War Horse (2011); Dir. Steven Spielberg

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

Near the end of Steven Spielberg’s epic World War I melodrama War Horse, a German soldier and a British soldier venture out into No Man’s Land, alone, to rescue a horse caught in the barbed wire. The British soldier waves a white flag. The German brings some wire cutters. The devastated landscape looks like hell on earth. The massive armies amassed on either side of the battle line hover in silence as the two enemies meet to work together to cut the horse out of its prison. The British soldier takes the wounded horse back to the British side, and the German soldier returns to his side, and then, after that breather, the war continues. Reminiscent of the famous “Christmas truce” in 1914, when freezing British and German soldiers called their unofficial truce in order to meet up in No Man’s Land to play an impromptu soccer game, the scene of a brief trembling “truce” in War Horse shows, even more than the scenes of mass slaughter, the horror and meaningless of war. It is one of the most effective scenes in the film, which unfortunately tips over into cornball sentimentality from almost the first frame.

When a messenger gallops into the small Devon village announcing at the top of his voice that war has been declared, and then points up at the church tower shouting, “Those bells will not ring until the war is over!”, what do you want to bet that the film’s closing moments will feature those bells ringing? Is it necessary to telegraph to the audience their eventual catharsis from moment one? John Williams’ overwrought score compounds the problem. War Horse demands too much. It is too insistent in its claim on the emotions. There is enough here, there is no need to push so hard, but Spielberg pushes.

Based on Michael Morpugo’s best-selling children’s book, first published in 1982 (the year Spielberg’s E.T. hit the theatres), it was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The hit play, featuring giant puppets, is still running at Lincoln Center.

Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is an adolescent living in the beautiful British countryside when the horse Joey first comes into his life. His parents (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) struggle to farm their small plot of land and are perpetually behind in the rent, causing much discord with the sleazy landlord (David Thewlis). The family needs a hearty plow horse to dig up the rocky field, but Mr. Narracott, a mainly useless drunk with a bad leg, buys the young thoroughbred at an auction. The skittish horse has to learn how to plow, and there are some sequences of the young Albert taking on the training and taming of the horse. When World War I is declared, Mr. Narracott sells the horse to the British army, and Albert, too young to go to war, watches with tears in his eyes as the horse trots off to the front.

From that point on, we follow the horse.

The horse is first used by a kindly British officer (Tom Hiddleston, he who was so charming as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), who promises Albert that he will take good care of Joey, and, if possible, return the horse to him after the war. After a surprise attack on a German camp, the horse is captured by the Kaiser’s army. Two young German soldiers go AWOL, taking the horse with them. The horse is hidden in a windmill on a French farm, and is discovered there by a little French girl (Celine Buckens) who lives with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). After a pastoral respite, the horse is once again re-captured by the Germans, and then follows an absolutely brutal sequence showing the horse enduring its backbreaking (literally) work.

The war rages on for years, and finally Albert is old enough to enlist. He has never forgotten Joey. He hopes to meet up with him again.

By that point in the film, there has been so much slaughter it was difficult to re-invest in the boy’s love for his horse. 35 million people died in World War I. The Spanish flu epidemic broke out in 1918, a direct result of the worldwide conflict, and wiped out 3% of the world’s population. World War I was a disaster for the human race, whichever way you look at it, and while a boy’s love for his horse is sweet, Spielberg’s mastery at portraying the terror of war works at cross purposes with the underlying sentimental theme. There’s been too much realistic carnage. It’s exhausting to even contemplate the enormity of the human death toll. The final uplifting scene in the army hospital, played to drawn-out and almost shameless length, is too little too late.

It is obvious why Spielberg would be drawn to this material. It’s about war, and the men who fight it. It’s about hope found in the middle of catastrophe. It’s about a boy becoming a man. Albert has a mystical connection to his horse.

Some of the greatest movies made by the studio masters in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, walked the line between sentiment and sentimentality, and Spielberg’s own career is full of examples of both, sometimes in the same film. He is a personal and emotional filmmaker, in a continuum with John Ford, whose The Quiet Man Spielberg references often in War Horse. Spielberg chases after what pleases him because he has learned that it will please the audience, too. With War Horse, he wanted to make a film that looked like a film from 50 years ago, and it is shot by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to brilliant effect, using wide-angle lenses, a lush unembarrassed color scheme, and a blatant use of artificial light even in the exterior shots. This is not realism. It’s Hollywood, baby, and it is one of the movie’s strengths. Its look is a sweeping tribute to the great cinematographers of the past and there are moments that call to mind Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind declaring in the dramatic war-ravaged field against a violent fake sunset that she will “never go hungry again”. The look of War Horse is perfect for the material, and there are some standout scenes: the surprise attack on the Germans through the wheatfields, the horse galloping through No Man’s Land to the accompaniment of gunfire and grenade blasts, and the aforementioned private two-man truce to free the horse.

Trench warfare was a particularly brutal phenomenon, and War Horse depicts it with unflinching reality. There is a poignant moment, a truly Spielbergian touch of humanity, when all of the British soldiers, one by one, drop their valuables and unsent letters into a bucket before charging up out of the trench to meet the enemy. These objects will be sent home to their families should they die, which they all know they probably will.

It is in such moments that War Horse works, in spite of its sentimental self.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to War Horse (2011); Dir. Steven Spielberg

  1. Carrie says:

    “You would think he had never seen a horse before.” — I could hear the exasperation :-)

  2. sheila says:

    hahaha I mean, seriously. He’s looking at the foal like it’s a unicorn. He’s a farm boy. It’s TOO MUCH.

    A mystical connection between child and horse is fine – it worked great in National Velvet and Black Beauty … but no need to pour it on so damn thick!!

  3. Adam Zanzie says:

    Sheila, I have to respectfully disagree. You have to look at a film like War Horse the same way you would look at a film like E.T. Certainly that, too, was a movie that required the audience to suspend its disbelief a little, and I do believe Spielberg is continuing that trend here. Spielberg is one of the wiser filmmakers, in the modern industry, in his talent of figuring out how to hold an audience’s attention just long enough so that he can get them to believe anything. He got them to believe an oxygen tank could blow up a shark. That Roy Neary could be embraced by aliens of a traditional physical appearance. That Elliot’s bond with E.T. could feel incredibly visceral. That Celie, against all expectations, could one day be reunited with her sister.

    You have criticized the opening scene, in which Albert looks with awe upon Joey’s birth, as being too hokey, but I think we should take into account the situation here. Albert is a lonely, idealistic boy who doesn’t get many opportunities in his life to witness something as wondrous as a horse’s birth. We are to assume he doesn’t have very many friends, except for the one who ultimately goes to war with him. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend. So, when he sees Joey being born, he’s amazed — I think — because a creature has born into his life that he can, in some ways, identify with. When he’s taken from his mother, Joey isn’t really conscious of where he is, or what his purpose as a horse is. Albert doesn’t know his own purpose in life, either.

    So, when Albert sees the birth of this creature that’s just as disoriented and unhappy as he is, he falls in love with it. He brightens up. Spielberg can afford to maximize the emotions of the moment because this is, after all, an Old Hollywood period piece. If by “TOO MUCH,” you mean, “too intense,” then yes. Because from that moment on, the movie was already winning me over. It’s an extraordinary use of celluloid.

    Moving on to your other points. I don’t agree at all that it’s hard to care about Albert’s story by the end of the film. Yes, as you’ve mentioned, the film tells a lot of stories. That’s part of its charm. Spielberg is showing us that people on every side of the trenches care a lot for an innocent creature like Joey. But the audience would not be satisfied if Joey fell into somebody’s hands other than Albert’s by the end of the film — especially since we’ve already spent, what, the first 45 minutes, the first hour with him? I’d defy anyone to suggest how it can be hard to care about Albert at the end when we have that immortal moment of a temporarily blind Albert getting Joey to come back to him from the moment he’s whistling. Spielberg had laid the groundwork for this device earlier in the film, and for him to bring it back in a way such as this — it’s pure movie magic.

    About your complaint regarding the church bells… I don’t really understand the criticism. Yes, it foreshadows the ringing of the bells at the end. Why is this a problem? We all know going into the film that the war eventually did end, do we not? And by the end of the film, we have been so taken up by the rest of what we have seen that the early mention of the church bells has been all but erased from our minds. Then, when the church bells finally do ring, that memory comes back to us. I would argue the ringing of the church bells at the end would feel much less significant if the groundwork had never been laid for the possibility of them ringing in the first place.

    This is, as you’ve described it in the last sentence of your review, a sentimental film. There is nothing wrong with that. We’ve got to uncondition ourselves from this absurd notion that if an artist is employing sentimentality in a work, he or she is committing some kind of error. Because, to paraphrase what Holden’s character says in Network, “sentimentality” is really just a euphemism for “simple human decency,” and that’s what this film champions — even in something as atrocious as world war.

    On top of that, of course, it’s incredibly well-made — which always helps.

  4. sheila says:

    Adam – // You have to look at a film like War Horse the same way you would look at a film like E.T. //

    Respectfully, no I don’t. And if I did, War Horse would suffer even more in comparison. E.T. has something that War Horse does not: ease of execution and also magic. Magic not because of kids flying bikes through the air – but cinematic magic. War Horse lacks that. And because of that, all of the elements you describe here as its strengths, become liabilities to me – evidence of pushing for effect. There is no ease. Except in the sequences I mentioned. My favorite parts were the war scenes. The surprise attack on the Germans, the French grandfather coming over the hill to see his granddaughter on the horse surrounded by Germans (an exquisite image), the Somme battle, the vision of trench warfare – No question that these are masterfully done, and those images have stayed in my mind since I saw the film

    And I think I made clear the difference as I see it between sentiment and sentimentality. I have no problem with sentiment, earned honestly – something I recently discussed in my essay on Chaplin. He is often accused of sentimentality – and while I can see that sometimes in his love stories, more often than not I feel that what he achieves is actual SENTIMENT. The relationship between the Kid and the Tramp, for example. I don’t find that to be manipulatively pushed in my face, or overwrought with its need for a response from me – it is honestly filled with sentiment and truth. I am in tears when that Kid is taken from the Tramp, no matter how many times I have seen the movie.

    The British soldiers putting their valuables into the bucket had the ease of powerful emotional impact that the rest of the film lacked. No need to push it, no need to underline it, or overdo it. The action was enough: it told the entire story of what was going on in that moment.

    The church bells catharsis could have been effective if the setup hadn’t been so ham-fisted. Just didn’t work for me at all.

    I certainly hope you comment again. This is your first comment on something I’ve written, and I’ve been writing for a long time. It makes me happy when thoughtful people who have seen the films I discuss show up to make their points. Otherwise it’s like writing in a vacuum.

  5. Adam Zanzie says:

    Thank you so much for the reply, Sheila. I’m really sorry I haven’t been able to comment on your fantastic blog until now; what with me entering a university over the fall and spending less and less time on blogs, it’s been tough keeping track of everybody’s sites. But I’ll be sure to stay in touch with yours from now on.

    I will have to see this film again to be sure, but I felt it flowed rather nicely. Maybe not with quite as much ease as E.T., considering it’s about a half an hour longer, but the relationship between Albert and Joey, like the relationship between Elliot and E.T., is founded on slow steps of communication. For example, I’d say the movie’s first true instance of magic between the two characters occurs when Albert finds a way to get Joey to eat — by turning his back. It’s like Elliot having to bait E.T. with Reese Pieces to gain his trust. The resemblance is uncanny.

    But it wasn’t entirely accurate of me to suggest Spielberg is replicating the same formula used in E.T. Indeed, on reflection, War Horse is a more challenging project considering that, unlike E.T., Joey doesn’t possess the skills to talk, which makes him even more of a hard-case than Cinque and the Mende-speaking slaves in Amistad. At the same time, this allows Spielberg to create magical scenes of a more subtle variety. I love the scene where Albert demonstrates to Joey that there’s nothing dangerous about putting on a plow harness, and Joey later finds a way to pass this knowledge onto Topthorn at a crucial moment; scenes like these make me ever so glad Spielberg didn’t elect to use the horse narration that Morpurgo used thoroughly in the book. Whether he’s neighing for his mother or clamoring for his life in the path of a tank (what a striking quotation of Saving Private Ryan‘s finale), it’s like we can read Joey’s thoughts without him having to tell us them himself. Spielberg is one of the few filmmakers I can recall who has finally figured out the right way to put the audience inside the mind of an animal.

    I should have been more careful when I defended the use of sentimentality in my last post, though. You’re right about the differences between sentiment and sentimentality, and that sentiment (as in Chaplin’s films) works best when it’s earned. I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on whether or not War Horse earns its use of sentiment, but I should hasten to mention that I agree with you 100% that so many films use manipulation to a cheap, insulting degree. I can’t count on my fingers and toes the number of times kids in high school accused me of being “heartless” for disliking movies like Pay it Forward or John Q.… there are definitely an unfortunate amount of filmmakers whose methods of audience manipulation are downright abusive.

    If I tend to absolve Spielberg from committing such offenses in his own films (barring The Lost World Jurassic Park, or that annoyingly-sacharrine segment in Twilight Zone – The Movie that Warner Bros. blackmailed him into directing), it’s probably because I think he’s, above all, a visual director, one who treats his audiences with respect and usually leaves them with serious questions on the way out. While I’ve said I appreciate how well I think War Horse uses sentiment, I should add that I felt Albert and Joey’s survival came with blistering consequences. Albert, now that he’s witnessed his own friend get gassed in the trenches, will probably end up like his father and grow up to be heavily guarded about his war memories. And as for Joey? That lovely final close-up of him looking out against the backdrop of the red sky masks a darker truth, I’d say — one worthy of that final shot, in Empire of the Sun, of Jim’s eyes growing old.

    To me, Spielberg is finally asking us: how will a creature like Joey ever cope with the horrors he remembers from the war? Do animals lose their minds over things like this? If he can remember Albert’s whistle and his harness demonstrations, there’s no telling what else is burned in Joe’s memory.

  6. sheila says:

    Making my way through your comment now. See, this is good – yes, let’s get down to brass tacks.

    // I’d say the movie’s first true instance of magic between the two characters occurs when Albert finds a way to get Joey to eat — by turning his back. //

    I totally agree. I loved the training sections – but then, I’m a sucker for horse movies. Nothing can compare to the taming/training section in the opening of Black Beauty – that is a masterpiece – but I did like the scenes of Albert’s ingenuity training the horse. He’s not even a professional horse trainer – it was just by instinct. And I loved the one swooping shot of the fully plowed turnip field. That was great.

  7. sheila says:

    Okay, finished reading. I have also been accused of being “heartless” – and some poor woman over at my review told me to “take my critic hat off” and “open my heart” – but: I’m a critic. Why would I “take my critic hat off”?? There are plenty of movies I love without reservation. I’m not some heartless bitch!!

    The scenes of Joey working for the Germans were so brutal (especially the closeups of what seemed to me to be the terrified eyes of the animals) that I won’t soon forget them – and as we saw with, say, Michael Vick’s brutality: animals take a long time to recover (sometimes forever) from horrifying situations. Some of those dogs had to be put down, although some are in recovery and being assimilated back into society. But some are damaged beyond repair. Animals obviously have emotions – and who knows how animals’ memory banks work – but they certainly remember cruelty and they experience fear. I can certainly see and understand how you would get that from the end of the movie, and I have to admit: I’m a bit envious, I wish I had gotten that myself – it’s a lovely message and I am sure what Spielberg was going for.

    I hope it doesn’t sound like I hated the movie. But I felt it was clunky. The section with the French grandfather and granddaughter – perhaps because it came directly following the magnificent attack on the Germans – but I felt the air go out of the movie in that section. And I hesitate to criticize a child – but I didn’t think the little girl was very good or very convincing (which is odd – because Spielberg is normally phenomenal with child actors). I felt she struggled with her dialogue, so it sounded arch and literary – and if that was an effect he was going for, it didn’t work at all for me.

    The movie is most at home in the thick of battle. Those were the best scenes. So the banter between the grandfather and his granddaughter fell flat for me.

    I did, however, like the payoff of Albert’s father’s Boer War military scarf. Now THAT is how you pay something off, subtly, almost invisibly, so that the audience doesn’t even realize at the end what they are waiting for. So when the grandfather pulls out the Boer War scarf at the end – I felt a lump rise in my throat. I had forgotten all about it.

    The church bells were indicated from the first second, so there was no payoff when they did ring.

    But the Boer War scarf was woven through the action artfully, a silent and powerful symbol, not pointed out too directly. Spielberg didn’t worry so much that we would “get it”. He knew we would.

    That is what a payoff is.

    • Gerhardt Steadman says:

      I am autistic. Somewhere in the higher functioning regions of the spectrum. I often feel reactions to things long before I am able to understand why. I often too rely on other people’s observations to put to words what I was feeling. I felt that same manipulation when I saw the film. It felt like butterflies, as though I was being gently dragged across the smooth spines of a giant washboard.

      I find it oddly compeling that it has been mentioned here the emotional trauma the war must have visited upon the horse. It is to some of us a reality above and beyond simple anthropomorphism. Spielberg’s treatment of Albert the child at the birthing is far closer to anthropomorphism. Except of course the child is human – just not an adult human. Something seemed wrong with Albert, in all his awe, and now I know why. Albert in awe seems a fabrication of an adult who has had the benefit to know both what it is to be a child and what it is to be an adult. I would have been squealing if I saw a little horse’s head sticking out of the rear of a mare!

      On a lighter note. Say “spacetime” aloud twice. Once with the hyphen and once without the hyphen. Either is correct. It’s subtle, but right there is the true physical difference between a four dimensional universe and a continuum.

      Thank you for sharing your gift of being able to put to words what some of us can only feel, but rarely muse. It is a rare gift every bit as creative as those who are able to transfer sentiment to film. I thank you for giving me things to think about.

  8. sheila says:

    And its also typically Spielbergian – in its sentiment: honoring the men who made the sacrifices in the past, honoring war veterans – I mean, in many ways Spielberg has devoted the last 20 years of his career to exploring that issue. (I was not a fan of Saving Private Ryan, however – except for the opening sequence with the storming of the beach.) But it obviously interests him in a way that borders on obsession: he’s a Baby Boomer, he grew up in peace and prosperity – he has never fought a war himself – but instead of being complacent about that, or filled with hippie-dippie self-righteousness like many members of his generation – Spielberg is filled with admiration and awe for the men who have fought in wars. Who have paid the ultimate sacrifice – or who have been injured, impacted, who have seen horrible things and still found the strength to go on.

    Who remembers the Boer War now besides British people? But it was a big deal for their country at the time, and Albert’s father had obviously paid a huge price. He is now a broken man, a drunk, with a bad leg. He refuses to even admit that he was a hero. But something of his heroism still remains (in a magical way) in that Boer War scarf. Following it through the movie as well as the horse was a nice touch.

  9. Bob says:

    The cinematography of this movie is great, but Spielberg again hits you over the head with an emotional hammer. It is the way of most movies these days and I don’t get it. Do young people like this? Is the art of the pause and silent consideration a lost art?
    As a side note, I would argue that “Breaker Morant” is the anti- Spielberg, anti- hit over the head- emotionalism of current movies. It is about horses and men and war – and why the Boer war was so devastating to the morale of the British empire. Such movies are not seen very often.

  10. sheila says:

    // Is the art of the pause and silent consideration a lost art? //

    Oh absolutely not! I wrote about the delicious pauses and “silent consideration” (lovely phrase) in this years Jane Eyre – one of my favorite films of the year. I think there’s a lot of loveliness and contemplation in Hugo – lots of other films have plenty of space for real experience to happen. War Horse was not one of them except in tiny isolated moments!

  11. Bob says:

    I know that such films are out there but there don’t seem to be enough. I am thankful for Jane Eyre. It really got me out of a jam over the holidays as it seems to be the only movie my sister in-law and I agree on. I definitely have to go see some more independent films this year. It has been a while – even though there are some theaters in my area.
    I loved your articles on “Jane Eyre”. You have an insight that I very much miss as I used to date a girl who was very into theater and acting. I think TV has jaded me to the arts.

  12. sheila says:

    Bob – I think it is always a struggle for films to remain truthful, grounded in reality. Directors who have a gift for it, who ALLOW things to happen as opposed to MANIPULATING them or FORCING them are definitely to be celebrated! It is not an easy feat!!

  13. Bob says:

    Just a thought, but does it seem that even bit actors of the past brought so much more into their roles. There seemed to be such a strong tradition of the basics of acting, and of actors to really work at their craft for very little reward. I say that knowing full well that I’m getting older and may just be biased to the good old days. I would say hit the gym less and live theatre more.

  14. Bob says:

    Just a note – One of the best books on WW-I in recent years is “A World Undone”, by G.J. Meyer. I highly recommend it. There are still so many documents that are classified, but this book puts a lot of forgotten things together.
    Also – I sort of get your rant on women’s roles in the past. I never appreciated how much my Mother, Grandmother, and even female cousins sacrificed for the good of the family. It was just taken for granted that they would always do the hard work of keeping the family whole. I find myself at a complete loss now that I am forced into a position usually done by the women of the family as I have no sisters. I don’t know how they do it.

  15. Jake Cole says:

    I think what hobbles the move the most is that, tonally, it behaves as if it is in the perspective of the horse, meaning that it does not probe into its characters or look for any themes or generally do anything one might expect a more human focus to elicit. And yet, it’s not Joey’s story; he’s just the vehicle for moving the plot forward. So we keep moving through these vignettes of characters who aren’t really changed by the horse and simply unload their little speeches or gags. That bit with the French girl was terrible, a meaningless interlude that kills the momentum for, what, the joke of Joey not jumping? Spielberg has managed to make seemingly lighter moments in his dramas: all that scampering about Jim does in Empire of the Sun always struck me as his desperate way of dealing with life in an internment camp, and Spielberg constantly brings reality into that bubble the kid makes for himself. But even with shells raining outside the farm, there’s no weight in the French sequence, even when the Germans come.

  16. sheila says:

    Yeah, that French section was the pits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.