Director: Steven Spielberg
I’ll be honest. I haven’t had the best experiences with horses before. When I was six I was violently kicked in the head by one (my mother says it was in fact my brother, but I’m pretty sure it was me) and on my honeymoon in France my wife forced me to take part in some horse riding across some French fields. Suffice to say, hours later, without an health and safety instructions (even if I wouldn’t have understood I’d have liked proper procedure) I’d gained a horse that was more keen on running off from the group than following it, a severely sore bottom and sun burn that made me look like an average cast member from the Only Way is Essex. Since then I’ve had a distinct distrust for Horses. I don’t like their emotionless faces, and any animal that has the potential to be ridden by man and have a giant penis on show, is slightly strange.
It was with great enthusiasm therefore that I settled down to watch Steven Spielberg’s latest epic film War Horse, his adaptation of the classic book (then great stage play) that covered such themes as war, its futility and wastefullness, its exposure of human cruelty, and its capacity to bond as much as divide. Surely those themes could be applied to a huge number of Spielberg films, indeed War Horse sounds like it was written with a Spielberg adaptation in mind. Spielberg delights, no, revels in modern, melodramatic fables with guaranteed cross-generational appeal, and I’ll be honest, I’m a sucker for Spielberg (not meant to sound dodgy) so I was more than willing to forgive the central inclusion of a horse.
War Horse begins in a rural English village in Devon, where a horse is born and then auctioned off to a tenant-farmer (Peter Mullan), who buys him out of stubborn pride. His wife (Emily Watson) is appalled, but his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) loves the horsee, whom he names “Joey,” (stupid name if you ask me – Steed of the Devil sounds much cooler). Albert sets out to train Joey. They try to plow rocky ground in hopes that they can stay on the land. The unsympathetic landowner is waiting to take over the property however and all looks lost. World War I is suddenly declared though and the father has to sell Joey to the army, and the horse is sent to war in France. There Joey goes through dreadful experiences taking part in some of the most vicious battles, especially as WW1 was really a place where it literally became mammal versus machine. While war horses were once a major part of war, they became increasing less important in the war effort, Instead, machines, tanks, aircraft, and all and many other vehicles replaced the role of horses for transportation of people and equipment. In WWI there was still mounted cavalry units with some prestige attached to them, but they were rapidly becoming obsolete – and useless up against fire. Because this is a love story though, Joey’s young trainer Albert follows him into war, and of course, destiny prevails (cue weeping into tissues and stroking the hair of the person next to you as if it were a mane).
This epic film about war and horses is told pretty much from the point of view of a horse. Many people come and go during the journey into the hell of war, but the common thread that connects them all is a horse. I’m not sure anyone other than Spielberg could have pulled this off. Indeed the film has many of the hallmarks of a Spielberg production, beautiful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (including a lovely shot against a sunset near the end of the film) and a great soundtrack by composer John Williams, both longtime collaborators with Spielberg. The film also has top-notch production design by Rick Carter (“Forrest Gump” and “Avatar”) and great art direction from Andrew Ackland-Snow (who did several “Harry Potter” films). The acting is also very solid by all the main actors, including (yes I know it sounds ridiculous) the horses. Although the story doesn’t hang together well in some places, it has plenty of emotional power.
Away from the expecting sentimentality, Spielberg seems far more comfortable in his depiction of the war itself. Perhaps harking back to his time on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Spielberg is a master of the battlefield. The first battle marks a welcome, more confident shift in the film’s tone. The depiction of the Somme is accomplished, and one scene in particular – where Joey runs into no man’s land – is breathtaking. But for all his plunges into easy sentimentality, Spielberg also creates genuineness. And there are some unexpected moments: the officer (Tom Hiddleston) who buys Joey is kind to Albert, Joey runs to substitute for his injured friend (yes, horses have horse friends), the soldiers figure out a way to save an injured horse, and a sound from the past brings life-saving recognition. These are scenes of genuine poignancy.
So despite the horrors of war readily on show, I believe that Spielberg tries to transcend them. His movie is bigger than life. We witness a battlefield littered with corpses, but the battle in War Horse is not gore. It’s mostly movement. That a horse caught in wire and wood can be seen as a Christ figure on the field adds touching spirituality, and the fact that Spielberg can turn a horse into a Jesus figure almost had my on my feet neighing and eating sugar cubes with delight. Since some of my favourite films in 2011 ended in angst, nihilism or apolcalypse, I was actually rather happy for some optimism for once. And who better than to provide that than Spielberg? Just next time… Less of the horses please.
Culture Slap Rating: 4/5