For Steven Spielberg, to entertain, and to emotionally and intellectually engage his audience are not entirely incompatible. In fact, Hollywood used to do it before the franchise mentality wiped away what little creativity the movie industry had left.
In some of his best films —“Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me If You Can”— Spielberg strikes a delicate balance between his commercial and artistic impulses, especially when dealing with such dark subjects as war, the Holocaust and slavery (a balance which has left many a film critic uncomfortable). Sometimes, the entertainer takes over completely at the expense of story and character (as we saw recently in “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” and in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). And, sometimes, he lets his own earnestness and overwhelming optimism bring down a near-perfect work (the final half hour of “A.I.”). “War Horse” is a perfect example of what happens when Spielberg’s optimism overpowers his artistic vision and his skills as an entertainer.
Visually, “War Horse” is reminiscent of John Ford (particularly his pastoral films) and David Lean, with a slight dash of “Gone with the Wind” thrown in for good measure. But, storywise, this “War Horse” has far more in common with the live action pictures Walt Disney produced in the 50s and early 60s than with the works of those two masters.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book which was later adapted to the stage (a production still enjoying a healthy run on Broadway), “War Horse” is the story of Joey, a half-thoroughbred acquired by an alcoholic farmer (Peter Mullan, sadly underused) who can barely make ends meet. Joey is proud, wild, unruly. But Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the farmer’s son, promises to tame the beast and save the farm. Cue scenes of horse one-upmanship. Joey finally relents and both the boy and his horse save the farm from ruin. Cue triumphant scenes of the boy and his horse plowing the rocky terrain followed by scenes of violent weather trashing their hard work.
To save his farm, Albert’s father has no choice but to sell Joey to the British Cavalry. Joey’s new owner, a cavalry captain, promises he will take good care of the horse while Albert promises Joey that their paths will cross once again.
Joey’s and the cavalry’s first battle proves disastrous as they charge against a German camp and are themselves ambushed. Joey is captured by the Germans and begins living a pattern of escape and capture, escape and capture as he meets humanity’s entire spectrum —a benevolent French grandfather and his sickly granddaughter, ruthless German officers, etc.— until he is finally reunited with his true master.
There are some wonderful scenes in this otherwise maudlin film, one of which is a standout because of its simplicity and because Spielberg the artist momentarily takes over: two men, one German, the other British, reach across the trenches to set aside their differences and free Joey from the barbed wire he’s become entangled in. There is no bombastic score, no dramatic lighting or angles in this scene: we just see two men talking, sharing a pair of cutters. I wish “War Horse” had had more moments like this one.
Spielberg succumbs to some of his worst habits in “War Horse”. He uses every single tool at hand to order the audience how they need to feel. In fact, he sometimes seems to be hitting them with a 2×4. FEEL!!! FEEL NOW!!!! He does not trust the material enough, filling the film with music non-stop —and John Williams’ soupy score helps matters little— and shots that have been calculatedly designed to inspire awe.
And then, there’s the uncomfortable feeling that we are actually watching two very different movies: a lyrical family film full of flawed people with hearts of gold and stereotypically Dickensian villains; and a horrific war movie. The film’s episodic structure also works against it: we barely get to meet some of the human characters before they are easily dispatched. Quite unforgivable, really, given its extraordinary cast.