It’s a juggernaut. It won six Oliviers. It won five Tonys. It won Best Play on both sides of the pond. It has been made into a giganto new movie by Steven Spielberg that was nominated for two Golden Globes. It didn’t win any, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Those who have seen War Horse know the origin of that plaintive cry, which is tattooed on my brain for what I can only presume to be the rest of my life. It is the most oft-repeated line in War Horse, and more or less describes the entire action of the play.
In little more detail, the story is as follows:
Joey is a horse. He is thought to be wild, damaged, unfit for work or the company of humans. Albert is a boy. Albert tames Joey through boundless attention and selfless love. All seems happy and well until Albert’s drunken father loses Joey in a bet, and Joey gets sent off to help the troops in World War I. Albert enlists so he can go rescue his beloved horse on the Western front. I’ll let you guess whether or not he succeeds.
Here’s what War Horse is – visually dazzling, continually inventive, a magnificent succession of images.
Here’s what War Horse isn’t – a good play.
There’s no question that War Horse is extraordinary to look at. It is filled with the kind of moments that evoke a childlike sense of awe and wonder. But is there no one else who walked out after three endless hours of a boy wailing about his horse and thought the whole thing was kind of, maybe, just a little bit…stupid?
I will be accused of being callous, but as anyone who knows me will attest to, I’m a sap. I cry all the time, and it doesn’t have to be great art that calls forth those tears (cell phone commercials will often do it). And I was with War Horse for a while. The beauty of the images made me happy, almost tingly.
As the evening stretched on (and ON), however, my interest began to seriously flag.* I started to have questions of the mental well-being of our young Albert, whose single minded determination began to seem less like boundless, childlike love than an autistic fixation. More to the point, as an audience member I started to feel manipulated. Jerked around.
I turned on War Horse for good after a scene when Albert and his friend have been cut off from their unit. They are walking through that World War I patch of hell known as No Man’s Land when Albert’s friend basically gets his head blown off. Albert is discomfited by this for a moment, then brushes himself off and returns to looking for his horse.
I confess I have an issue with people placing what I consider an inappropriate amount of emotion onto animals, so perhaps I’m more sensitive to this than most. But wasn’t anyone else disquieted by the Albert’s casual shrugging off his friend’s violent death? Was there no one who thought that maybe the friend’s death would be an event of an equal (or even – GOD FORBID – greater) import than the fate of that horse?
This thought brought others in its wake. I started to wonder at the propriety of using the historical event of World War I to tell this story. The Great War, as it was called then, was one of the great cataclysms of world history. Millions upon millions of people died in a conflict whose origins were murky and results almost non-existent. It was epic slaughter for absolutely no reason. I find it a little off-putting that against the backdrop of this ocean of blood, where an entire generation of men died, the thing I’m supposed to be concerned about is the fate of a single horse. What’s next? A heartwarming tale of a girl’s love for her cat against the backdrop of the Holocaust?
I have no bone to pick with anyone who liked War Horse (a group that includes just about everyone I know). I get it. It’s beautiful. It’s an experience. But I cannot join the hosannas. For all its grandeur, for all its success, War Horse traffics in a kind of smug, ahistorical sentimentalism that makes me a little nauseous.
- John Yearley
*My wife says that everything she loves about me is encapsulated by the moment in Act III when I turned to her and muttered, “Boy, that kid REALLY likes that horse.”