Funny story. World War I has pretty much dominated my life these past two months. The show I was directing was all about the Great War, so all that stuff, Somme, General Haig, mustard gas, etc. and so forth.
And while it was more an act of providence than any sort of forward thinking on my part, I saw the stage production of War Horse in New York city while I was there for Thanksgiving. And I loved it! I thought it was an absolutely incredible piece of theatre, full of gorgeous imagery and beautiful emotion. It's one of, if not the, best things I've even seen in a theatre. So, I was a little apprehensive about the movie. I mean, how could it possibly live up to the theatre experience?
Short answer: It doesn't.
Are We Downhearted?
Now, let me be clear. Steven Spielberg's War Horse is a good movie, at times, a great one. The story of Joey and Albert is a pretty timeless tale; you'd have to be corpse to not tear up at the story of a boy who braves The Great War to reunite with his horse. It's a very emotional story, and it rings a handbell choir on stage. On film... eh. There are some great moments, but there are nowhere near as consistent as they were in the play. With the show, it took until intermission before I was completely floored, mouth agape, palms sweaty. With the film, it took a lot longer.
Also, the film's version of Albert is something of a one note character. In the play he was given a hefty chunk of the spotlight, and was really fleshed out. The play is about Albert as much as it is Joey. The film is only about Joey. That's not necessarily a problem, as Joey is the most interesting character in the whole thing, but the film is told chiefly from his perspective. Therefore, we miss out on a lot Albert's experiences, and what experiences we do see are significantly condensed.
That's not to say that there aren't incredible moments in the film. One of the things that this medium provides that the stage doesn't is, well, scope. There are some wonderfully epic shots that really show off the scale of the war, as the camera pans across vast stretches of bombed out landscape. You really feel the horrors of WWI, and all at a PG-13, family friendly tone.
They Were Only Playing Leapfrog
It's clear, right from the off, the Spielberg made some hefty changes to the narrative. He's taken out characters. He's added characters. He's split up characters into different characters. For example. In the play there is German officer who defects to care for Joey and Topthorn and to protect a french family. In the film, this character is split in two. First, we have the brothers who flee the frontlines. Second, we have a compassionate German who urges and cares for the horses as they pull the german artillery near the end. And I missed having those qualities in the same character. Like that, it really hammers home the idea that people on one side really aren't all that different from people on the other side. We all share an appreciation for beauty, for strength, and for life. When this character is split up, the message is somewhat lost, and is now reduced to two attempts to tug at our heartstrings. Speaking of which...
And that's the main flaw of the film, and where the play easily surpasses it. The film is trying so hard to be emotionally devastating, that it comes off, more often than not, as nothing more than corny. The play didn't try at all. Not one bit, and it had me in tears by the halfway point.
Gassed Last Night
But there are some things that the movie does better. For starters, the horses. In the play, they used these awesome puppets that were operated by three men simultaneously. It looked beautiful, and was completely convincing. After a little bit, you don't even see the operators anymore. In the film, however, they use real horses. And, as far as I can tell, they only used special effects to create the steeds once. And while there's not much done to really distinguish these horses from their puppet counterparts, they do have one advantage. Eyes. Horse eyes are some of the most hypnotic ever to grace the face of a living creature, and they are accentuated to great effect here. Those eyes are, like, pools of emotion, and by god, does Spielberg do everything he can to drain those pools dry! Those shots of the horses gazing off at the chaos and carnage... awesome.
And then there's the war itself, and this is one area that film beats the play, soundly. Though he hasn't dealt with it in the longest time, Spielberg still knows what he's doing when it comes to shooting thrilling and intense action. He did great justice to World War II in Saving Private Ryan, and he does it again with World War I here. I'd say his accomplishments with War Horse are even greater because he manages to perfectly capture the horrors and terror of war, and does so without any serious gore or graphic images. It doesn't hurt that the action is some of the most exciting of the year. In the final act, the one that deals primarily with Albert and Joey's trials in No Man's Land, there's a whole mess of scenes that are thrilling and terrifying, all at the same time. Like Tintin a few weeks ago, Spielberg has, once again, shown that he is still of one of the best action directors working today. No one does it like him.
La Chansson De Craonne
And of all the Spielberg's that are present in this movie, Action Spielberg trumps them all. And that's not a bad thing, but I can't help but be disappointed with the overall product of his War Horse. I've seen, firsthand, the power and emotion that this story can transmit. I've seen what levels of power and emotion that Spielberg can transmit when he allows the story and characters to develop in realistic and human ways. There are moments of power in the film. The ending is just a heartfelt and genuine as it was in the play. But I just feel as if Spielberg didn't have enough faith in the material. It's a shame, because the material is aces. The film is still very good, and a highlight of 2011. But, in no way will I ever recommend it over the play. If you want the best version of this story, scrape up the cash and get your ass to Lincoln Center! You deserve it!
ON A WHOLE NEW LEVEL!!!