As one of the sage saints of post-modern cinema, Steven Spielberg has always been branded more commercial than creative. Even though his mainstream hits – Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park – all have amazing aesthetic elements buried within them, it wasn’t until the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List that he was taken seriously as an artist. Since then, he’s continued to mix pop with prestige, hitting on a creative combination that sees him working within (Minority Report) and outside (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) his considered comfort zone. After a three year absence from the silver screen, Spielberg has unleashed two new films on a wary (and waiting) public. One is the stop-motion thrill ride The Adventures of Tintin. The other is the somber WWI drama War Horse. Both are brilliant in their own ways.
The latter is based on a beloved children’s book and a famed stage production and centers around a poor farming family in Ireland. It is the eve of World War I and the Narracott brood – father Ted (Peter Mullan), mother Rose (Emily Watson) and son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) – are in deep debt to their leaseholder, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). Going to the local livestock auction, they hope to pick up a decent plow horse. But when parent and child see Joey, a magnificent steed made for racing, not work, they can’t resist. The decision puts them in even more trouble with their landlord.
Once the War begins, Joey is sold to the military – much to Albert’s anger. He becomes the mount for a young untested officer (Tom Hiddleston) and then becomes part of the German artillery. Eventually, Albert is called up and sent off to fight. Without his knowledge, he becomes part of a battalion fighting the forces using Joey to maneuver the big guns. Fate will find a way to bring these two together, even as the political and power struggled between clashing European factions keep them distant and divided.
War Horse is like a welcoming, warm woolen blanket. It makes no bones about its manipulative intentions and delivers on said designs in ways that will remind you of a dozen different classic Hollywood offerings. From The Quiet Man to Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley to All Quiet on the Western Front, Spielberg does his own version of the Tarantino homage stomp – and out dances the critical darling every step of the way. From the opening moments, when animal mother and sire romp through a verdant countryside greener than any emerald to a horrific moment involving bomb blasts, barbed wire, and a race through the flooded foxholes of France, Spielberg is in pure movie magic form. There is never a doubt about his slick, sentimental intentions, but the manner in which he achieves them can be downright spellbinding at times.
Naturally, any film which features animals in peril is going to pull on one’s heartstrings, and War Horse is shameless in that regard. Joey’s first major stumbling block is as an unlikely ally in the need to thwart Lyons. The rain soaked sequence, filled with flared nostrils and stumbling hooves, is enough to keep even the most lax horse lover on edge. Next, we see the horrors of battle from the colt’s perspective. Sick steeds are put down, others worked to near death. All the while, Spielberg spares us the gorier details, determined to make us experience the emotion without rubbing our nose in it. Sure, it’s hard to avoid the pain of watching innocence destroyed, but that’s a reality of war that this filmmaker has never flinched at, no matter the historic setting.
In many ways, War Horse is more staunchly anti-war that any film Spielberg has ever made. Schindler’s List detailed the Holocaust without tackling the diseased Nazi bureaucrats behind it. Similarly, Saving Private Ryan was more about honoring the greatest generation than struggling to make sense of such a monumental loss of life. Here, Joey is the perfect symbol for something pure and majestic, an oddity within his own breed built to be something than the roles he eventually plays. Had he been human, had Spielberg cast a fresh faced teen taking on such challenges, War Horse wouldn’t work. It would be too obvious, too pat and preplanned. With a helpless creature at the center, the stark realities become even more dire, the disturbing nature of armed conflict that much more meaningless.
With a cast consisting of class British thespians (Ms. Watson is probably the most recognizable) and a lead animal with an amazing array of tricks, this is an old school production filled with awe and wonder. Spielberg makes it look easy, his camera gliding along the action with appropriate ease. This is the very definition of an epic, a storyline that starts out small and personal and ends up integrating issues both big and profound. Within the human cast, Irvine stands out as the boy who understands (and loves) Joey the best. His often pained looks can grow aggravating, but once part of the troops, he’s terrific. Watson also shines in the long suffering anguished mother role, while Mullan makes an impression as the inebriated patriarch of the clan. Through it all, Spielberg measures out their performances in plain takes. We never feel hurried or rushed here, layer upon layer building to the inevitable climax.
Sure, there’s a sequence toward the middle where the movie loses its way. It involves a sickly French girl, her doting grandpa, and the sudden arrival of some surly Germans. It all feels unnecessary and under-developed. So much is merely hinted at that when the subplot arrives once again toward the end, we don’t really get the significance. All we want to see is Joey and Albert back together, to prove everyone who thought their bond laughable or strange was dead wrong. War Horse may be nothing new for the man who made his name as the King of the Blockbuster, but it does represent what he does best. And when it comes to the work of someone like Steven Spielberg, one’s best is simply sublime.