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 an epic, old-fashioned 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.