The second of Steven Spielberg’s 2011 movies, War Horse, will be released today on DVD and Blu-ray today. You know what Spielberg is capable of, right? Well, all the good and all the bad of a Spielberg film are wrapped into this little nugget.
A few years ago Steven Soderbergh tried to see if he could make a classically designed, yet modern, version of Casablanca. He called it The Good German, and it reeked of artifice when placed alongside the standard multiplex fare of its time. He had shot the film, after all, with techniques and equipment from the classical era; his set probably came closer to a classic studio lot than we’ve seen since the early 40s. Soderbergh’s gambit was obvious, and all the more admirable for it. It was a welcome anachronism in an American film industry where style has become an act of homogeny.
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is in the same short-lived tradition. It is a movie that harkens back to a different era; not only because it is a period piece and carries the look (sometimes copied shots) of a John Ford movie, but because it reeks of a sentimentality that only Spielberg could produce – the type of deliberate, unapologetic weepiness and heroism that Old Hollywood and its production code produced on a regular basis.
Set in England during World War 1, War Horse chronicles the adventures of a hard-working, plucky farm boy, Albert, and his maladjusted but beautiful horse, Joey. The horse, like his proud owner, becomes a blue collar sort of animal; he’s willing and able to tow the line whenever needed, brave in the face of danger, and he always comes to the rescue of those pitiful humans that surround him. Joey, in the middle of one of the most nonsensical wars of all time, is the very embodiment of humane behavior – an anthropomorphic miracle, he is. There are a few moments where you fell like Joey might just turn to the camera and give a speech, Mr. Ed style. He never does, of course (Spielberg would never be so bold as to break the fourth wall), but the film does not view this horse as the dumb animal it really is; Joey, despite his complete lack of intelligence, is a Hero. He sails through his life, Forrest Gump-like, always in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing insofar as an amoral horse can. Albert gazes at the horse as if it were a beautiful, unattainable woman. The people who are attracted to Joey are always young and innocent or absurdly mature and noble even in their adulthood. Joey, the noble horse, is a magnet for all things good and true. It’s enough to make you want to barf.
If you can handle this sort of anthropomorphism, then you’ll probably make your way through War Horse with the ability to appreciate some of its finer points; if, like me, you think that humans have done far too much projecting on to their animals, you may find that War Horse is a ridiculous farce of a movie.
But for now let’s set aside the film’s silly attitude towards animals, its faux nobility, and its false moral dichotomy of agrarian v. industrial values; instead, let’s look at some of War Horse’s virtues, because they are unique to today’s cinema.
To begin with, War Horse is unapologetically lush and epic, but not in that huge CGI spectacle way that’s become so prevalent; there are no grand overhead shots of a battlefield with two gargantuan computer generated armies coming at each other. This is the epic of Old Hollywood, saccharine and cloying, but never predicated on the need to satisfy the audience’s bloodlust. Though the musical score is pedestrian John Williams, it always gives us the sense that we are watching something with grandeur and scale. The landscapes, though not nearly as abstractly foreboding, have the bigness of anything seen in a John Ford movie. On a big screen, War Horse really is a grand experience. Though the artifice is plain to see, the film sweeps you to another time and place easily. We are genuinely caught up in the magic of watching a Hollywood movie. Generally speaking, today’s movies lack the imagination (see Avatar and almost every comic book franchise) to truly transport us. So while I was not moved by Spielberg’s attempts to squeeze every drop of water from my eyes, I was appreciative of the overall experience of seeing a classically directed movie helmed by a master.
The structure of War Horse, which is based on a 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpugo, relies on compartmentalization. Joey begins on an English farm, is taken to war by the English army, captured in France by Germans, fumbles his way to a Belgian farm, and then is taken again by the English again. Joey, a beast of burden, is a creature of fate. The compartmental structure creates a striking unevenness throughout the film, with some sections nearing masterpiece levels and others indulging in the most asinine clichés. Long though the film is, it’s worth seeing for two sections.
The first great section comes when Joey, having been sent to serve in the Great War without his young master, finds himself on a Belgian farm populated by an old man and his sickly granddaughter. In this sequence, the girl begs her grandfather to keep Joey despite the fact that she is too feeble to ride the horse. This section of the film is moving not for any human emotions transferred to the Joey the Horse, but because the young girl is lonely and isolated when the horse comes into her life. Dumb as the animal may be, he’s the one thing that she has to look forward to when she wakes up each morning. The horse belongs to her, and she can cherish it for its beauty and physical power (the latter attribute one that she lacks in herself). Joey will move on from the farm, floating as he always does from one situation to another, but his presence with the girl is sweet and meaningful in the midst of all the other hokum in War Horse.
Near the end of the film, Joey escapes from the army in the middle of the night and barrels across the countryside until he finds himself in a no man’s land. Joey, oblivious to the dangers and untrained in jumping, crashes through row after row of barbed wire fences until he is a tangled bloody mess. Soldiers on the English side notice the suffering animal first (of course the English would see him first) and one of the soldiers, waving a white flag goes out into no man’s land to help the poor beast. Soon a German accompanies him with a pair of sheers to cut the barbed wire with. Spielberg’s ode to All Quiet on the Western Front comes complete with over-explicit dialogue bemoaning the fact that humans, you know, fight each other, but the swirling gray fog and barbed wire bring evoke a purgatory so real that the scene is immediately burned into the mind as one of the most memorable in recent years.
War Horse’s central conceit, that agrarian life and values are inherently superior to industrial life, is dumb beyond belief (given that it’s being presented in a medium that is all technology and machinery), but War Horse is worth seeing just for the sight of a classically designed movie in 2012.