There is a sweeping tracking shot about halfway through the film War Horse that features the principal steed sprinting through an artillery and corpse strewn battlefield. The scene has high key lighting and production design that makes it look like a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s; when everything was shot in a closed set instead of on location. There is no attempt at gritty realism, like in Spielberg’s other war film Saving Private Ryan. This is pure nostalgia, which keeps nicely with a growing theme for 2011. The best term I could come up with to describe a moment in a film like this is “Spielbergian.”
“Spielbergian” might be the right word to describe War Horse as a complete cinematic experience because it demonstrates his directorial inclinations at their respective peaks and valleys. When the movie is good, we see Spielberg at his finest; when it is less engaging, it makes more prevalent the various flaws that have prevented some of his past films from being masterpieces (I’m talking films like Minority Report and E.T.). In spite of its numerous flaws, I can’t help but feel like War Horse is just the right kind of movie to act as a capstone for the year that has been 2011.
Spielberg held nothing back for War Horse and to help him achieve an epic scope he re-teams with many of his past collaborators, each of whom have achieved legendary status in their own right. Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski stands behind the camera for his 12th collaboration with Spielberg. Longtime editing partner Michael Kahn rejoins the team and 45-time Oscar nominee (that’s right, 45) John Williams provides the swelling, theatrical score for the picture.
War Horse is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book and the film comes after a successful stage adaptation that has been playing on New York and London stages. Set in rural England in 1914, it follows the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a teenage boy who admires a neighbor’s horse and convinces his father (Peter Mullan) to purchase it at a significant expense. The horse, whom Albert names Joey, instantly establishes itself as a free spirit, more willing to gallop enthusiastically than pull a plow. In a moment of financial frustration Albert’s father nearly shoots the horse, but Albert and his mother (Emily Watson) convince him to give the beast one more chance. With the whole town watching, Joey miraculously plows an entire field and (of course) saves the family farm.
Months later England finds itself involved in the Great War and soldiers come to Albert’s small town to recruit. Albert himself is too young, but again in financial desperation his father sells Joey to an Army Captain (Tom Hiddleston). Rather than following Albert’s life, the narrative remains focused on Joey’s involvement in the war. After the Captain falls, Joey is adopted by the German Army and subsequently finds himself in a German Camp, on a Frenchman’s farm, and eventually back in the arms of the British. The film does not attempt the impossible feat of making Joey the protagonist and instead we learn the stories of each character he interacts with along his journey. Among these are two underage German brothers (David Cross and Leonard Carow), a French man (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), and a well-meaning British soldier (Patrick Kennedy).
One of the biggest flaws that I have found in many of Spielberg’s movies is that his characters don’t seem to exist outside of their time on screen. Early in the film we see two characters driving in a car together and their dialogue indicates this is the first time they have opened their mouths, despite the fact it appears they have been driving for some time. This example is a microcosm for one of the problems in War Horse and many of Spielberg’s other works. Characters live within their given lines of dialogue and we aren’t given much subtext to indicate anything beyond that. This is also revealed in the fact that no actors in Spielberg films have ever won an Oscar. He is a technically minded director instead of an “actor’s director,” and needs a story to support that particular style.
For the most part, War Horse meets those requirements enough to forgive some of the lack of character depth. The film starts off a bit clunky with some awkward attempts at comedy (largely involving a goose) and story elements that are too fantastical (Joey defying physics by splitting a rock in half). However, once we get to the battlefield, Spielberg gives us romantic filmmaking at its very best. The high key lighting and tightly framed faces recall Gone With the Wind. Spielberg opts for long picturesque tracking shots instead of the shaky handheld close-ups we saw in Saving Private Ryan, which detaches us from the individual characters. This actually works by showing that war is equally foolish no matter where it takes place.
I would be lying if I said that some of the more powerful battlefield scenes didn’t move me. There is a beautiful scene where a British and German soldier team up to save the horse that easily stands out as one of the most magnificent moments in a Spielberg film this decade. I found myself so enamored by the experience that I was willing to forgive John Williams’ intrusive, if not downright manipulative score. These were the scenes that Spielberg needed to find more often. When he hits the moments of heightened emotional rawness square on the head, it will be difficult for even the most pretentious of moviegoers to withhold an enraptured gasp. Spielberg is like an expert pianist and he plays the audience like a Steinway grand piano. But he’s not playing a new tune and many will be desensitized.
The cast is made up of a talented group of multinational stars, but there are no particular standouts. The only notable is Niels Arestrup who, in his limited time on screen, provides some of the film’s only subtext. Like many other characters, he is short-changed in the ending, but does great work with what he is given. With a cast this strong I can’t help but feel there were some missed opportunities. That is a statement that could be made about a lot of War Horse, but for every moment missed there is a great one that was seized, making the whole experience worth while.
Bottom Line: War Horse is a flawed, but fun emotional ride that can be best described as “Spielbergian.”