“Following a dumb brute on its arduous journey from master to master (most of whom perish), War Horse has an unavoidable similarity to Robert Bresson‘s sublime Au hasard Balthazar,” writes Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman in a 12.21 posting. “Indeed, the sequence in which Joey — like Bresson’s donkey — is adopted by a willful, unlovable French peasant girl suggests the parallel might have occurred to Spielberg.
“The difference is not solely a matter of Bresson’s ascetic restraint and Steven Spielberg‘s shameless schmaltz, or Bresson’s tragic sense of life and Spielberg’s unswerving belief in the happy ending. Suffering witness to all manner of enigmatic human behavior, Balthazar is pure existence; Joey is an abstraction. Had Spielberg elected to show war (or life) from Joey’s perspective rather than use the horse as the war’s protagonist, the movie could have been truly terrifying.”
In a 10.18 HE posting called “Joey vs. Balthazar,” I wrote the following: “In Bressonworld, casual cruelty and inhumanity are visited upon a saintly little donkey. In Spielbergland, bombs explode at night, pretty photography commences, John Williams‘ music swells, and everyone falls in love with Joey-the-adorable-horse.
“It was my hope that Spielberg, needing to replace the wondrous effect of the pretend horses in the stage show, would shoot War Horse as a total horse-POV thing, allowing us to see our carnage and compassion anew through the eyes of an innocent. Dashed!”