For the better part of 40 years, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most overwhelming sensory experiences moviegoers have ever known. Virtually serving as a surrogate career capstone, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 mimicked the unique quality of Spielberg’s best-loved films, that of childlike wonder and visceral emotions, pitched on a grand scale. Spielberg’s approach has proven too much for some moviegoers, but not for others; thanks to box-office receipts that are as gargantuan as his films often feel, “that Spielberg feeling” has made him one of the only billionaire directors in history.
In comparison, while its dressing (John Williams score, close-ups fraught with choked emotion, an epic sweep) unmistakably identifies it as a Spielberg film, War Horse might also seem a little remedial, especially since so much of his career up to this point has been spent hitting high-water marks again and again, in terms of size, scale, loudness, drama, verisimilitude, or violence. Instead of immersing the audience in an audio-visual deluge of history, science-fiction, or action cinema, the Schindler’s List director has, quite unexpectedly, turned to a less compact, more episodic narrative structure, one that is at times downright contemplative, the veteran of countless box-office milestones trying the soft sell for a change.
Some commentators have jokingly called War Horse Spielberg’s Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece about a mistreated donkey who changes hands over the course of his life in Northern France. But even if you don’t balk at the idea of the names Spielberg and Bresson being spoken in the same breath (I’ve always thought very highly of Spielberg, but I’m not there yet), War Horse is, structurally, a closer cousin to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73. Mann’s 1950 western, which was co-written by Borden Chase (Red River), uses a Winchester rifle instead of a pack animal, but its anecdotal script, stopping to spend time with each of the gun’s owners while the object the movie pivots on fades into the scenery, shares with War Horse leisurely transitions and an anthologistic illustration of personalities and places at each vignette-sized point on its timeline. Bresson, as many writers have noted, looked for spiritual grace in the most misbegotten places and creatures, but, for all its pleasant side trips, War Horse begins as an archetypal Spielberg film, and ends like one, too: the affirmation of a preordained connection between two kindred souls, and the cathartic relief produced by a last-moment rescue.
Like the Tony-winning Broadway adaptation of the same name, which also debuted in 2011, War Horse was adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel. Lest the fact that the work of adapting Morpurgo’s book for Spielberg’s film was done by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) strike terror into the hearts of undecided moviegoers, the script is surprisingly literary, if undistinguished, so there’s less of the malarkey those two scribes built their careers on, and more of something like Spielberg’s approximation of what The Quiet Man must seem like to a child, but with elaborate, complete sentences that put it closer to Spielberg’s stranger and more ambitious films, like Munich and Amistad.
What ultimately hobbles War Horse is a two-pronged attack, with Spielberg’s soft-sell producing an unfortunately dramatic flatness in almost every scene, while an 11th-hour scramble for picture-book catharsis doesn’t seem to work either. Scattered throughout the film’s nearly two and a half hours are set pieces that are as striking as anything Spielberg’s ever done; the finest is a cavalry raid against a German encampment that’s antithetical in its quiet abstraction to the visceral sensory assault of the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan.
As strange as it may sound, War Horse presents Spielberg with a problem that simply can’t be solved—not by him, anyway. That problem is, how do you get the audience dramatically involved in a story that centers on a creature, or inanimate object, that (blessedly) doesn’t talk? With Bresson’s focus on the weight of objects, his dramatic indirectness producing some of the cinema’s most exquisite effects, and Mann’s casual mastery in depicting self-inflated personalities against treacherous landscapes, the answer is clear. Working from a far more traditional playbook, one he himself helped to write, Spielberg works hard to put personality into the horse, instead of drawing it out of him. The result is a film of unimpeachable craft, even occasional lyricism, that somehow turns an amazing horse into a boring one.