 50 minutes we finally make it to France (it takes fewer than 50 fairly short pages in the book), and then the war is condensed into a series of episodes that feel like they take about 6 weeks when in fact the story unfolds over more than 3 years. The war scenes and the horses are generally excellent, although that constant ascribing of human emotions to the animals really becomes annoying in the extreme. At one point Joey runs more than 50 yards uphill to save his ‘friend’ from a brutal job hauling guns in a way that would stretch credibility if they had all been human. The whole sequence at a farm is twisted around, changing the meaning from the source material. Horses apparently walk upstairs in a tiny low-ceilinged cottage without any difficulty or noise. One of the best sequences in the film is entirely invented, but seems not to serve any purpose except to demonstrate (again – in case we hadn’t noticed) that war is bad and lots of children got killed.
Please – do yourself (and your kids) a favour. Read the very, very good book, which skips by in barely 180 well-spaced pages, while the film is much, much too long at 2 hours & 20 minutes. The film is schmaltzy and over-wrought where the book is disarmingly simple and honest. The film looks fine indeed, but it’s ultimately manipulative, lightweight and hollow, where the book encourages you to think, and leaves a deep impression that is as surprising as it is meaningful.