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Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is steadily building momentum as it approaches its Christmas Day release. Sneak screenings have begun for the film and Spielberg himself has been cautiously engaging with the press. One of the director’s goals was to shine a light on a WWI, a war that did not, and has not, received the same level cinematic attention that WWII or Vietnam have.
There are a number of complex reasons for the discrepancy, one of which may simply be a matter of timing (cinema was still in its early days during and after The Great War) and not the least of which is the mythos that surrounds what is perhaps the most unquestionably just (on the part of the allied forces) war in our collective memory: WWII. That is not to say that there are not complex issues surrounding that war, or the outcomes of our choices (particularly in the Pacific Theatre). It is simply to say that it is, as Spielberg described in a live-streaming Q&A following the sneak peeks, a more “fluid” war in several respects.
In thinking about “War Horse,” I find that it feels like two separate films. One, a fairytale (or a love story of a manner) about a mythical connection between a boy and his horse (reminiscent of “The Black Stallion” or, with a girl, “National Velvet”), the other a broad look at a complicated war. Using the horse as the through line, we see the evolution of the war that altered modern military action. The film is geared toward a wider audience and works to break down the complexities into digestible bites that provide enough of an overview to invite a larger conversation.
The arrogance and ignorance of the initial attempts to fight a “traditional” war is expressed via the titular Joey's introduction to the cavalry and its ultimate end. We are witness to children being sent to their deaths like so much fodder, as well as the impact on the citizens of Europe via the idea that that war “took everything, from everyone,” and finally, the relentless horrific waste of the trenches. In what both Kris and I agree is the strongest moment in the film, we see the unique intimacy that the trenches provided, as well as the ultimate meaninglessness of the battle.
What strikes me, as I take a step back, is the decided lack of interest in films that deal with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not to say that there have not been worthy to remarkable documentary and narrative cinematic offerings that dealt with aspects of our modern wars: “Restrepo,” “No End in Sight,” “Operation Homecoming,” “The Messenger” and “Control Room,” to name just a few. It is to note that what is, by most accounts, the most well-known film to deal with either Iraq or Afghanistan, “The Hurt Locker” (as a result of its phenomenal success as the Academy Awards and Kathryn Bigelow’s historic Best Director win), still had lowly box office returns with $49 million worldwide and $17 domestic. Additionally, the film is so specific that it functions more as a character study than a true look at the overarching nature of these wars. The highest grossing Iraq war film in recent memory is “Green Zone” with $35 domestically.
The device that the novel “War Horse” and its subsequent stage and film adaptations uses to give that bird's-eye (via a horse) view of WWI is unique, clever and effective. It makes it palpable for an expansive audience and allows the viewer to touch on multiple aspects of the event. So I have to wonder, why hasn’t someone done the same for these, our contemporary wars? It’s been eight years of war. And yet, most of us act like it is a non-issue. In truth, many believe that it is a non-issue in our daily lives. How unique a circumstance. WWII meant rations, women in the workplace, drastic social shifts. Vietnam was present in American living rooms nightly, and yet now we simply tune war out. We ignore it. We pretend that cataclysmic change and consequence have not occurred. But in fact they have.
So why does Spielberg, with all his scope and influence (his “Saving Private Ryan” grossed nearly $500 million in 1998), not choose to shine a light on today, right now? To be clear, this is not a condemnation of "War Horse" in any way, it is simply an examination of some questions that arose for me in thinking about the film in the broader context. Why have we become so deeply disconnected from ourselves, from reality? Why do we collectively choose to live as ostriches, and is that not in itself an appropriate subject for a film?
Spielberg says this is a “film about connections,” which indeed it is. Why, then, are we only able to connect with our humanity, with our desire to remember the fundamental links that bind us through the lens of the past? Perhaps it is too challenging, too complex to grapple with the present. Perhaps we would rather avoid, distract ourselves, indulge in unhealthy excess and comfort ourselves with fantasy.
In that sense, one of the films that best expresses our current collective condition is this weekend’s controversial offering “Shame,” a film that depicts profound alienation, stunted emotional growth, pathological disconnect from our own inner lives as well as the lives of others and as a reader said to me today on twitter, our “access to excess.”
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