England, 1914 Devon lad Albert Narracott (Irvine) tames, trains and bonds with a stubborn farm horse he names Joey. When times get tight, Joey is sold into the British cavalry and begins an adventure that takes him across France and onto the battlefield
This 2012 awards season has thrown up a number of films that have reeled back through movie history. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist returns to 1927 to celebrate the glory of silent cinema and how the advent of sound changed the entire art form. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is set in the ’30s but harkens back to the birth of cinema and the industrial light and magic of George Méliès. For War Horse, Steven Spielberg may not have directly referenced the medium itself, but make no mistake: this is a movie about movie traditions. For his first film as a director under the Disney aegis, he has embraced the late ’30s and ’40s to make the kind of film Uncle Walt would have been proud of.
If Tintin thrived on the thrill of Spielberg finding his voice in a new technology, War Horse sees the director returning to his storytelling roots, to the kind of films he lapped up at the Kiva Theater, Phoenix, during his youth. Yet this isn’t dead-eyed pastiche. Spielberg may be channelling his heroes — John Ford, David Lean, Frank Capra, Victor Fleming, to name a few — but he is working within old-school traditions rather than merely aping them, bringing his own ballsy brio and cinematic intelligence to bear. It might not stand shoulder to shoulder with the more complex likes of Saving Private Ryan or Munich, but the direction is virtuoso, the craft impeccable, the performances strong and the result is by turns exciting then tender — a proper Movie Movie that represents Spielberg’s most brazenly emotional work since E. T..
Tackling Michael Morpurgo’s beloved 1982 children’s novel and Nick Stafford’s acclaimed National Theatre adaptation is full of risks. It is a story founded on unsophisticated, unfashionable building blocks — the bond between a boy (Irvine inhabiting cinema’s most naive farm boy since Luke Skywalker) and his pet, a farm in jeopardy, rites of passage, an animal in peril — yet Spielberg and writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis fully commit to these ideas, sapping them of potential hokiness. There is no postmodern twist or hint of embarrassment on show, just a fulsome trust that these tried and true storytelling tropes are going to fly.
Spielberg fillets the narrative through-line of the book — Morpurgo has Joey recount his adventures, Spielberg stops short of nag narration — and aligns it with the poignant intimacy of the play, but gives it an epic feel that is entirely big screen. During its combat, War Horse has a huge sweep: a surprise cavalry charge from the Brits, led by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Major Stewart, starts in the high grass (bizarrely recalling The Lost World’s raptor attack) before steaming out into the open in a no-holds-barred, David Lean-esque land rush. When the action moves to the Somme, Spielberg throws you headfirst into the mud and mayhem of no man’s land but doesn’t retread the shakycam dynamism of Saving Private Ryan, mixing up a Tommy’s-eye-view with a more formally poised, grandiose feel — from deftly cut close-ups of soldiers illuminated by explosions to a haunting sortie into a German bunker, this has a tangible albeit bloodless intensity. Without hitting you over the head with it, the film captures not only the wanton waste of war but also the tipping point between horseback warfare and mechanised conflict. Joey may hurdle a tank like Becher’s Brook but War Horse subtly chimes the death knell for an outmoded form of warfare.
Away from the shock and awe, the movie is redolent with imaginative Spielbergian flourishes — an entrance shot as a reflection in a horse’s eye, a regimental pendant as telling narrative motif, a strategic use of a windmill sail and, for fans of Tintin’s audacious scene transitions, look out for a dissolve that, for a moment, sees Albert and Joey ploughing through Emily Watson’s knitting. Given Spielberg’s collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has mostly served up startling images of washed-out worlds, War Horse might be their most gorgeous-looking collaboration. England’s green and pleasant land has never looked so green and pleasant, the cavalry lead their steeds against blazing European sunsets, but there is a cool, delicate quality to Kaminski’s work that furnishes and burnishes the big emotions but staves off schmaltz.
Much of the magic of the stage play comes from the astonishing puppetry used to bring the horses to life. Stripped of such stagecraft, Spielberg somehow still manages to tell his story almost entirely from the horse’s point-of-view. Following a lengthy opening overture in Devon that builds up the bond between boy and steed, Joey is packed off to France and we pretty much stay with him for the rest of the movie, a decision that makes Albert’s journey feel somewhat under-nourished given the groundwork laid in the first act. Spielberg marshalls his equine cast expertly — the simultaneous reaction of a herd of horses as a four-legged comrade is put down is genius — charting a bizarrely affecting friendship between Joey and fellow military mare Topthorn. Yet it is not just in the performance. With this movie, Spielberg joins the ranks of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa as one of the great shooters of horses, be it in crafty camera moves that help inscribe the horse’s ‘feelings’ or expansive tracking shots of Joey sprinting riderless through a French wood or barrelling down a trench and across no man’s land at night. In these moments, there is no more impressive distillation of Spielberg’s art, camera movement, John Williams’ stirring score, storytelling and emotion coming together to create exhilarating cinema.
As Joey switches from Albert’s charge to Captain Nicholls’ (Tom Hiddleston, a top-notch decent cove), to two German brothers (David Kross, Leonard Carow), to a dying French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, who gives his scenes gentle gravitas), to a German army horse master (Nicolas Bro), Spielberg finds time between the cavalry charges to insert human moments between characters: a discussion about the value of a silk cap; a young soldier’s fantasy about Italian girls; and, best of all, a funny, touching exchange between a Geordie (Toby Kebbell) and a German in no man’s land as they come together to help Joey, trapped in barbed wire.
It’s not a perfect film — you wish you could spend more time with some of the vividly etched characters. By the same token, the film feels like it needs tightening — and if you are resistant to the director’s aesthetic or worldview, it is unlikely to turn you around. Still, Spielberg has an uncanny knack for divining what audiences want and, in the uncertainty of recession, a simple story of fortitude in friendship filled with that most unfashionable of feelings — hope — might just resonate. The vehemence of the film’s huge-hearted sincerity might not square with the flip irony of the day. But what wins out in the end, as the film draws to a close under a Gone With The Wind sky, is that Spielberg means every word of it.
War Horse is bold, exquisite family filmmaking in the grandest Hollywood tradition. Be warned: whether youre a hippophile or not, its a four-hankie moviegoing experience.