Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse - bring your tissues but not your horse-lovers

In 2009 while I was in Wales and it was snowing outside, I picked up a magazine with a review of the stage play based on Michael Morpurgo's War Horse.  The puppets were weird and immense and amazing, and I really wanted to see the play.  That not being an option, I wanted to read the book.  The kind folks I was staying with reassured me that Morpurgo was really famous (Children's Laureate of England!), so I'd be able to find his books anywhere, even in America. 

When I returned to America, I found this not to be the case.  Not wanting to import books at stupid cost, I resigned myself to keeping an eye on used book stores with no luck. Until . . .

One day in 2011 when I was exercising, I saw that someone was making it into a movie.  My first thought was, "I'll bet the book is available in book stores now!"  My thought after reading the book was, "How on earth can they make this story into a movie for the same audience as the book?  It's impossible.  You can't be as selective with your details and still be honest in a visual medium as you can in a written one."

I was right.  War Horse bills itself as "an epic adventure for audiences of all ages."  I'm going to say no, not really.  The book is for the 8-12-year-old set.  It's short and sad and touching.  It isn't dumb, but it's written for its intended audience.  The stage play, well, I haven't seen it, but it changed some things and had some amazing puppets, which convinced lots of people that adults could enjoy it, too. 

The movie is rated PG-13 for a reason.  It's a war movie that doesn't mess around.  It's hardly Saving Private Ryan, but just because there's very little blood/gore doesn't mean the violence isn't there.  I actually tip my hat to the film's creators because they kept things restrained while not deadening the overwhelming impacts war makes on all those it touches.  It just made me cry instead of throw up.

However, this isn't a movie to take your 8-year-old horse loving niece to see.  And I wonder if your 11-year-old son will get anything out of it.  I mean that; I do wonder.  I wouldn't want to be the parent trying to explain war in all its horror to the kid I brought to see the movie, but it's a really important set of conversations that needs to be had, and maybe this movie will set up some of those conversations.

I'm not sure I would have been able to follow it well at all before about age 16.  As an adult, I thought it was brilliant to have the people from different countries played by native speakers with authentic accents.  I knew immediately that I was in France or dealing with Germans or British because of how they talked, and everything I knew about the war and those countries in the war contributed to my understanding of the events of the movie.  I wonder if I would have understood all that was going on if I didn't get that background.  I would have understood the bits about cowardice and desertion when I was 12 but not nearly so well as I did after I read A Very Long Engagement (a brutal WWI book I could never watch the movie of) at age 20-something.

Maybe I'm being unfair to young people.  Maybe they do learn more history younger these days.  Or maybe they pick up on the essentials of the story without being even vaguely aware of the sociopolitical situation.  I mean, most adults probably don't know as much about WWI as I do, and they still seem to like the movie.   (Except for the ones who are so cynical they can't like anything even vaguely nice or melodramatic.  I wonder if the cynics would have liked the less [melo]dramatic book ending, but I would guess they don't like anything with a happy ending, even one so hard-fought as this.)

I'll admit that I didn't really engage with the horse at all.  At all.  Again, I tip my hat to the film's creators because they could have played that aspect up and tried to anthropomorphize the poor beastie and play it from his interior point of view (which works in books way better than movies) and made this movie something dumb, but they didn't.  The result is that I cared about the people.  I was okay with the horse as narrative device on which to hang the stories of various people who had things taken away by the damn war.  Like all half-way decent war movies, this was an anti-war movie because it reminds people of what a huge, hideous, damaging thing a war is.  I hope the younger people (and all the people) who see this so-called "all ages" film come away with that knowledge pounded into them.

One thing that irked me: there were some outstanding performances by German actors in this movie (Hinnerk Schönemann [had a great grammar joke no one in the audience found funny except me], David Kross, and Leonhard Carow [I think these three are the ones I was most impressed with aside from the ones already named and biographied on the page]).  On their behalf, I register complaint that they weren't on the official movie's cast page.  I had to go flailing about on IMDB for the names, and I'm not even sure they're the right names.  Why the snub?  Can it really be that we still discriminate against Germans so many years after the World Wars ended?  I know there was a lot of anti-German sentiment in America after this war (the movie Sweet Land introduced me to that fact), and World War II's atrocities only added to the burden of the German people, but now we are at peace.  These actors did good work.  Shouldn't they get credit for it?  Or are we still too bitter about what their great grandparents did to our great grandparents?  Or is there some other reason they didn't get the credit they deserved?

War Horse wasn't perfect, but it was an interesting and moving film, and I'm glad I saw it in the theater (hooray cheap matinees and gift cards).  Your thoughts?

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