At this stage of the game, referring to a Steven Spielberg movie as “manipulative” probably qualifies as redundant.
The most prodigiously gifted craftsman of his (or perhaps any) generation, Spielberg too often undercuts himself with a weird, seemingly pathological need to pander, simplify and work over the audience’s emotions in bold, blunt strokes unbecoming of such a graceful technician. After so many years, I have at last made peace with this … or maybe I’ve just finally found more important things to get angry about?
The most brazenly schmaltzy movie of the year, War Horse is just Steven Spielberg doing what Steven Spielberg does. And even if that ain’t your kind of thing, there’s still no denying that he’s ridiculously fucking good at it.
Based on Michael Morpugo’s 1982 children’s book, which was recently adapted into a smash hit London and Broadway play by Nick Stafford, War Horse arrives etched in the simple, bold strokes of a passed-down fable.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, on a Southern English tenant farm owing so much to John Ford’s blarney rustics that I half-expected Victor McLaglen to drop by, rascally drunkard Peter Mullan spends all the money his family set aside for a simple plowhorse on this magnificent title steed.
Facing eviction by the nasty local landlord (David Thewlis, who probably should’ve grown out his moustache just a mite longer so he could twirl it for effect), Mullan’s foursquare, comically noble young son Albert finds a way to train this unruly beast and attempts to save the family farm through a combination of compassion and “inspirational” platitudes.
Played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Albert has the lantern-jawed looks of Christopher Reeve—if Reeve was perpetually on the verge of tears. Our exceedingly sensitive lad doesn’t take well to his beloved horse, named (rather unpoetically) Joey, being sold into the cavalry once this goddamn war finally breaks out.
Not gonna lie, I spent the first half hour of War Horse rolling my eyes and groaning. There’s an ersatz old-timey quality to the farm sequences, as if Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski were shooting for an approximation of three-strip Technicolor and ever so slightly missed their mark.
But it gets better. I finally surrendered when Tom Hiddleston arrives as the forthright British officer taking ownership of Joey. Hiddleston didn’t impress me much as the villain Loki in Thor , but in Midnight In Paris he played a flawless F. Scott Fitzgerald. Saddled here with some seriously unfortunate dialogue, the young actor acquits himself marvelously and sets the table for this movie’s recurring motif—folks in impossibly ugly situations rising to the occasion by reaching out to one another with simple acts of kindness, more often than not provoked by this strangely magnetic horse.
Of course, it’s corny. This is a Disney movie directed by Steven Spielberg. What were you expecting?
So we go, carried by the first Great War. Adopting the structure of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar as if weaned on a diet of Victor Fleming movies, Spielberg follows Joey the horse (oh, how I wish they’d changed that name!) through a long procession of various owners and occasionally harrowing vignettes.
Watch how slyly Spielberg manages to keep the picture’s family-friendly rating while still expressing these ghastly battlefield horrors. The most vicious kills are rendered through misdirection, with a face cutting to a gun barrel—or my personal favorite, when a windmill blade lopes into frame and obscures a point-blank execution. He’s a crafty one, that Steven.
War Horse ’s high point arrives when our title stallion gets tangled up in barbed wire, bleeding out somewhere in No Man’s Land between British and German trenches. A couple of gutsy, obviously animal-loving soldiers, one from each side, wave white flags and venture out to cut him loose. Shot primarily in wide shots obscuring the actors’ features, it’s a very long and surprisingly funny scene—warring sides briefly united, bantering and enjoying one another’s common humanity, if only for long enough to help a defenseless creature that somehow got dragged into their mess.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing young Albert eventually ends up in the war, and that he and his beloved pet may eventually meet up again one day? Honestly, the only suspense is how shamelessly and mercilessly Spielberg wrings every last possible tear from their reconciliation, pumping up War Horse beyond the point of kitsch into something I found quite crassly sublime.
Closing on a patently phony crimson-hued soundstage sunset borrowed from Gone with the Wind, War Horse works you over. Spielberg does what Spielberg does. Resistance is futile.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson and David Thewlis
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