Thursday, December 29, 2011

War Horse & the Importance Of Pacing

Steven Spielberg is a genius; War Horse is not.
It's got to be tough, having such an amazing record, always having to perform and there being such high expectations; can't we cut the guy some slack? Well, no. He's Spielberg for a reason, and those reasons are what's missing from War Horse. Within the first minute of the film, you see the birth of Joey, "the horse," and you see a few scenes of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trying to bond with him, and then his dad--without any forethought--goes and buys the horse (up to that moment, I thought the horse all ready belonged to Albert). The reason the first few moments demonstrate how bad the film is because we can easily compare it to a film like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and get a great lesson in pacing and timing, how much information to give the audience and how much to allow the audience to fill in for themselves.
There's several good scenes in the film, and many good characters, yet it just doesn't all add up: it seems contrived and calculated to give you goose-bumps and make you cry, but it just doesn't. Whoever Mr. Spielberg got advice from for this film, he should drop it; nobody but Spielberg can do Spielberg and this isn't a Spielberg movie.
Here's a great example of the pacing problem in the film: the father has just brought home a thoroughbred instead of a plow horse and paid 30 guineas for him, which the family can't afford. They have to teach the horse how to plow because they are going to lose the farm if they can't raise extra crop to make up the difference in the rent. Joey and Albert get an impossible field plowed, then the crop gets in and starts to grow, then there's a terrible rain storm that floods the crop. Not enough time is spent on this, and if that would have meant spending too much time on it, then it should have been cut from the script. Spielberg is being too influenced by films like The Red Violin and Traffic and not sticking with what he does best.
What about symbolisms?
I was interested in the film because, usually, the horse is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and or the soul; a horse placed in World War I could easily be translated into the political wars we are experiencing today, the loss of homes and farms, jobs and nest eggs, etc., but this is where the pacing comes in: too many characters and topics were covered and none of them sufficiently to make a statement. I loved the character of Emilie (Celine Buckens) and she finds the horses (Joey and pal Truffle) in the windmill and wants to keep them. Her parents are dead and she's sickly, being taken care of by her grandfather. But nothing ever develops until Albert is about to get Joey back at the end of the war and the grandfather suddenly appears and outbids Albert for the horse and then gives it back to Albert... there's too much action and not enough thought. I can't make anything out of it, and it seemed so long that my mind started wandering.
Emilie with Truffle and Joey.
My favorite image of the film is when Joey has run through "No man's land," and has belted through countless barb-wired fences; unable to go on, he collapses in a tangled mess, unable to move. I can tell you, I had a spiritual battle like that myself this week. Exhausted and hurt, it takes a British soldier and a German soldier, bravely confronting the enemy's fire to go, meet, and work together to save the horse; you want to think of this as the American economy, and the Democrats and Republicans working together to save the country, but the foundation for this kind of symbolic understanding just isn't laid out through the duration of the film.
It's very sad that Mr. Spielberg, who taught the world so much about telling stories and making movies, has forgotten his own lessons, but perhaps War Horse will remind him of the greatness of his own wisdom and he will take greater confidence in himself in the future.