Next on the docket is what turned out to be my b-day film this year, Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned weeper War Horse, a.k.a. Saving Private Ryan meets The Black Stallion. In short, despite some first act hiccups, War Horse is a solidly engaging film. True, it plays some rather easy chords in order to derive its suspense and emotional power — namely, Animals-in-Peril and People-Saying-Farewell-to-Their-Trusty-Equine-Companions. And the scenes here of World War I are considerably more stagy and less resonant than Spielberg’s re-creations of WWII in Ryan. (Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front aren’t in any danger of being upstaged here.) But, perhaps due in part to its steadfastly old-school movie traditionalism, War Horse goes to work on you after awhile. It’s a simple tale of a boy, a horse, and the Great War that came between them, elegantly told.
That being said, War Horse doesn’t really find its footing until it leaves the rather twee English countryside and heads off to the Continent for the great conflagration. In fact, the first forty minutes or so are something of a Spielbergian schmaltzfest, as a poor lad (Jeremy Irvine) tries to get his noble and spirited young horse Joey to take to the plow and save the family farm. Joey was acquired by this desperate bunch — the Narracotts by name — when the drunken pater familias (Peter Mullan), a veteran of the Boer War, overpaid for him in a moment of liquid courage bidding against the local landlord (David Thewlis). And so, to stop said landlord from exacting his revenge, young Albert Narracott must coax and train Joey to do farm work meant for a much sturdier beast — skills that may come in handy in the battlefield a few years hence.
With Thewlis twirling his moustache as Mullan and Ma Narracott Emily Watson — humble, decent folk, both — fret about losing the farm, the first act of War Horse feels like one ginormous and schmaltzy cliche, especially coming from this director. (Hey, Joey! Why the long Spielberg face?) But when Tom Hiddleston (i.e. Loki of Thor) shows up as a dashing young military man — i.e. exactly the sort of naive, well-meaning fellow who perished by the millions in WWI — and takes the reins of our stallion protagonist, War Horse begins to gather momentum.
Under the command of Benedict Cumberbatch (late of Tinker), Joey and his new rider venture off to the Great War. But — as WWI vet J.R.R.Tolkien intimates with the last ride of the Rohirrim in Return of the King (and see also Faramir’s doomed assault on Osgiliath in PJ’s film version), World War I is a conflict where old-school cavalry charges are tantamount to organized suicide. The Civil War had Gatling guns and the Franco-Prussian War mitrailleuses, but, by 1914, the Germans have enthusiastically adopted honest-to-goodness machine guns, and the battlefield is no place for a horse anymore.
And so the rest of the movie is a Red Violin-type tale where we follow Joey’s misadventures as he passes variously through English, German, and French hands over the course of an increasingly horrible and dehumanizing (dehorseizing?) bloodbath of a war. (Among those who cross Joey’s path are A Prophet‘s Niel Arestrup, The Conspirator‘s Toby Kebbel, Sherlock‘s Eddie Marsan, and soon-to-be-Davos Seaworth Liam Cunningham.) And, while the last few Gone with the Wind-laden moments struck the wrong tone with me — after the trenches, it’s a bit late in the day to make military service seem poetic — War Horse for the most part gots its hooks in me over its run. You will believe a horse can war.
Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.”
“In 1914, Joey, a beautiful bay-red foal with a distinctive cross on his nose, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of the war on the Western Front. With his officer, he charges toward the enemy, witnessing the horror of the battles in France. But even in the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches the soldiers around him and he is able to find warmth and hope. But his heart aches for Albert, the farmer’s son he left behind. Will he ever see his true master again?“
Uh…ok. What’s wrong with the Lincoln biopic again? With Tintin in heavy post-production, Steven Spielberg announces his next film will be the WWI equine epic War Horse, based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo. Guess it must be an amazing novel.
Put briefly, and while adding a frisson of Funny Games‘ Aryan youths-gone-wild to the mix, The White Ribbon attempts to do for the rise of the Nazis in Germany what Haneke’s Cache did for the French-Algerian conflict. But, at least for me, lightning didn’t strike twice. Perhaps it’s due to either knowing the trick this time ’round or having a greater familiarity with the history at hand, but I thought the allegorical content of Ribbon started out rather didactically, and only got more obvious and belabored at the movie churned along. And, shorn of its historical musings, the story here doesn’t really hold up on its own — It’s mostly just long, meandering takes of (usually) unfortunate things happening to German peasants.
First, the story. The year is 1913, and in the (fictional) village of Eichwald, a German doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and gravely injured, apparently due to a tripwire someone — one of the Black Hand? — placed across his path. And before this event can even be fully processed, another tragedy takes place: A worker for the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) falls through some rotted boards to her death. Yep, Eichwald is having a frozen run of luck like you read about.
As suspicions and recriminations deepen throughout this hamlet, more troubling events ensue. An aggrieved farmer ruins the harvest festival by slaughtering all the Baron’s cabbages. The Baron’s young son is taken by unknown parties and brutally horsewhipped (for some reason, and as in Doubt, nobody ever thinks to ask the kid who did this to him.) Fires are set, folks disappear (or leave while they still can), birds are mutilated, and, perhaps most frightening, even souls are in peril: For example, the son (Leonard Proxauf) of the local reverend (Burghart Klaubner) puts his eternal salvation in doubt by indulging in a nasty habit of onanism. To be sure, this evil must be beaten out of him, and his siblings, as soon as possible. In other words, we must destroy these children in order to save them.
Narrating this tale throughout (as an old man, years on) is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who, as a relatively young newcomer to the village, stands between its feuding generations. When not courting the Baron’s young nanny (Leonie Benesch), he watches the events unfolding in town with growing unease, and tries to figure out who is responsible for all the incidents driving the citizens of Eichwald mad. The problem is, he’s already tipped what’s actually going on in the very first scene of the movie, when he says something along the lines of “This is not just the story of a random German village, but the story of my nation.” Ooh, really? Allegory time.
Pretty soon thereafter, we are regaled with a scene where the Reverend’s children are taken to the proverbial woodshed and unduly punished for their transgressions, real and imagined. Given both the time I’ve spent on this subject in recent years and the schoolmaster’s “time to play German History Jeopardy!” warning in the first scene, this set off Versailles Conference bells and alarms right away, and especially so once these children are then forced to wear white ribbons as symbols of purity. Hmm…who else in 20th century German history ran around wearing armbands? Let me think on it.
The rest of the story pans out as you might expect. For various reasons, predominant among them the Sins of the Father(s), these kids go terribly wrong, eventually even going so far as to attack a developmentally disabled boy (i.e. the local minority in their midst.) Also, for some reason, the movie is constructed like a mystery, even tho’ — even if you didn’t pick up on all the hints in the last paragraph — one of the kids basically confesses to the schoolteacher what’s going on in the first reel. Uh, can we speed this along? Bitte?
I’d like to say The White Ribbon remains engaging despite all of its allegorical ambitions. But it doesn’t, really. When you’re not playing spot-the-German-history as it goes along — Is the Baron supposed to be Kaiser Wilhelm? Are we gonna get a Beer Hall Putsch? Hey, look, Pius XII! — Ribbon mostly just offers long, intermittently interesting digressions on agrarian village life, like harvest festivals, courting carriage-rides and the cruelest break-up of the German pre-war period. (Some of this plays a bit like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — A period film, told in period (B&W) style, with then-taboo subjects like incest, sexual assault, and the aforementioned onanism now thrown in.)
Simply put, there’s not enough story to sustain interest in this enterprise without the allegorical content that’s driving the movie. And, since this allegory was tipped in the opening half-hour, I pretty much just spent most of The White Ribbon waiting for all the various little Nazi shoes to drop. Without either the ambiguity or the open-endedness of Cache, I found The White Ribbon on the pedantic and stultifying side, and I can’t really recommend it. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is rather long and uninvolving, and I have to think one of the other Foreign Film contenders probably puts on a better show.
Another personal plug: As part of the online rollout for a new edition of Walter LaFeber’s The American Century, I recently composed four brief classroom essays on various 20th century events, as evaluated from a 21st century (re: ruthlessly presentist) perspective. In case anyone’s interested, they’ve now gone live: The Versailles Conference | The Military Industrial Complex Speech | The Tet Offensive | A Second American Century? Now, that’s edutainment.
“Remember, Jeannette Rankin was elected before women could vote. So who says men don’t vote for a woman?” Resorting to a blatant gender pitch once more, Sen. Clinton name-drops Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first female representative. (She also took hold of the recent Kinsley meme: “‘Do you realize how much longer it takes for me to get ready than my opponents?” Clinton said. ‘I think I should get points for what I do, plus having to spend so much time getting ready.'”)
Just to set the record straight, Jeannette Rankin was a committed pacifist who not only led the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” to protest the Vietnam War late in her life, but voted against American entry into both World Wars (and was the only person to vote against entry into WWII.) So, their common womanhood aside, I think it’s safe to say Rankin would be thoroughly disgusted by Clinton’s record on Iraq and Iran, and might well roundly reject the comparison.