Monday, December 26, 2011

Spielberg's War Horse



Echoing the tradition of films like My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion, Steven Spielberg’s hugely sentimental War Horse is the story of an extraordinary horse, Joey, and the persevering boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who loves him so much he enlists in the hell of World War I to find him. At times the film is so innocently sentimental you’d swear you were watching a feel-good, cookie-cutter, studio release from the 1930s. In a touching speech that would have suited Ronald Colman or Errol Flynn, the kind-hearted Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) sees how much the boy loves the horse, and the horse loves the boy, that he says, well, too damn bad the horse has to go to war, but I will only lease him; I will take good care of him; and I will return him to you after the war. How perfect!

(Spoilers.)

After the good captain’s speech, and the film’s slow start, the pace picks up as Joey endures a series of adventures as he changes hands and is befriended by various characters “over there” on the Western Front. From good captain he goes to good German lads, who bid a farewell to arms and meet a tragic end, and from them he goes to a perfectly sweet, frail French girl named Emilie. Later, Joey is forced to lug a massive cannon up a ridge; after that he ends up in no man’s land, where his experiences are the most horrific and the film is at its best.

While most of War Horse plays like the type of movie that could only come from a more innocent time, or from Steven Spielberg, much drama is provided by a number of finely shot scenes that show Spielberg’s talent for dramatic effect. In sparing a more family-oriented audience the graphic impact of bullets hitting human flesh as in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg cleverly uses poetic framing to provide effect without being explicit. Riderless mounts charge through the German machine guns that are obviously massacring the charging British cavalry. The sail of a windmill blocks out the tragic fate of the two German lads.

In other instances, Spielberg’s direction is simply brilliant without being stagey: when the German artillery opens fire, we glimpse the stunning panorama of the trenches. When the British cavalry attacks, the charge emerges from a field of tall grass, the air full of floating pollen, and we watch as it turns into a thing of flowing beauty starkly antithetical to the ghastly aftermath of battle, which is equally devastating for horses and men. As well as it can without being objectionable for family audiences, the film shows the horrors of war for English and German lads. It stages one of the most tense preludes to "going over the top" at the Somme - and many have been staged! At the same time, we see the horrid effects of modern war on horses. (Over eight million horses died in World War I.)


In the film’s best scene, Spielberg tones down the sentimentality, often accompanied by a John Williams score that we've heard before, and lets two unknown actors, one playing a British soldier, the other playing a German soldier, play out a subtly dramatic encounter in which the two enemy soldiers work together to release Joey from a net of barbed wire. No swelling music, no otherworldly lighting, is needed. Spielberg allows us to respond to what is happening and what is being said without laying it on schmaltz.

Unfortunately, the film’s final long sequence, in which horse and boy are reunited, works out too predictably and is too nicely contrived. But by the time Spielberg pushes the visual sentimentality to an extreme degree, framing the lone rider against a Technicolor sunset sky, Spielberg has won us over enough with his best skills, and his excessive sentimentality has been counterbalanced by gripping drama and very genuine moments, most of them involving very minor characters – the German boys; the German artilleryman; the two soldiers who meet in no-man’s land. As for the name actors, Emily Watson stands out for the sincerity of her performance as Rose, Albert’s mother. Taken as a whole, War Horse is a very well-made, satisfying film, perhaps one of the best family films made in a long time.

14 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Christmas Day 2011 was a time for crying in a darkened theatre. The perpetrator of this uncontrollable fountain of tears is none other than Steven Spielberg, whose vast archives contains more than his share of such films. But in adapting this hugely appealing property from a well-reagarded children's novel and a Tony Award winning Broadway play, the master craftsman purposely aimed for sentiment, and delivered teh goods in a work of extraordinary visual beauty and some deeply affecting set pieces. Yes, Hokahey, I quite agree that the film's best scene is the one where the Brit and German free the horse, and you frame the reasons superbly. I was much less concerned with whether or not the film was "predictable" as it was never a matter of plot twists in such a film, but rather the manner and sensibility in which the emotions were negotiated. I thought John Williams triumphed with a score that captured the wistful beauty of the rural locations in particular with some of the best lyric work he's done in a quite a while. As always the nay-sayers will cry foul with charges of manipulation and spreading the syrup thick.

My response: "I'll take butterscotch, thanks."

THE WAR HORSE thunders in at the year's end to stand alongside the best films of 2011.

Anyway, my friend, splendid review as always. I hung in here for every word, and even if I don't take issue with some of your minor disclaimers, I'm very happy you are mainly on board.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Sam. Yes, I agree that Spielberg went for sentiment. Knowing that he can stretch sentimentality to the extreme, I feel he showed quite a lot of restraint here and came up with a very strong movie with a lot of very effective scenes. Don't agree about the Williams score.

Adam Zanzie said...

I kind of knew going into this movie that I was going to be thrilled by it, but I didn't imagine how much I'd fall under its spell. It definitely piles on the sentiment thick, but by the end I was crying like a baby and had all but completely abandoned my masculine pride. Damn it, Spielberg -- you win!

Jon said...

Hokahey this is a fine review of a film that I would like to see, but may wait for video. I am a big fan of Spielberg, but I must admit I was not initially grabbed by the conceipt. You have laid out nicely though what works here and what doesn't. Spielberg can be sentimental, but in his best films, it is not as noticeable.

Hokahey said...

Jon, thanks for the comment. You might want to check this out on the big screen. It certainly fills the screen with some very memorable images.

Adam, some scenes worked better than others for me, but I was definitely touched by this movie. At the same time Spielberg was overly sentimental, I was very pleased with his handling of the World War I scenes that were as intense as they could be for a film that will draw lots of girls and boys who love a boy-and-his-horse movie.

Craig said...

Hoo boy, where to begin dumping on this one? There's the lead actor doing an impression of Ethan Hawke in "Dead Poets Society." A comic-relief goose whose antics are set to John Williams' nudge-nudge score. The scene where all the townsfolk come to gape at Joey plowing the field. (Christ, haven't these people anything better to do?) David Thewlis wasting his time in a "villainous" role. (He wants to be paid his rent? What a monster!) A "love interest" that ends up on the cutting-room floor, yet inexplicably resurfaces later in the trench between Albert and Bad Guy, Jr. Said Albert and Bad Guy Jr.'s rather inappropriate and tone-deaf quarrel in said trench given the gravity of, you know, the war and all. Equally grating Richard Curtis-y banter in what could have been the best scene, between the British and German soldiers freeing Joey in the No-Man's-Land. The usual piling on of obstacles designed to keep Albert and Joey apart, including an unexpected rehash of the climax to A Little Princess.

Good things: the justifiably acclaimed assault through the wheat field. An empathetic leap to humanize the German soldiers (though of course requiring them to speak English along with everyone else, which at times gets a little confusing). A fairly daring attempt to leave the protagonist offscreen for nearly the entire middle portion of the movie (and which might have worked had Spielberg invested more imagination in depicting Joey's experiences through his own point of view.) A valiant effort to tone down the stereotypical Irish blarney. The sonorous voice of Benedict Cumberbatch (who, much to my relief, says, "Be brave!" only once, rather than three times as in the previews.)

Look, I get it: This is Spielberg's attempt to make a John Ford movie. I appreciate the effort, but this is somewhere near the lower middle of Spielberg's body of work. Sorry, don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings, but I had to vent. And now I will run for cover.

Hokahey said...

Craig, you don't need to run for cover, but I can see the "critics" are divided on this one. You know, I agree with a lot of your observations. The "you must pay the rent" thing is ridiculous. It's the landlord's land, so wouldn't he benefit by lending them a plow horse? And the plowing scene is also silly. As I say in my post, the film is slow to get to the war. Then it won me over, except for the Emelie episode that was a little too cute. I was not reduced to tears by this movie, but enough worked for me, keeping in mind that this is intended as family entertainment. Considering that, some of the film's improbabilies are in keeping with what is in some ways a fairy tale. I enjoyed this movie. I don't have a big personal investment in defending it, so please don't run and hide, Craig. I appreciate your point of view.

Craig said...

Okay, no running for cover. May wear one of those helmets for protection though, with the pointy thing on top....

Hokahey said...

Speaking of helmets, Craig, the film covers the War from 1914 to 1918, and I liked the detail of showing the German soldiers wearing the helmets with "the pointy thing on top" and then later wearing the helmets that would become the helmets the Germans wore in World War II.

Joe said...

Maybe it's just me but I thought all films are meant to be manipulative one way or another. The whole point of movies are to entertain by making you feel some kind of emotion, be it horror, joy, or sadness. To fault a film for intentionally try to make you feel something is rather stupid.

Hokahey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hokahey said...

Joe - But when I see a horror movie, for example, I like the subtle frights better than the in-your-face screeching violins. Same goes for a movie like this. Although Spielberg is comparatively restrained in a number of scenes, there are other times when he could have been equally restrained and could have trusted his intelligent viewers to respond as planned.

But, now that I think of it, I never used the word "manipulative" in my review. I think you haven't read my post very carefully.

Susan Nino said...

I have had numerous debates with friends about whether the character Emilie survives. I say she does. This is supported by the fact that her grandfather 1) is practically dancing a jig as he leaves, after giving the Joey back to Albert, and 2) the the grandfather responds in the PRESENT TENSE, "Emilie. Her name is Emilie," when asked by Albert, "What WAS your granddaughter's name?" Any more ideas???

Hokahey said...

Susan - Thanks for the comment. That's an interesting theory about Emilie. I never thought of that. But I guess she'll be disappointed if grandpa doesn't bring back the horse.