You know from War Horse‘s opening frames that you’ve been whisked away to Spielbergland. There are wide shots (remember those?) that are seemingly large enough to encompass multiple stratospheres. The colors, which occasionally appear to be a nod to Technicolor, give off a surreally beautiful painterly glow. The actors aren’t playing characters, but archetypes that date back to the beginning of the novel, much less cinema. And John Williams, who’s scored almost every Spielberg film to date, has been directed to pump up the film’s already grand emotions in his familiarly operatic fashion—though his work here is, comparatively, somewhat subtler than usual.
The opening shows us the birth of Joey, the titular horse whose journey unites the film’s various story strands, but the greater meaning to glean here is that we’re in the hands of a classical Hollywood director hell-bent on courting the legacies of even more classical Hollywood directors such as John Ford and occasionally Stanley Kubrick. Spielberg has no illusions or confusions about what he’s doing in War Horse: He’s confidently staging a fantasy that plays on the level of parable. In certain ways, War Horse would make a fascinating double feature with the director’s strange and daring A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
Taken from the children’s novel by Michael Morpugo, as well as the recent smash theatrical adaptation, War Horse follows Joey from his birth to his purchase at an auction by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a struggling Devon farmer who buys the horse to spite his landlord (David Thewlis), a businessman of Dickensian greediness. Ted was supposed to buy a plough horse for a few guineas, but instead he drunkenly shows up on his farm with an impractical thoroughbred that cost him his month’s rent. Ted’s wife, Rose (Emily Watson), is understandably beside herself with worry, while their lonely teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), strikes an immediate bond with the animal that inadvertently and temporarily saves the family from financial catastrophe. But Joey’s miraculous efforts (he learns, in one of the more implausible scenes, to plough the family’s rocky hills) aren’t enough, and so Ted soon sells the animal to the British armed forces as World War I breaks out. Albert, in the kind of farewell that Spielberg can probably pull out of a hat by now, tells Joey that, no matter what, they’ll be reunited again.
War Horse then shifts into an episodic narrative that continues to follow Joey as he encounters various British and German troops, and a few French civilians caught in the middle, throughout the entirety of the war. Albert and Joey’s separation and inevitable reunion serve as the film’s containing bookends, but Spielberg’s more concerned with Joey as a beautiful third party whose obliqueness allows the panicked soldiers and civilians alike an outlet with which they can express their otherwise tightly guarded vulnerability and humanity. (Some have discounted War Horse on this notion alone, but I’ve seen abusive drunkards fall down weeping at the sight of their dog.)
So War Horse, at its broadest, is another Spielberg film about love and undiminished generosity in the midst of unfathomable chaos and horror, which means that it provides the director’s detractors with plenty of fodder for the usual dismissals: too pat, too sentimental, too broad, etc. I’ve often wondered if the people who seem to relish in taking the filmmaker down a notch or two every few years ever actually, you know, watch his movies. If Spielberg were to be appraised on his mastery of mise-en-scène alone, he would be one of the greatest of all pop filmmakers. But Spielberg’s films are also usually thematically tougher than is typically acknowledged; beneath the “escapism” of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, for example, are stories of families on the brink of financial and emotional collapse. The ending of Schindler’s List, oft-ridiculed even by admirers, tempered a victory with wider subtext: What Schindler did was amazing yet not nearly enough.
War Horse is similarly ambiguous and thematically unresolved: Underneath the story of a boy and his horse is Spielberg’s most poetic rumination on the senseless destruction and occasionally even ironic beauty of warfare. The symbols are consciously and elementally simple (for example, the horses represent Earth in entirety while the tanks and cannons are the mechanical embodiment of our egoistical perversion of it), but the images are haunting and occasionally brilliant. Many of the most vivid sequences fly by you so fast you catch them on the rebound: the horses of the British soldiers galloping by rider-less as the German gunners fire on, leaving you to intuit the carnage; a windmill blade that spares us the execution of two young German deserters scared out of their wits; the reflection of a beautiful French girl in Joey’s eye as she discovers him after he’s just barely eluded the Germans (again); an injured horse’s panicked expression as it’s recruited to pull the enormous German cannons; the vicious clanking of the wheels of those giant cannons as they’re gradually pulled as the horses’ bloodied legs buckle in the mud and sludge.
The centerpiece though, and it’s clearly meant to be, is Joey’s eventual attempt to escape the gutted battlefield known as No Man’s Land after a German soldier risks his life to free him. Joey desperately galloping amid the gunfire and explosions, eventually collapsing in tangles of barbed wire, is simultaneously one of the ugliest, bluntest, and most beautiful scenes of Spielberg’s career—an emotional showstopper that transcends absurdity through sheer force of will.
The filmmaker’s detractors aren’t all wrong, of course. When Spielberg’s unable to find his way into the material, such as in misfires like The Color Purple, Always, or Amistad, the results can be pitifully childish and naïve. But when Spielberg’s really cooking, when his method of blowing every scene and image up to the level of myth serves the material as it does about half the time in War Horse, he achieves a stylized atmosphere that’s emotionally truthful (Elia Kazan also worked this way, and was similarly hit-or-miss). War Horse isn’t a realistic war film and it isn’t meant to be, but the images, the violent of which are often rendered somewhat abstract by a desire to appeal to a larger audience, that connect burn into your consciousness with a power that a more prosaic “realistic” war film, most of which are inspired by Spielberg’s overrated Saving Private Ryan anyway, generally can’t match.
War Horse is often silly, and it has a habit of going to sleep when characters sit around and talk, in other words when Spielberg’s imagery doesn’t allow him to transcend the material as he’s chosen to present it. But that unevenness, to an extent, works in the film’s favor too, as you’re never allowed to really get your bearings. Imagine if The Black Stallion had been re-edited to periodically include the galvanizing war footage from Paths of Glory and you get the idea.
War Horse eventually gets to the daddy theme that surfaces in every Spielberg film in one way or another. The film pretends to be driven by Albert and Joey when it’s really about Albert and Ted. At the opening Albert feels his father is a drunken coward, but by the end he’s able to look his father in the eyes after he’s been through experiences that awaken him to the disappointments and compromises of adult life (and the French girl would’ve come to a similar realization if the war hadn’t cheated her of it). This being a Spielberg film, Albert and Ted’s reconciliation is pitched to the heavens—staged as if it were the centerpiece of Gone with the Wind as directed by John Ford and scored by Wagner, but Spielberg earns his sentimentality, which practically feels subversive in the age of the snarky aesthetic void as premeditated blockbuster anyway. War Horse is flawed and more than occasionally dumb, but it’s also a moving and conflicted work by a filmmaker continually torn between his cheeseball eagerness to please and his intuitive mastery of cinematic poetry.
War Horse sports one of those transfers that speak to the benefit of investing in a Blu-ray player. The greens and grays of the British and French landscapes are vivid and lush, and the skylines are appropriately painterly. The images portraying the dark rubble of the battles in No Man's Land, which could be problematic for a weaker transfer in delineating the edges of the darker images, presents no detectable flaws. The transfer is generally pristine and gorgeous. The 7.1 mix probably meets or surpasses your theatrical experience, as I was able to make out, at times, the rattle of specific sabers as well as the clinking of ploughs on certain pebbles and rocks. And this mix delivers the blunt house-rattling pleasures as well, particularly in regard to the John Williams score and the terrifying sound editing that accompanies the German tanks and cannons. A strong presentation.
When you read the back of the Blu-ray case you'll note an apparent smorgasbord of extras, but most of those are disposable and cheesy testimonials to the magic of War Horse that make the film sound a lot dumber than it actually is. All you need to watch is the good 60-minute documentary "A Filmmaking Journey," which succinctly tracks the filming of each major movement of the film while offering finished footage for contrast. Spielberg didn't contribute an audio commentary (he never does), but "A Filmmaking Journey" features quite a bit of the director discussing his approach, and most of the principal cast and crew appear as well. (The doc also refreshingly emphasizes Spielberg's specificity with actors.) It's partially a puff piece, but quite a bit of useful information on the making of the film is offered as well.
A gorgeous transfer of another bracing Steven Spielberg oddity.