God on Four Legs
War Horse Brings Spinoza into the Multiplex
I have to begin this review of War Horse with Spinoza’s concept of God. Who is this Spinoza? He is one of the three big rationalist philosophers of the 17th century (Leibniz and Descartes are the other two). He lived in Holland. He believed that God was not some kind of individual but an impersonal process. This idea of God was seen by many of his time as mad and even dangerous. The French Protestant scholar Pierre Bayle wrote this about Spinoza’s God: “God only acts… According to Spinoza’s system, whoever says, ‘The Germans have killed ten thousand Turks,’ speaks improperly and falsely, unless he means God modified into Germans has killed God modified into ten thousand Turks. And therefore all the phrases made use of to express what men do one against another have no other true sense than this: God hates himself, he asks favors of himself and he refuses them to himself, he persecutes himself, kills himself, eats himself, calumniates himself, executes himself, etc.”
This is very close to the God we find in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. The God who is British is the selfsame God of the Germans, who are at war with the British (the film is set at the beginning of World War I), and the selfsame God of the Germans, who are at war with the British, and the French, who are also at war with the Germans. This God is represented as a horse.
The movie, whose plot unfolds with no friction, no resistance, no fuss (it’s a pure Spielbergian flow), begins in the countryside of Devon. A proud peasant and drunkard (Peter Mullan) buys an expensive and very stubborn horse at an auction. The purchase, however, leaves him with no money for the rent that’s due on his miserable farm. His landlord (David Thewlis), who is also proud, gives the drunkard a deadline to settle what he owes or face eviction. The horse, which the drunkard’s soft-minded son (Jeremy Irvine) has fallen in love with, is sold to an aristocrat (Tom Hiddleston). The son is heartbroken. The aristocrat is kindhearted, promises to be a good owner, and takes the animal to war. The war almost immediately kills the aristocrat, and the horse ends up in the hands of the Germans. The horse’s German minder uses it to flee the war with his brother, but both are soon captured and shot. The horse then ends up in the care of a French girl and her grandfather—you get the picture. This is about God. He has four legs and a tail.
True, there is still evil and good in the world, but there’s no nation or religion that’s totally bad or good. Either can be on this and that side of any situation or confrontation. This is a radical and very unorthodox view of good/God. If you ask anyone in Oklahoma if their God is the same God as the one in Iran or Turkey, they will say, “Hell no!” This is what makes War Horse so great. It’s smuggling a little Spinoza into the multiplexes.
This story has been updated since its original publication.