WAR HORSE

Overall Impression – A boy, a soldier, two soldiers, a girl, another soldier, another soldier, and finally back to a boy and his horse.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

Who’s your main character? – Joey, the horse.

What’s he trying to accomplish? – Professional: Be the best darn horse ever. Personal: Stay alive.  Private: Get back to the boy who raised him (if I can anthropomorphize a horse’s hope.)

Who’s trying to stop him? – World War I.

What happens if he fails? – He dies.

THE FOUR ARCHETYPES

Orphan – Joey is separated from his mother and taken in by the Narracott family.  When WWI begins, he is purchased by the British army and sent to war.

Wanderer – The bulk of the movie is about Joey wandering, and the many different hands he falls into on his way back home.

Warrior – Joey never has a real changeover from Wanderer to Warrior.  Rather, both archetypes blur throughout the middle and end of the film.  Towards the end of the film, Joey makes a break and runs from battle; I suppose one could argue he is now ‘fighting’ to stay alive however this happens so late in the movie that it can’t really be considered the shift to Warrior.

Martyr – There isn’t really any one seminal scene of Joey being willing to sacrifice himself.  In act three many characters have martyr moments, however these are secondary characters, and even tertiary and quaternary characters.  And THERE’S the problem.

AND, IN THE END…

How does one make a PG-13 film for adults where a horse is the main character and without turning it into a Disney talking animal movie?  How does one let the audience into a non-verbal, non-human main character’s head with complete understanding?  How does one drive a dramatic story forward with a main character whose hopes, dreams, choices, and thoughts can only be guessed at?

One can’t.

What one does instead is surround that silent main character with other characters.  Someone has to do the talking, right?  But dramatic tension is more than chit-chat; it’s created by the decisions and actions your main character takes.  It is a fundamental truth that the less proactive and more reactive your main character is, the weaker your main character — and subsequently your story — becomes.  What could be more reactive than a horse;  harnessed, ridden, and led around by a rope?

In an attempt to overcome this crucial, elemental storytelling hurdle, War Horse fills it’s running time with a swirling cast of characters that surround our non-speaking, non-human main character.  The commonality for all these characters is their ability to recognize how special the horse is.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough to keep an audience engaged.  As beautiful as War Horse is to look at, the end result is merely a beautiful film to look at.

Please understand that my goal here is to extrapolate lessons about screenwriting — both good and bad — from every movie I see.  The main lesson of War Horse is the same lesson one usually learns from episodic films with multiple characters: they make it notoriously difficult for audiences to latch onto and emotionally invest in characters.   And as magnificent as Joey is, his power as a tour guide into the world of the film only takes us so far.

I haven’t read the book War Horse that the stage play and movie is based on, however my understanding is that the book does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the mind of Joey, the horse.  That is the power and beauty of literature.  Trying to do that in a film and not come out with Babe is a stiffer challenge, one which even our best filmmakers can’t overcome.

— Jeffrey Alan Schechter

2 Responses to “WAR HORSE”

  1. David Goulet January 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Should have been done animated like Watership Down or The Plague Dogs. But of course no one does serious animated films about animals. Wouldn’t want to confuse the children.

  2. Neil Lawson-May July 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    A superb analysis of the film, which I found rather boring for all the reasons you articulate. What is strange is that the stage play is extremely emotionally affecting, and it takes a stony heart not to shed a tear even though the characters are puppets. Despite the fact that the film doesn’t have the same impact, hats off to Spielberg for making a movie about WW1 and all those who lost their lives.

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