War Horse (2011)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

There’s something oddly enigmatic about Spielberg’s War Horse as a project—enigmatic because it seems so obvious. It’s a grandiose, epic weepie from Steven Spielberg, what needs explaining about that? Therein lies some of the confusion: hasn’t Spielberg spent much of the last decade or so running away from that big glutinous showman with a lethal grasp on storytelling and broadly appealing sentiment he used to be? Spielberg’s most striking recent films, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds and Munich (both 2005), have often displayed schizoid impulses, torn between cosy affirmation and near-nihilistic patches, usually purposefully fighting to a draw in conclusions that play like slow exhalations. The badly underrated, if spotty, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was both a paean to, and example of, the problems of trying to recapture lost youth, whilst War Horse is Spielberg’s most fervent attempt to recreate an Old Hollywood aesthetic since the uneven and now near-forgotten Always (1989). The first 15 minutes of War Horse aren’t that promising either, unfolding a vision of rural Devon life in the early 20th century that seems like a broad fusion of the stylised mystique of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950) with the twee picturesqueness of Babe (1995), complete with a nuisance goose terrorising visitors. You can practically hear the creaking of old machinery, as some antique canards and too-cute clichés are put into play, and stiff dialogue lays out the dramatic stakes.

War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo’s novel for younger readers, and the subsequent much-loved stage adaptation, is the sort of material a lot of filmmakers might feel obligated to tone down and render in muted tones to offset its essential improbability and abundant corn. It’s a tall tale in the old sense. Telling tall tales is something of a lost art: in Shakespeare’s time, pulling one off was considered a worthy challenge for any serious dramatist, and Shakespeare took it on a few times with the likes of Cymbeline, a play full of the same breathtaking conceits, roving characters, unlikely convergences, and gushing emotion as War Horse. War Horse is constructed less of realities of the past than the past’s idea of itself, leftover scraps of Victorian kitsch, Dickensian humanistic drama, loose pages out of old and mouldy rural romances and Boy’s Own magazines, and the silent cinema of D. W. Griffith, all hurled into the great, gruesome shredder of ideals that was the Great War. Spielberg, for his part, jumps in to the fray boots and all, and it’s this complete lack of embarrassment or anxious moderation on his part that makes War Horse both an inevitably divisive experience between those who will roll with the tale or resist it entirely. For me, the experience was a refreshing one: it’s the unabashed quality of War Horse, with its landscape of sneering squires, fair French farm girls, lovable grandfathers, hard-scrabble mothers, jolly momentary fellowships between soldiers of different sides, and a reunion between a blinded hero and a hobbled horse, blended with a peculiar faith in the intrinsic seriousness of the emotional underpinnings of it all and a gruelling sense of physical danger and horror implicit in war, that elevates War Horse from potential polite insipidness to something rich and compelling.

Spielberg’s film commences with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic Boer War veteran who’s taken to eking out a living on a rock farm he’s leasing from patronising landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). He purchases Joey, a young steed he helped raise, at an auction purely for the sake of winning a contest against Lyons and fuelled by a distinct note of class rage at the rich hoarding all the finer things in the world. The exorbitant 30-guinea price tag for this victory, however, endangers the Narracott’s capacity to make rent, much to the anger of Narracott’s wife Rose (Emily Watson): Narracott holds off Lyons with a promise he’ll make up the shortfall by ploughing a rocky unused field and plant turnips using Joey, in spite of the fact he’s still young, jumpy, and hardly a plough horse. But Ted’s son Albert, himself a new matured stripling, having trained Joey and formed an intimate bond with him, undertakes to put Joey under the yoke and get the field ploughed.

The very opening of War Horse strains to offer up as classically English a landscape as can be imagined, with roving landscape shots of muted sunsets over pastoral perfection and a John Williams score that clearly takes cues from that specific sonic poet of the British landscape, Ralph Vaughan Williams. There’s a moment about 15 minutes into War Horse where suddenly Spielberg’s sense of technique snaps into focus and with it, the film’s emotional urgency: Ted, infuriated by Lyons’ goading assurance and his own foolishness, goes to shoot Joey, and Rose and Albert give chase to dissuade him. Spielberg sets up a frame behind Ted where he aims the gun at the animal, and swings the camera with the rifle; Rose tries to grab Ted’s arm and draws it left, Ted shakes her off and swings right again, now with Albert standing firmly between the weapon and the animal. It’s the sort of simple yet almost physically affecting shot that Spielberg is a past master of, dramatizing Ted’s frantic dissolution, Rose’s place as counterbalance, and Albert’s resolution and blithely self-sacrificing concern.

Later, Spielberg attaches his camera to the plough as Albert finally gets Joey to draw the implement, a moment filled with an oddly titanic and apt import. Joey’s acceptance of labour is necessary to save the Narracotts’ lives, and the film’s stressing of the interrelationship between man and beast takes on practically ontological proportions. The film’s first “movement” on the Narracott’s farm betrays a long and sturdy prehistory in cinema, evoking to my mind most specifically the testing of the anthrax inoculation in William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) as people flock from far and wide to watch Albert defy logic and nature and the Narracotts try to ignore Lyons’ stream of patronisation, and the early scenes of Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), a powerful model for the film as a whole, in which the eponymous hero similarly laboured to nearly his failing breath to triumph against financial ruin by ploughing his fields, only to be cruelly undercut, as the Narracotts are. I’ve pointed out in my review of Amistad (1997) the specific imprint of Spielberg’s love of some of Old Hollywood’s esteemed masters, but in the case of War Horse, that esteem at last becomes akin to a dramatic companion piece for the free-ranging compendium of pulp tropes found in the Indiana Jones films.

War Horse’s narrative and stylistic lexicon incorporates shades of King Vidor and The Big Parade (1926), George Cukor, Mervyn Le Roy’s Random Harvest (1942), David Selznick, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, John Huston, Hawks, John Ford, and Dieterle—all those guys who used to create a kind of cinema that seemed at once dynamically mythic and highly stylised within the nominally realistic templates of mainstream cinema. Morpugo’s tale suggests an updated, more urgent transplanting of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, where the titular animal finished up in the Crimean War, into a war even more inimical to the natural and the individual. For Spielberg, it’s a film that stands at an interesting and ironic remove from both his adult films about such matters, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and also from his iconic early films based in pure emotional longing, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It stands instead with Empire of the Sun (1987) in a place where the boundaries are blurred, narrativewise, almost a portmanteau movie, with Joey’s progress through the landscape of fin de siècle/belle époque Europe and World War I bringing him into contact with characters from different nations who suggest unexpected similarities, as well as contrasts, between nominal enemies and the plain people caught between the nascent clash of civilisations.

After the rain destroys the turnip crop the Narracotts and their horse laboured so hard to plant, the announcement of war gives Ted a lucky escape clause, as he sells Joey to a young cavalry officer, Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose sensitive and artistic nature partly mollifies Albert’s fractured heart at being forced to give up his friend. Nicholls, riding Joey, can best his superior officer Maj. Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his mount, the great black charger Topthorn, during regimental drills that double as playful tests of mettle. But Nicholls is killed when Stewart leads a charge into a German encampment, which seems for a moment to be a coup of daring but proves instead a dreadful massacre. Joey and Topthorn are captured, and two pathetically young German soldiers, Michael (David Kross) and Gunther (Matt Milne), take the horses in an attempt to desert. They’re found and shot, leaving the horses to be discovered by frail, but determined French farm girl Emilie (Celine Buckens). She lives with her pacific, jam-making grandfather (Niels Arestrup), but the ever-hovering presence of larcenous, potentially dangerous soldiers around the farm soon sees Emilie robbed of her beloved animals. Finally, the horses come under the charge of a decent German horse lover, who is nonetheless saddled with the odious responsibility of feeding horses into the merciless and cumulatively fatal task of hauling ordnance around.

War Horse feels like a conscientious attempt by Spielberg both to return to his roots and hang being so sophisticated, apparent not only in its unapologetic yarn-spinning, but also in the physical production that largely eschews the now-common adornments of CGI, for which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in particular, was rejected by many fans. War Horse, with increasing confidence, flaunts its firm and retrograde stolidity. Spielberg’s sense of storytelling rhythm is crucial throughout to pulling off this sort of yarn, and whilst aspects of War Horse’s drama work in some hoary and obvious ways, it also contains a series of dramatic ellipses that tie together a sprawling tale. For instance, after the drama of the ploughing scenes, Albert and Joey are let off the leash as Albert rides his animal across the verdant hills, racing the motorcar of Lyons’ son David (Robert Emms) in a momentary spurt of glory that ends ignominiously when Joey won’t take a jump over a stone fence, spilling Albert and undercutting the sense of release. It’s a seemingly throwaway bit of slapstick humour that actually sets up a recurring story element—Joey’s need to overcome his aversion to jumping—and also stymieing the film’s sense of flyaway visual movement, not to be released again properly until Joey’s mad dash across no man’s land.

Basing a film around an animal protagonist is always a tall order, far easier on the page, a la Jack London’s Call of the Wild, than in movies, without overly literal or fantastic conceits, or making the animal in question a nonentity or an outright symbol. Joey clearly has a symbolic aspect to him, as throughout the film he adapts to become a maxim for everyone who encounters him. He’s a creature of selfless and noble labour for the farmers. He’s a thing of superlative beauty for Nicholls. He’s a vehicle of physical empowerment for Emilie. He’s a beset and tortured exemplar of a natural order at the mercy of a new age of technological monstrosities, and finally, in his epic flight across no man’s land that is the film’s singular set-piece, he embodies everything panicky, terrified, blind, outmatched, determined, and heart-rending in the spectacle of natural innocence entrapped by Conradian horror. He clearly resembles at such a moment the equally iconic horse in Picasso’s “Guernica.” Spielberg resists many of the usual tricks for anthropomorphising animals in movies, but Joey displays a constant human quality in far greater and consistent measure than many of the humans he encounters, a ready empathy for those he meets. He and Topthorn become, fittingly, the equine equivalent of one of those doomed buddy pairings in adventure dramas where one will finally collapse and beg the other to go on without him.

War Horse sustains, with surprising seriousness, the essential concept of Joey as an exemplar of something doomed to be tortured within an inch of extermination again and again by the cruelties of humans to each other, expressed first in economic terms in the struggle between Lyons and Ted, and then throughout the war, where the huge artillery pieces he and Topthorn haul invoke the similar horned juggernauts of extermination in Duel (1973), Saving Private Ryan, and War of the Worlds, whilst his encounter with a tank also invokes these (and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) as he’s nearly caught in a cul-de-sac and to save his life has to take an opportunity to jump onto the tank’s back and escape. Perhaps the film’s most powerful sequence comes when the two horses are joined to the hordes of animals arduously dragging the colossal war machines up a hill, the peak of which, when reached, in one of Spielberg’s most familiar, yet eternally effective visual motifs, reveals an epic vista being pulverised into nothingness. Joey is constantly in danger in the meantime of being shot simply to get him out of the way either before he can be a nuisance or after he’s served his purpose. It’s not the first time Spielberg’s essayed this sort of “shadow of the gun” motif—it powers, after all, both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan, and to a certain extent Munich too, if with a reversed focus. Whilst it’s not the most intricate variation, it’s the most unremitting in refusing to balance with any real heroism, befitting a war where the objectives are near intangible and the cost too hideous to bear. Suddenly, the felicity of building a war epic out of a horse’s experience takes on a new singularity in having so clearly detailed the end of the era in which horses are the prized, almost worshipped companions and props for heroes and the backbone of a rural, agricultural society, now only fodder from dragging around cannons, organisms in slavery to machines.

Around Joey swirl vignettes of great and terrible import: the massacre of the cavalry unit is carefully shot and edited so that the cost of the foolish charge isn’t revealed until Spielberg manages a crane shot of a field studded with corpses. The two innocent German brothers who joined up because their father marched them to the enlistment station even though they were far too young, are equally meek and accepting of the blind, cold judgment of an authoritarian, patriarchal society—they let themselves be taken, lined up, and shot, viewed from a distance through a windmill’s sails that pass like a fleeting, thankful veil over the grim moment between life and peaceful death. The film’s one standard warfare sequence comes when Albert and his pal Andrew (Matt Milne), both serving under David Lyons, are part of a bloodcurdling charge across no man’s land in a sequence that clearly channels the similar head-long hells of The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Andrew is left behind with orders to shoot any men who come back, but he can’t do that, so he instead runs after his friends, who make it into the deserted, carnage-clogged German trenches, only for both lads to be engulfed in a gas attack: Andrew dies and Albert comes out temporarily blinded. The irony of a film that expresses a deep humanism by concentrating on an animal culminates in a scene that plays as both a variation on All Quiet’s famous shell hole scene and also as a meta-commentary on that narrative conceit: Joey’s flight finishes up with him entwined in barbed wire like some metallic ivy, his agonised state creating a momentary bridge for the opposing camps of soldiers to express their care and distress over physical suffering and innocence, an expression that can only be given to an animal.

There’s something strangely apt about Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo being released in near-tandem and both largely getting passed over and patronised during the recent Academy Awards. Both films are near-great, deliberately backward-looking works that reveal how the two directors often mirror each other’s lacks and talents. Where Scorsese’s cinematic lexicon of a film finally remains something of a glorious pile of parts for a mechanism that doesn’t entirely snap into full working order on a plot and emotional level, by inflating an essentially modest tale to gargantuan scale, Spielberg grasps the emotive heart of his epic story and rides it for all it’s worth, at the expense of subtlety and thinking of new twists on his deliberately hoary tale. He doesn’t entirely escape the diffuseness that often marks portmanteau films, and the film’s curious blend of the artificial and romantic and the bitterly realistic doesn’t entirely conceal it. Empire of the Sun (1987) pulled that mixture off, finally, with more indelible results, partly because of a more controlled viewpoint: that was the horrors of war, as seen and transformed by a boy’s perspective. War Horse, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from some of the cruellest aspects of its drama, like the shooting of the young Germans and the massacres of the war, but it does get frustratingly coy when the subplot of the Grandfather’s determination to buy Joey as a memorial to the now deceased Emilie after war’s end: what happened to Emilie is something the film should state but doesn’t. Given that it’s hard to get away from the sensation  that Emilie was doomed to be raped and murdered at some point, it’s not surprising that would be elided, but it does point to a basic lack of a Lillian Gish-sized central tragic figure and scene to tether the film together, as the innocent nature boy Albert is offscreen too much.

Still, the climactic moment of sustained suspense as an overburdened army doctor (Liam Cunningham) prepares to have Joey shot after he’s saved from the wire, sets up with gleeful lack of shame the most cornball of gimmicks, where Joey will respond to Albert’s Indian bird call and no one else, is marked by a depth of staging that imbues the scene with an aura of the near-otherworldly. Muddy, bewildered soldiers look on with fascination at the animal that provokes near-depleted emotions in them as Albert, gas-seared eyes wrapped in bandages and evoking Tom Courtenay in King & Country (1964), pleads for his animal’s life, hovering between the firelight of camp and the bleak blues and greys of a stormy war-torn night, that’s not entirely unworthy of Frank Borzage or William Dieterle at their best. In its way, it seems like a picture postcard ripped out of a race memory. It’s interesting to note that coscreenwriter Richard Curtis had a hand in penning Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), a blend of absurdist comedy tropes with one of the most acutely internalised depictions of the Great War ever, as a war not just between sides but between individuals and societies, propaganda and private cynicism, harsh reality and romanticisation. At first glance, that scabrous TV show and War Horse’s earnestness have little in common, but it comes out in how both capture the way the epoch’s blend of bludgeoning sentimentalities and underlying reality as an atrocious, aggrieving bloodbath finally fight each other to a draw: one is necessary to comprehend and survive the other. Albert and Joey’s final homecoming is played out not in a golden halo, but in a blood-red twilight, evoking John Wayne’s graveside scenes of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), lending the upbeat conclusion an overtone of dark reckonings only temporarily staved off.

  • Jon spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 1:47 pm

    “Where Scorsese’s cinematic lexicon of a film finally remains something of a glorious pile of parts for a mechanism that doesn’t entirely snap into full working order on a plot and emotional level by inflating an essentially modest tale to gargantuan scale, Spielberg grasps the emotive heart of his epic story and rides it for all it’s worth at the expense of subtlety and thinking of new twists on his mostly purposefully hoary tale. ”
    Agree with mostly everything you’ve said in this essay. I went to the mat for this film over at WitD along with Sam J. I too saw similarities with things like Sergeant York and Random Harvest etc. I did find that the film seemed a bit more of a “family type” film, kind of like Hugo. True it’s not for little kids, but for thoughtful kids over age 10, I don’t see anything wrong here. Great essay sir!

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 4:33 pm

    Oh, I love this film so much. I walked out of the theater convinced it was going to sweep the Oscars, and was dumbfounded when it won nothing. I’m assuming the film got such a mixed reception with critics because people simply wouldn’t shut up about The Artist and that’s all that they felt like honoring. And that’s not a bad thing, really — The Artist is a fine film. But War Horse was an EVENT. I had forgotten what that felt like.

    I think the reactions of my family members pretty much summed up what most audiences thought about the film, though: they liked it, but didn’t entirely love it because they had a difficult time suspending their disbelief in some cases. Like, it was hard for them to buy that Joey could possibly be reunited with Albert at the end. Okay, but that’s the kind of old-fashioned pleasure we go to the movies for, right? The whole film, really, is an old-fashioned kind of masterpiece, unpretentious and non-subversive — except for its key theme about the human goodness that can be located on all sides in a world war. Maybe this will teach Spielberg’s detractors to think twice about calling him “anti-German” from now on, even though his sympathy for all those murdered German POVs in Saving Private Ryan and, more prominently, his warm portrait of a Nazi party member in Schindler’s List should have silenced those detractors a long time ago.

    Spielberg still has that damned funny sense of humor of his, too, particularly in the scenes where Joey won’t jump over the fence in Devon and the fence at Emilie’s farm. They’re important scenes not just because they’re funny, but because they set up that scene at the end where Joey’s cornered by the tank. By that point, he has to face his fears and, well… jump over something for once in his life.

    I read Morpurgo’s kids’ book before I saw the movie, so I liked how Spielberg carefully understated some of the moments in the original story. In the book, Albert finds Joey again when David (the landlord’s son) reminds him that he’s got a white cross on his forehead. In the movie, we get that wonderfully quiet scene in the snow, which, I admit without shame, took my breath away because I wasn’t expecting it at all; the moment I heard Albert’s whistle,saw Joey’s response and the soldiers parting like the waves of the Red Sea, I thought, “Oh, man… this movie just got like 100 times more awesome.”

    Also in the book, Emilie is revealed to have died because she “lost the will to live” and “faded away,” presumably because of her disease and because not having Joey and Topthorn made her loneliness worse. I personally love that those details are cut out of the film. The way Neils Arestrup simply declares, “The war has taken everything from everybody, and this horse is all that I have left of her”… the fact that we don’t know specifically how Emilie passed away makes her death all the more tragic, I believe.

  • Enid spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 6:20 pm

    Stopping by to say that Roderick and Marilyn have been outdoing themselves lately. The post on “Sunrise” is some of the finest criticism I’ve read in, well, maybe ever. I never fail to learn something when I read this blog.

    And now I’m sorry that I missed “War Horse” on the big screen. I’m in the States so it is probably too late for me, but I’ll keep my eye on the local revival houses.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 9:21 pm

    Yes, my love of the film rivals my esteemed colleagues on this thread, and of course Rod, who again has penned a towering review on a film I can only see going up in estimation in future years. Much the same can be applied to EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which is my personal favorite Spielberg film of all-time. But this film, SCHINDLER, E.T. and A.I. push close. The lush countryside settings recall the poetical works of William Wordsworth and the novels of Thomas Hardy, but the harrowing war scenes appear overseen by the spectre of Erich Maria Remarque. Steven Spielberg, seemingly mindful of the epic grandeur of David Lean’s epics, -with Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON a possible visual inspiration for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski- has expanded the scope of Michael Morpego’s novel and the acclaimed Tony award-winning Broadway stage play imported from London with a ‘bigger is better’ philosophy that miraculously retains the emotional intimacy that made the work’s previous incaranations so unbearably poignant. WAR HORSE is a singular triumph even for a director who’s crossed the finish line ahead of his competitors more times than most. The cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg on some of the director’s most celebrated achievements, has contributed work here that ranks among his finest. Recalling some of the most renowned British landscape painters like John Constable and J. M.W. Turner (the former’s magnificent Dedham Vale appears to be a prime inspiration) the cameraman in his early pastoral farm sequences evokes a silent dialogue between light and dark and the relationship between sky and land, allowing for sequences of breathtaking beauty that foreshadow and serve as a stark contrast for the surrealistic intensity of the trench warfare, where light saturation and glare properly convey the madness of battle. In the trench scenes, where Spielberg poses to hint at the horrors of battle that he explored full flavour in Private Ryan, Kaminski’s stark realism documented in a confluence of mustard gas, granade explosions and endless rows of charred bodies, effectively paints an unforgettable canvas of carnage that fully corroborates the historical accounts of this terrible conflict.

    Not to be left out of the pastoral impressionistic fabric of War Horse, veteran composer John Williams, who has written some of the greatest scores in history for Spielberg, has produced one of his greatest soundtracks ever, a sure sign that the material brought out his most profound lyrical capabilities. The countryside of Dartmoor was given aural accompaniment of quiet majesty in a quartet of musical themes that are piercingly elegiac, a stand alone listening that harkens to the sounds of Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Descending”, Gerald Fizi’s “Eclogue” and some passages from Gustav Holst and spirited strains of none other than Elgar. Williams’ music in the reunion and homecoming scenes is extraordinary and triumphant, and invaluable in helping Spielberg to fully achieve an emotional catharsis. behind a gruff if sensible veneer. But it’s the horses who take center stage in a story where this majectic creature moves through time and place with an almost mythical power, one that’s it’s famed director has generated with a film that will move many with it’s resilience and power of the human spirit. I agree with many of your superb references, especially the no-man’s land nods to THE BIG PARADE and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. I also like the YELLOW RIBBON suggestion at the close, though there is some GONE WITH THE WIND there as well.

    Magnificent review of a very great film.

    P.S. As to what my good friend Adam Zanzie is saying about THE ARTIST, I’ll only say it deserved every bid of the worldwide praise it received in unprecedented year-end awards from virtually every quarter, but I pretty much love WAR HORSE just as much and lament it’s failure to ignite the highest level of regard, even with the generally very good notices that outweighed the unflattering ones. I agree that WAR HORSE was an event, much as Malick’s TREE OF LIFE was.

  • Kristen spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 11:36 pm

    I watched this film as part of my Road to Oscars on my blog and I kept asking “would I have liked this movie as much as I did if it had been about a man.” War Horse has to be Spielberg at his most manipulative as many people hate to see animals in danger…and that’s pretty much the whole damn movie. I liked the film and I sobbed my eyes out…but I was angry because if this had been called “War Man” (a title that would have kicked ass in my opinion) I’d doubt I’d have felt such a connection. Great movie…but damn Spielberg!

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    12th/04/2012 to 4:05 am

    I think that’s the whole point though, Kristen. The movie’s protagonist is a horse because the horse casualties of the First World War have never been dealt seriously in a major Hollywood movie until now. Tens of millions of horses (maybe even more!) died in combat, and — here’s the important thing — they had no choice. That’s one of the key themes of this movie, too: being forced to fight and forced to die.

    It’s the same reason why Spielberg bookends the film with sequences at auctions. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how brave Joey has been, or whose lives he’s touched. What it all comes down to is that he is, at the end of the day, an animal, and humans have always seen themselves as superior to animals — albeit reasonably in most cases, but sometimes in the extreme, too. Consider how even after Joey has achieved fame worldwide as the Horse That Survived Barbed Wire, he still has to face the possible fate of being fodder for a butcher’s meat grinder. And I think Spielberg, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall are finally saying: is that an acceptable way to give thanks to animals, even the ones who pull us through wars, save our lives, etc.?

    Another reason why Joey is an animal, and not a human being, is because only an animal could possess that oh-so-rare power to bring out the best of both sides in a world war. Spielberg wants to emphasize the fact that the First World War (one of the most pointless wars ever fought in the history of history) simply wasn’t all about good guys and bad guys. True, you could do a similar film with a human the center, but then again Spielberg already did that with Empire of the Sun — except that movie was more about how a child humanizes the people around him while also suffering from his own delusions of warfare as a kind of exciting thing.

    In fact, I’d argue War Horse is an even MORE challenging approach to this subject because Spielberg never allows us to know what Joey specifically thinks of his surroundings, minus some telling reactions to certain people and behaviors. That the movie has no “horse narration” whatsoever, but still manages to get us to identify with Joey, is a masterstroke. And the final shot encourages us to ponder over what Joey makes of his own survival. Does he know that Albert has brought him home? Does he even care? It’s a very unique spin on what looks on the page to be just another survivor story. Instead, it’s something so much more refreshing and enlightening.

  • Roderick spoke:
    12th/04/2012 to 12:58 pm

    Hi guys. Sorry for delays in answering your comments, it’s been a distracting day for me, and you guys have made some major comments here that require a lot of stocktaking.

    Jon: It’s certainly rather more of a family type, older kids movie (and me – having watched The Temple of Doom when I was five or six, probably having gotten hold of it at some young and impressionable, highly unsuitable age). I’m always a bit antsy about the concept of children’s films and family audiences – I had nothing but contempt for them when I was kid! That said, I think I’d’ve lapped both this and Hugo up when I but knee-high. But they’re deeply satisfying for the adult me too – they avoid the tweeness and toniness that often afflicts films that try too hard to be for young viewers. Young viewers really do love it when they get just a little of the truths of the adult world in their tales, or at least so I always felt.

    Adam: thanks, now you’ve made me look like a right pervert regarding Emilie’s end ;-) Seriously, I’d have liked a big teary death scene. I don’t know why, I just felt the film needed something like that. If you’re going to tease me with Little Nell, then give me Little Nell, damn it! Otherwise we are of course in near-perfect agreement. War Horse really reminded me, and perhaps in a way even finally revealed to me, just how vital Spielberg’s sense of technique is. Even on a project that could have easily been treated as a pabulum piece of weepie sentiment, he takes it seriously as a cinematic entity for a big audience but also with a sense of personal drive in a fashion that’s becoming increasingly, alarmingly rare. The scene where Albert gets tossed off the horse really knocked me sideways, partly because the way the scene built up with the sense of gathering momentum and William’s music breaking into exciting strains, and it seemed after all that arduousness of the ploughing scenes it was time to cut lose, and it is – but only for a moment, and Albert crashes to earth where he must stay. The movie I had in my mind before actually seeing this was, in retrospect, something like what it would have been if some middling Brit or American director of the likes of Julian Jarrold or Mike Newell or Joe Johnston had made it. Spielberg, after overcoming the initial awkwardness, unveils as a richness and a machine-honed skill for staging that makes you want to cry, “Only for you, Steven!” in giving in to the unabashed cornball. What’s really fascinating for me is how many reactions to the film seem completely unable to stand back and take a stocktake of the storytelling traditions that Spielberg is consciously weaving together and adapting; he refuses to put post-modern quotation marks around such things however, so of course he doesn’t excite the pseudo-intellectuals. But this is in many ways Spielberg’s humanist, sentimentalist revision of Inglourious Basterds. And speaking of Niels Arestup – man, after his performance in A Prophet, I was utterly gobsmacked to see him playing such a bighearted part.

    Sam, that’s a great and apt survey of the artistic and sonic textures scattered throughout the film. Yes, many have seen Gone With The Wind in that big saturated red backdrop, but it was the Ford sensibility that leapt out to me. Oddly, a lot of critics said The Quiet Man was the Ford influence here, but frankly I didn’t see a speckle of it. In any event it’s a film that really does seem aware of a vast panoply of cultural forms for depicting settled and serene worlds and their opposite. All in all, I think War Horse helps point to just what a rich year last year, in spite of all the moaning and bitching and fear-mongering about the state of Hollywood and cinema in general, was for good old-fashioned mainstream movies.

    Enid: on behalf of Marilyn and myself, thank you. Yes, there’s been some hard work put into our recent pieces and it’s good to know it’s appreciated.

    Kristen: well, I can’t divvy my world up into equine and homo sapiens empathies too neatly, and I think, yes, I would have liked it as much if it were a man – it helps that I always like this kind of picaresque narratives – but I feel your point. And Adam, I think you don’t quite grasp how almost involuntary and non-intellectual some responses like this can be. I recall when I showed Atonement to a friend, who, during the Dunkirk beach scene where the soldiers are shooting the horses, let out a moan of absolute shock and distress. It wasn’t the sort of thing that distressed me beyond a certain point, and I don’t think I’d even remembered it from earlier viewings, but for her it was truly awful, and I still feel kind of guilty about not being able to warn her about it. Yes, animals have an essential aura of innocence that’s hard to watch suffer and which this film does specifically engage with – indeed, that’s why recently I’ve found myself slightly bugged by monster movies, where strange dumb brutes have to be killed because they’re too instinctual to know better than to eat people in downtown Manhattan. Odd analogy, yes, but one I feel.

  • Robert spoke:
    16th/04/2012 to 10:04 am

    I haven’t seen War Horse yet. But, Rod, I can almost *feel* you refusing to compare the film (and Joey’s clear symbolism, vis a vis his various owners) with “Au Hasard Balthazar”. They seem on paper to be right chums, these two films. Thoughts?

    I can imagine an engaging double feature at the New Beverly here in L.A.

  • Roderick spoke:
    16th/04/2012 to 10:59 am

    Hi, Rob. This is where I have to ‘fess up to not having seen Au Hasard, Balthazar. Yet. Many critics have noted the similarity, though, and in spite of the undoubtedly polar differences between Spielberg’s and Bresson’s styles and the diverging styles of drama the two films surely embody whilst coninciding so closely in terms of motifs. Yes, it might make a fertile double bill, if a cumulatively gruelling one!

  • Robert spoke:
    16th/04/2012 to 5:31 pm

    Indeed!

    The styles are so profoundly different that it might ultimately seem as arbitrary a pairing as War Horse and My Little Pony: The Movie.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    17th/04/2012 to 10:05 pm

    I was struck by the similarity in a number of respects to “Sleeping Beauty”.

    I would not regard Indiana Jones and The kingdom of The Crytal Skull as under-rated. For me, it is one of Spielberg’s worst films; a formulaic, out-of-time, reworking of previous tropes and glories. It lacked any spark of originality or freshness.

  • Lou A Roth spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 12:11 am

    Somehow we got a version from Netflix that has narration for the blind and visually impaired. No option for this was on the Set up menu. Drove me crazy after five minutes. My husband is convinced the narration is a standard part of the movie. So, I had to leave the room.

  • Roderick spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 12:31 am

    Well I can assure you Lou the voiceover is not a standard part of that movie!

  • Jeremy spoke:
    29th/06/2012 to 11:21 pm

    Did I say “Sleeping Beauty”; I meant “Black Beauty” which is similar to “War Horse” in both theme and structure. In some ways I found “Black Beauty” superior, not so much due to the quality of the filmmaking, but becuase it was born out of a reforming passion for the plight of Victorian work horses. “War Horse” in comparison has a somewhat cliched ‘war is bad’, ‘horses are nice’ thing going on.

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