Friday, December 23, 2011

War Horse: A Modern Epic on the End of Modernity

By Timothy Dalrymple
December 21, 2011

We remember World War 1 as a particularly pointless war. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, and this led to a conflict that conspired, through alliances forged in the previous decades, to put the world’s greatest imperialist powers at war against one another. The “cause” of the war was essentially the relentless expansion of Europe’s imperial powers, and the war erupted when their claims to portions of the world came in conflict.

None of this is shown in the film. Instead we see the sons of England rushing to enlist for the next great adventure, expecting a swift and orderly conflict that would allow them to travel and train and exercise their masculinity. Instead they found themselves mired in a years-long nightmare, and a whole generation was decimated, as the old methods of warfare (like the cavalry charge) ran directly into the new technologies of war, and the result was wholesale slaughter with a swiftness and bullet-filled brutality that the world had never before seen. In the seventeenth century, it took thirty years to kill 4-11 million Europeans. In World War 1, it took 4 years to kill 15-20 million (as many as 65 million if one includes deaths due to the Spanish Flu, which spread through the war).

Moviegoers will find that War Horse reminds them of the best movies they saw when they were growing up. Its story is complicated insofar as it takes the audience through multiple smaller stories in sequence, but it’s a single story line told in a chronological manner. There’s no shifting back and forth in time (as in Pulp Fiction), no backward storytelling (as in Memento), no multi-layered temporal puzzles (as in Inception). There’s also no sardonic narrator (as in Fight Club), no multiplicity of interlocking stories (a la Crash), no clever insertions of text (as in a Guy Ritchie flick) — none of the gimmicks. It’s straightforward storytelling in the midst of gorgeous wide-angle views of the English and French countrysides from a master of the craft who feels no need to attract attention to himself. As uber-producer Kathleen Kennedy told me, it’s the kind of “epic story of hope” that attracted her to movies, a story of family and love and bravery and loyalty that’s cast upon the widest and most dramatic canvas possible. the rest


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