Steven Spielberg is the great sentimentalist filmmaker of his generation. Once in an interview, I heard him describe the first time he ever screened one of his amateur films as an adolescent. He said that he became instantly addicted to the audience’s reactions. The director has worked in many genres, but almost all of his films are guaranteed to have a touch of what I would call Spielberg Schmaltz—a bit of sentimental overkill that plays merely to tug at the tender heartstrings of already susceptible audiences.
It’s fitting that War Horse, a war epic based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about a horse caught between the lines of WWI’s horrific trench warfare, should call to Spielberg like the sirens of cinematic emotional pandering. An innocent horse, the inane brutalities of a human conflict: The concept alone could evoke a cascade of sympathetic groaning.
That said—one couldn’t discuss Spielberg without acknowledging his gift for delivering pure, tactile Movie-Wonder. In one climactic scene in War Horse, the titular colt, startled and fed up with battle, makes a desperate run for it, leaping over barbed wire, into trenches, over machine guns and right through the burning, exploding hell of battle. The scene is wrenching and when it finished, I heard the woman behind me say what everyone else was clearly thinking: How in the world did they film that?
I’m told no horses were hurt in the making of War Horse, but only a master craftsman like Spielberg, with his deft, indistinguishable blend of stunts and CGI, could make that scene seem so astoundingly authentic. War Horse, though, begins far from the muddy brown wastelands and gunpowder smog of the Western Front; rather, the camera soars serenely over the bucolic green fields and pastures of rural England, where a fresh-faced, wide-eyed lad named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) watches the birth of our one-day war horse on the neighboring farm.
Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, turns the landscape into a peaceful, pastoral Eden, rivaling the dreamlike Irish grasses of Ford’s The Quiet Man. The movie’s opening vignette depicts the struggle of Albert’s family to keep their farm, accentuated by a freshly purchased horse—given the moniker Joey—that would rather run than plow, and an evil landowner named Lyons (David Thewlis) who seems to take cold pleasure in displacing and tormenting his tenants.
In its opening 45 minutes (its finest by the way), the film reiterates Spielberg’s uncanny storytelling ability—his talent for giving tremendous dramatic stakes to the most personal and trivial of sequences. It also introduces the film’s best character and performance: Emily Watson as Albert’s hard-edged, no-nonsense mother, who weathers every hardship with a walls-up toughness and protective pragmatism. Most importantly, it forges the relationship between Joey and Albert, one built on kindness, resolve and mutual trust.
That friendship is tested, however, when the bells of war literally begin to ring, and Joey is dragged off to France with a unit of English cavalry. Spielberg’s first argument for war’s wasteful futility comes when that unit, sabers in hand, charges an outpost of German machine guns. After the massacre, Joey gets swapped between several part-time owners: a kindly English officer (Tom Hiddlestone); a couple of AWOL German brothers; and a scene-stealing, provincial French girl named Emilie (played by the adorable Celine Buckens).
When Kaminski’s beautiful English countryside gets replaced by the gritty, ugly, lifeless colors and textures of torn earth and flesh, it becomes clear that Spielberg’s plea for peace is one based on contrasts: the pure vs. the ravaged, love vs. hate, animal vs. man. Honor, loyalty, virtue and friendship are characteristics not exclusive to Man, but destruction on the level of war certainly is. Easy conclusions to make, but they are elegantly illustrated in the way Joey unwittingly flips sides and then ends up smack in the middle of no-man’s-land, a neutral creature in a war fought by the innocent masses, but waged by fatuous politicians. Joey is not just a beast of burden—he’s collateral damage.
Spielberg’s 2½-hour long epic could definitely use some trimming down. And as magnificent of a storyteller as he usually is, War Horse never really finds a solid protagonist. The relationship between Joey and Albert seems central, but then Albert goes MIA for a long stretch before showing up later as a caked-in-dirt doughboy on a mission to find his equine companion. Joey is anthropomorphized from the outset in an effort to make him somehow more relatable, yet a little crosscutting between the two would have been beneficial to the story’s structure and impact.War Horse trots along on the unlikely chance that, somehow, Joey and Albert will find each other amongst the carnage and get home. Adversely, though, with both heroes in harm’s way, the movie keeps you enthralled with the knowledge that the war cares neither for them nor their friendship. What begins with the greenest of valleys ends with a painterly sunset ripped from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon—the figures in silhouette are wistful signifiers of all that was lost. This isn’t Spielberg’s tidiest foray, but he paints his widescreen with the usual wonder, and even the sap comes courtesy of a truly poignant interspecies bromance.