WAR HORSE: In praise of Schmaltz

                                                                                                                                                                    I was impressed by some of the promotions of  the Broadway play War Horse; the wicker puppet horses that exuded a Lion King feeling though in much more dire circumstance. So I am not sure what I expected from Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse.  But the story of War Horse is not a new one and like human nature the camaraderie that can exist between animal and man can take many permutations. And Spielberg gives it to us in spades. After five minutes of the story I was on the verge of feeling cheated. Hadn’t I been animated by the themes involving the power of love and  love conquering the unconquerable  in the many Lassie movies and the TV show? This is Steven Spielberg, the man who gave us Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – all stories that pulled the curtain back on the wizard. Stories that gave pause to consider the questions of God, free will and the vile temper that can run deep within the breast of the human animal. What’s he doing treading the emotional road too-well trodden? I took a deep breath before suspending judgment.  Yes, “pure schmaltz,” was my reaction upon leaving the theatre and a woman waiting on her husband claimed she felt the same way but added, “in a good way.” She is right. A heartfelt story to occupy the heart is just what we  need. Now, today – in 2012.

From the very opening scene, I was struck with visuals of a lush and verdant English countryside replete with a mare giving birth then frolicking across the hillside with her young stallion foal. I settled into the movie made comfortable with expansive panoramas and life affirming human and animal nature. I found myself considering the job of color-timer – the person later in the post-production process whose job it is to balance the color, tone and density of a film. It is a job that is usually noticed for its annoyance when there are shifts or bounces in color as a film progresses from scene to scene.  Not so with War Horse.  I was wrapped in a blanket of greens, tweeds, dun earth and rich sunsets that moved seamlessly from the first dramatic moment to the last.

Life lessons abound in War Horse. There are lessons in courage, selflessness,  what it means to be a real man and the ubiquitous battle between the haves and have-nots.  Joey, the war horse is sold (his ownership changes hands more than a few times after this) in a bidding war to Albert’s father a Boer War veteran struggling to maintain his farm and family. Once the long-suffering wife scolds her husband for spending too much money on a thoroughbred rather than a draft horse, the emotional trajectory of this film is obvious with the time-honored theme of Eric Knight’s 1938 short story and later novel, Lassie Come Home. Like the entire Lassie franchise, Spielberg also wrings every human/animal bonding cliché from every scene.   In spite of cliché, this theme works for War Horse just as it did in reality. According to writer Nigel Clarke,

the original Lassie who inspired so many films and television episodes was a rough-haired crossbreed who saved the life of a sailor during World War I. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the port of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Formidable was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. One of the ship’s life rafts, containing many bodies, was blown by gales along the coast and was washed ashore in Dorset. The bodies were laid out on the table of the local pub. The pub dog, Lassie, began to lick one sailor’s feet, and someone noticed the man was reacting to it—so they revived him.

This was life awaiting art (enter Hollywood) to validate the experience. Suspending disbelief is good for the soul. It provides a delicious alternative to the certainties of life today – for as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow the political landscape will continue to offer podiums for patriotic scoundrels conferring the blessings of improper gods. Children will make life-altering decisions out of starvation and necessity. A mother will make choices that in sunnier times would seem unthinkable but now – hauntingly probable. This is a world where the transitive verb, occupy now does double duty as a noun. War Horse is a movie that allows the viewer to address the issues of the human heart and run free when the heart is held hostage to what seems to be man’s congenital desire for war.  On the back of Joey we can escape the many handlers who do what they have to do to keep the war machine alive. The scene in which the horse is actually able to bring two sides together is antithetical to the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan – there is no blood just one English and one German soldier cutting free the horse from yards of barbed wire. Even these characters are given enough intellect to acknowledge the irony of their duties.  “We’ll be fighting in a few hours…” the Englishman in his thanks for the German offered wire cutters.  Joey is free and in a coin toss returns to the  English trenches unknowingly passing a gas-blind Albert being treated in a front line Red Cross facility. It is Albert’s well-known whistle that saves the badly injured horse from destruction. Cue John Williams and his mounting crescendo when long-lost horse meets his loving now blind master on the WW I battle field. This could have been the end to a very sweet movie.  But no – Spielberg has more emotion to wring from us. Such as the return of the grandfather of the beautiful yet sickly little French girl (into whose hands Joey fell when his two German deserter handlers were shot for their troubles)  who walks three days to the  auction of all English military property at the war’s end. In a show of love and good-will Albert’s entire unit pools their pounds to purchase Joey for Albert but it is not enough to compete with the grandfather who wants the horse to remember his now dead granddaughter. What is a heart to feel?  The granddaughter was so sweet and precocious that we want the horse to go to the grieving old man. But then there’s Albert, he’d been blinded by mustard gas in service to his country and we are happy he can see now so, “gee, let the soldier have his horse old man.” And the grandfather relents. It is what the young, beautiful and precocious girl would have wanted.

Albert returns home in the most touching and emotional scene in the entire movie. Mom and dad are in the garden unaware of the silhouette on horseback moving across the horizon. Mom puts her hand to her eyes prolonging the dramatic irony – it could be anybody riding up to the farm but we know who it is. This lasts long enough for both mother and father to come to full recognition of their son and then –  group hug. Big – group hug.  Joey is left to display his great profile for us to admire. The rich, fire-inducing sunset backdrop screamed Gone With the Wind and the moment when Scarlet falls to the red earth of Tara and screams, “as God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again…” Seriously, I indulged in a claymation visual of Joey the horse laying on the ground at the gate furiously pounding a many-scarred hoof neighing, “as God is my witness I’ll never go to war again.”

Yes, pure schmaltz. But schmaltz never tasted so good.