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!


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.

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