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Non-Review Review: War Horse

War Horse is a fairly solid prestige picture. Spielberg is on fine form, reminding viewers of just how he became an audience favourite. He displays a warm confidence with the material, as if getting comfortable once again with this sort of crowd-pleasing fare. The film has some fairly significant flaws, stemming mostly from a disjointed and disorganised screenplay, but it’s the director’s charm that manages to carry the film through. Ironically, for a film focusing on an equine, it feels like one of the most warmly human films that Spielberg has produced in quite a while.

No horse play!

In many ways, War Horse feels like Spielberg is coming home – providing perhaps the director’s most comfortably conventional film in the past ten years. And that is most definitely not a bad thing. I’ll concede that I admired his courage and his ambition, his willingness to move outside his comfort zone in the past few years. After all, it’s hard to imagine that the man who directed Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws would give us films like Munich. However, there was always something slightly off about the director’s attempts to channel Stanley Kubrick with movies like A.I. or Minority Report. I like The War of the Worlds more than most, if only because it feels somehow less clinical than Spielberg’s other two big sci-fi films of the past decade.

It might have been technically impressive, but it always left me a bit cold, if only because Spielberg is very much the anti-Kubrick. I say that with no disrespect to either filmmaker, merely to observe that both were champions of very different styles of movie-making. Kubrick tended towards intellectual and perhaps cold explorations of the human condition, often feeling strangely disconnected from his subjects. Spielberg, on the other hand, was always at his strongest appealing to the emotional side of the audience. Of course, people will tend to gravitate to one director or the other based on personal preference, but I think that both Kubrick and Spielberg had rare gifts that suited their particular style. While the results might be academically fascinating and certainly well-crafted, it seemed that Spielberg’s talent was almost wasted offering a multiple-film homage to his close colleague.

Charge of the light brigade?

I mention this because War Horse is very much Spielberg appealing to those conventional strengths in a way he hasn’t really managed since Catch Me If You Can. Spielberg has an innate ability to find humanity in the strangest and harshest of places, and so the film plays to that strength. Whether it’s the horrors of Schindler’s List, the alien E.T., or the battlefields of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg is a master at forging a connection between his audience and the events on screen. Whatever problems I might have with the film, and I’ll come to them in a moment, there’s something powerful about watching a Spielberg film with a large audience – because you can see how masterfully the director can connect with them.

Early in the film, long before the first artillery shells have dropped, we’re treated to the sight of a ruined harvest. Now, admittedly it would be hard not to make the audience feel bad for the poor tenant farmers facing eviction if they can’t make rent, but Spielberg seems to have tighter control over his audience. All it takes is one quick cut and the entire auditorium breaks out in “awww!” Later on, as a British and German soldier have a conversation, laughter breaks out among the audience – a sense that they are just as relieved as those two characters at the reprieve from fighting. I am not talking about a few laughs here and there, but the entire theatre is laughing in time with the characters, as the German Peter responds to Colin’s compliment about his lingual skills by politely correcting Colin’s English.

Cry havok! And let slip the horse of war!

Spielberg’s emotional appeal is the glue that holds the film together, particularly when the script starts to buckle underneath its own weight. Part of me wonders if the movie might have worked better as a television miniseries than a feature film, as it feels fairly episodic. We follow the eponymous horse from owner to owner on a journey to hell and back. Each of these human characters has their own story, and each feeds into the next. There’s a rhythm to it.

However, the problem is the connecting fibre. The film works at its best when it treats the horse, named Joey, as a symbolic and metaphorical figure. The script can’t quite convince us to invest in the horse’s personality enough that it can anchor the story. As Joey moves across the continent, the plot contrivances that bring him into the lives of various people feel increasingly forced – Joey feels very much like a passenger in all this, rather than any sort of self-determining entity. He’s a silent stoic macguffin through the middle of the film, passed from one set of characters to another. All the characters are interesting, but our exposure feels too brief and too regimented.

Does Spielberg have audiences eating out of the palm of his hand?

This wouldn’t be a problem if the film didn’t spend so long at the beginning trying to convince us to see Joey as a character with his own identity and quirks. His owner, Albert, speaks to him like a person, and the horse seems to understand his English. Albert and Joey forge a bond, almost like brothers. I don’t envy actor Jeremy Irving, who delivers most of his dialogue to a horse, but he does his best. All this characterisation becomes moot when Joey gets sent to Europe, and becomes just a random horse for a while, with the occasional moment of individuality thrown in. (He spares another horse from the harness at one point, but that’s really about it as far as Joey being proactive goes.)

Ironically, despite the difficulty around the characterisation of the horse, Spielberg really takes off when he gets to treat Joey as a symbol. Indeed, the movie is set against the First World War, notable as the last truly global conflict to involve massive cavalry charges, as horses were replaced by tanks and trenches rendered the battlefield unfriendly to those faithful steeds. The movie cleverly makes the point that there were wars before and there would be wars following, but Spielberg seizes upon the horse as a symbol of man’s grace and dignity – one beaten and brutalised by war, but present none-the-less. Like the doctor towards the end of the film, you can write it off as it gets mangled in barbed wire, but it’s still there.

On the fence about this one?

“He survived out there, where no one else could,” one soldier remarks after finding the horse in No Man’s Land. Like Albert’s father, with his “gimp leg” from the Boer War, both Albert and Joey will carry the scars of the conflict with them, but it’s important that they survived. In one powerful moment, Joey faces down a mechanical and inhuman tank – allowing Spielberg to give us a nice symbolic confrontation between the grace of man’s nature and the harsh mechanics of war. Indeed, the noble horse is at his very lowest when used to drag artillery cannons around. Asked how long the horse will be used, an officer responds, “Until he dies… or the war ends.” The horse if man’s better nature, made slave to these cold and mechanic and inhuman objects.

War Horse is at its best during that section where Joey is loose on the battlefield. It really feels like a spiritual successor to Spielberg’s other explorations of war and conflict, one espousing a fundamentally humanist and admirably pacifist philosophy. Spielberg dares to suggest that bravery on the battlefield is not just measured by your willingness to kill or harm enemy soldiers, but that there’s an important bravery to be found in the basic act of surviving something so vast and horrible. “Can you imagine flying over a war and you know you can never look down? You have to look forward, or you’ll never get home… What could be braver than that?”

Can it gather awards momentum?

Sadly, War Horse is never as consistently brilliant and powerful as it is in those twenty or thirty minutes, and Spielberg feels like he’s wrestling against a clunky script. On the other hand, he’s drawn together a fantastic cast to do it, including superb turns from Emily Watson as Albert’s mother, Tom Hiddleston as one of the riders given charge of the horse, and a slew of superb smaller performances like David Thewlis as a slimy landlord, Liam Cunningham as a military doctor and Benedict Cumberbatch as a military commander who discovers first hand just how cold and dispassionate this conflict has become.

John Williams’ score does give the second half of the film an incredible sense of grace, but it overwhelms the smaller introductory scenes. Still, Spielberg has a great eye, and there are some absolutely beautiful shots – whether it’s the heavily saturated final scenes, filmed as if on a stage (perhaps in homage to the story’s successful theatrical run), or even that wonderful moment where the cavalry mount their horses in the tall grass. It’s just a shame that they feel so disconnected in the first half of the film, as the movie never manages to make the eponymous animal the strong connecting thread that he really needs to be.

And the horse they rode in on...

The real star of War Horse is Spielberg himself, as if he’s back in the saddle for this type of film after an extended absence. Sadly, the film isn’t quite a classic, but it does feel like the director has returned to a style of film-making that suits him perfectly. It’s a crowd-pleasing prestige film, and it’s highly unlikely to alienate anybody but the most cynical viewer, but it feels like it could have been so much more. It’s got a nice and classy broad appeal that makes it a solid family choice, but it ultimately ends up being very good rather than truly exceptional.

5 Responses

  1. Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments. Great review Darren.

    • I agree to an extent. It is manipulative, and it is a little schmaltzy. However, I think Spielberg does it in a way that only he really can. This is a family feel-good movie, the kind I’d watch with my grandmother. It’s not bold and incredible, but it fits a niche. I’d consider it to be much stronger than other films in the same niche, like The Help.

  2. I wasn’t convinced by it and constantly had the feeling I was manipulated that I was supposed to feel a certain way. Normally I don’t mind him doing that, but here it didn’t work.

    Just read this amazing illustrated review of the movie and it is hilarious, think you will like this one as well:
    http://thehairpin.com/2012/01/war-horse-an-illustrated-review

    • Thanks Nostra! Brilliant!

      And with that link, every other review of the film on the web is completely obsolete, mine included!

      Though I will concede I probably liked it more than you did, perhaps because I’d kind of expected that sort of emotional handholding. I’m normally quite cynical about this sort of stuff, but I think that Spielberg’s direction managed to distract me just enough to overlook clichés like the dying little girl or the moment of cooperation.

  3. Good review, agree with your points and I also didn’t mind the sugary, syrupy schmaltz. I did find the overly done colour of the final moments of the film quite jarring and totally unrealistic. Never thought of it as being a possible nod to the stage play. Must find out if that was the actual intent.

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