The critics use terms like "shameless" to describe Steven Spielberg’s new film, "War Horse." I say shame on the critics. This adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo succeeds as a sustained meditation on faithfulness. If the story seems fantastic, and it is, so much the worse for us: what critical instinct requires the ridicule of ordinary virtues?
I confess to a weakness for animals. As a child, our circumstances made pet ownership difficult, if not impossible. We moved often, sometimes renting rooms in the homes of others. It would not do to bring pets along as we migrated from place to place. But now well along life’s way, my wife and I have settled on a piece of property all our own. (Well, the banks actually own it, but we are working on it.) We’ve owned a variety of animals, including a horse, emus, poultry, cats and dogs. I never quite warmed to the horse, I am sorry to say: He was too big, too foreign, too powerful a creature for me to feel at ease in his presence.
So why this fascination with a movie about a horse?
A farm boy watches the birth of a horse from a distance. It stands, warily testing new legs in a new world. As the colt matures, the boy watches it frolic, gambol and enjoy the care and nurture of its mother. When the boy’s father buys the horse at auction, an expense the family cannot afford, the horse is given over to the boy’s care. He teaches the horse to pull a plow. The relationship between horse and boy seems deeper and more real that any other relationship.
World War I yields a severing of these pastoral bonds. The horse is taken to the front lines. He survives carnage, changing lives everywhere he goes. In the end, and against all odds, the boy and horse are reunited, each after having survived harrowing conflict. The movie ends with the promise of lives more enriched and satisfying because the horse was faithful to the boy and the boy was faithful to the horse.
Yes, it is schmaltzy, and unrealistic. The wonder of it all is that Spielberg pulls it off.
I watched all two hours and twenty-seven minutes of the movie with my wife and our two border collies, Odysseus and Penelope. Watching the horse struggle through confusion to find its way home brought to mind how much our dogs have changed and inspired me. Are obstacles set in my path as I struggle to accomplish some aim for a client? In recent years, I sustain determination by thinking about Odysseus’ single-minded dedication to me. Cannot I at least be as a good a lawyer as my dog is a companion to me? Sentimental fool that I am, a recollection of my dog’s eyes has inspired me to hang in there on more than one occasion.
The simple virtues and illusions about them are the myths by which we live. Was it Paul who wrote about the gifts of faith, hope and love, with the greatest gift being love? Somehow in an age too easily given to irony and scorn we find it more easy to accept these gifts from animals than one another. I’ve often marveled at public reaction to cruelty to animal cases. Folks express outrage at harm done to animals; they seldom react with as much passion when a fellow human is harmed. We accept evil as part of our heritage; we expect animals to be exempt from the human stain.
War Horse’s improbable message about faithfulness, a close cousin to loyalty, ought to be required viewing for lawyers. We are instructed by our code of professional ethics that loyalty to client is a paramount obligation. We are to become their guardians, their counselor, their fast friend in a world of war and strife. It is a sentimental notion easily ridiculed in an age and era given to a false sense of sophistication: We are all realists now, given to sneering familiarity with failure. Pity the romantic fool who chooses to believe. Too much sentiment, too much feeling, too much hope will earn you the armchair critic’s scorn.
Take a look at War Horse. If you can sit through the movie without being moved to a kinder regard for the things you love, I pity you. Yes, life is hard, and the terms of an honest engagement with the world as it is requires a bleakness of vision. But, as David Hume once so aptly remarked, reason is and always has been the slave of the passions. War Horse stirs tender passions of the sort that makes life sweet. I savored every minute of the film.