WAR HORSE: Spielberg’s Most Undervalued Melodrama

Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 is about a rifle.

It’s a prized piece – one in a thousand – won in a shooting contest. The firearm is stolen and changes hands, traveling the Old West to meet cowboys, killers, loving women and scalp-claiming Indians. Because the journey is what matters, the gun doubling as both a plot device and a reminder that the objects we call our own often intersect with lives we may never know. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse borrows this central narrative conceit and applies it to a beast – a steed unlike any to grace the rolling hills of England. Through the eyes of this titular colt, we view an idealized version of WWI, as Spielberg indulges his John Ford fetish to craft an earnest plea for basic human decency.

Like most experiences, we begin with a birth. Viewed from afar by Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a petite pony takes its first steps, wet and glistening in the midday sun. This same foal matures into a muscular mount, his shiny coat catching the gaze of Albert’s drunken, gimpy father, Ted (Peter Mullan). Unwilling to be outbid by his smarmy landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), Ted offers thirty guineas, despite the fact that the horse looks as if he couldn’t pull a plow to save his life. Scared to death when Lyons comes to collect the rent, Albert takes the task of training the horse and places it square on his narrow shoulders, all while his doting mother, Rose (Emily Watson), hopes for the best. Thus, an everlasting friendship is born.

The bond that blooms between the boy and his new best buddy (whom he names ‘Joey’) is palpable and affecting, even if Spielberg lays it on thickest in these earliest moments. But what might at first seem like sap overload is merely the master filmmaker setting the stage for eventual hardship that is outside any of these players’ control. Albert is ultimately successful in plowing the field, yet God still decides to let the clouds open and wash the Narracotts’ crops away, forcing his father to sell Joey at an army auction. Though the film is ultimately optimistic in its outlook regarding the human condition, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel doesn’t shy away from depicting the cruel twists of fate that pepper our respective paths. Life’s road is long, windy and full of obstacles, but how one defines their spirit is through choices made in the face of these hindrances: either with a head held high or hung low, carrying the pain of past mistakes.

It isn’t until roughly an hour in that Joey experiences his first WWI dust up, acting as the personal steed of stately gentleman soldier, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). This is the deceptive secret weapon of War Horse – the fact that it isn’t so much a combat picture as it is a series of character vignettes that use history’s most senseless conflict as a backdrop for melodrama. Nicholls is a good British boy, eagerly competing in a gentleman’s competition with the blustery Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), both trying to prove that their ride is the best of the bunch (meanwhile, Joey takes quite a liking to Stewart’s horse, Topthorn). What Spielberg does with these two sly characters is begin to build an overarching thesis about what an international skirmish can mean for the individuals who exist during the fighting. For Nicholls and Stewart, it’s a chance to prove their steadfast sense of duty, only the Major’s militaristic arrogance will lead to their ultimate downfall, in what may be the most elegant, golden-hued battle sequence of Spielberg’s career.

Joey and Topthorn’s journey also acts as an illustration of what war can steal from those who cower in its gargantuan, unforgiving shadow. Two German brothers (Leonard Carow and David Kross) desert their posts, fleeing into the hills with the newly captured horses and take refuge in a massive windmill, but are quickly tracked down and shot by their superiors (a fate we are denied witness to via one of Spielberg’s more brilliant shot setups). This horrible demise echoes a conversation had between Rose and Albert before we’re shipped off to this mindless battleground. Rose reveals that his father earned several medals for displaying bravery under fire during the Second Boer War. Albert inquires why Ted never talks about his service and keeps the commendations hidden, but his mother can only respond that it’s due to shame. Much like his leg, the drink keeps him hobbled as he tries to forget those days. The two German brothers are only further proof that you cannot escape war with your humanity completely intact; you either endure the scars it leaves you with, or die a deserter.

Thankfully, the brothers’ pursuers don’t discover Joey and his companion. Instead it’s Emilie (Céline Buckens), a French girl who lives at the windmill farm with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who uncovers the pair. Though lovely, light and life-affirming in the wake of the wanton death we’ve just witnessed, Emilie’s segment may be the most thematically repetitive. An adolescent whose bones are fragile due to a disorder, Emilie is determined to ride Joey and prove to her grandfather that her genetics are not going to stop her from enjoying life to its fullest. Like Albert training Joey to plow the field, it’s a radiant moment of youthful positivity in the face of adversity, yet the section stops the movie cold in its tracks for roughly fifteen to twenty minutes. While it’s fun to watch cinematographer Janusz Kaminski explore the countryside with an array of wide lenses, and production designer Rick Carter jams the grange full of tangible details, the end message is slightly redundant. Tragedy strikes again as German soldiers plunder the meager home and commandeer the two horses to haul heavy artillery, robbing Emilie of an opportunity to indulge in happiness; a sad song we’ve heard before.

The ensuing death march Joey and Topthorn embark on is one of the greatest testaments to Janusz Kaminski’s skill as a cinematographer, as his lush compositions give way to the stark, monochromatic tones he utilized during his previous wartime collaborations with Spielberg. The artillery haul is grueling, passionless and sad, emphasizing how these creatures are looked at as expendable commodities by the army they’ve become servants to. Once they cannot pull the cannons any longer, collapsing in a pile of exhaustion and muscle spasms, their only reward is a bullet in the brain. Kaminski’s visual palette creates an unalloyed juxtaposition against the sunny, rolling fields of Albert’s home (think: How Green Was My Valley transitioning into Saving Private Ryan). In war, there is no love, only service and death. It’s an incredible showcase of visual storytelling – some of the best of Spielberg’s career – topped by a mad dash Joey makes to escape, in which the battlefield is revealed in all its hellish glory via an array of seemingly impossible follow shots. The set piece is ambitious in an old school fashion most directors wouldn’t dare attempt.

In the midst of one of the most astonishing war sequences in a filmography full of them (the hallucinatory gas attack is one of the most harrowing images Spielberg has ever committed to film), War Horse halts to wrap its broad themes with a bow. After sprinting from bunker to bunker, Joey ends up caught in a tangle of razor wire, which drags the mighty animal to the turf. A British solider (Toby Kebbell) spots the beast on the field and decides to wave the white flag in order to save the poor, twitching symbol of nobility from the clutches of certain death. After a moment of trepidation, a German solider (Hinnerk Schönemann) joins him, and together they cut Joey free from the deadly cluster. Watching from their respective bunkers, their comrades witness the act of unlikely teamwork – two sworn enemies putting their weapons down and working together to briefly forget whatever nationalistic grievances have put them at odds. In this moment, they’re simply human beings, hoping to save the life of an innocent creature that had no control over its participation in these events. If any image speaks to the utter futility of war more clearly, it has yet to find its way to the silver screen.

Joey and Albert – who has enlisted in service for his country – are reunited, thus bringing the tall tale full circle. Spielberg goes into Ford hyper-drive with the finale of his film, placing importance on the spiritual reclamation of both boy and horse. Even the final moments are lensed in evocative silhouettes that recall The Searchers. Only War Horse doesn’t feel like mere homage, but rather the endgame the director had been hinting at since shooting Robert Shaw against a purple horizon in Jaws. Working with Kaminski, the duo has crafted a movie Ford may have actually admired, were he alive in 2011 to see it. Instead of simply paying tribute, Spielberg can now count himself an absolute equal to America’s greatest studio director.

To criticize War Horse for its saccharinity (as many critics have and continue to do) seems to miss the point of Spielberg’s picture entirely. Yes, the movie is a melodramatic transmission, beamed straight from the Beard’s heart into your lizard brain. But Spielberg isn’t attempting to create a grueling portrait of war like his game-changing combat extravaganza, Saving Private Ryan. Events that we recognize as human history occur within the movie’s narrative, but they’re dramatized to the point of anti-reality and wrapped around a universal tale of innocence lost and found. War Horse is the grandest of filmic gestures, a segmented opera that sports its soul on its sleeve and implores you to get lost in its classical formalist textures. Some may find this forthright emphasis on feeling to be corny, but to others its pure cinema, utilizing a celluloid canvas to paint a Technicolor portrait in an outdated fashion. Epics don’t come more grand or sweeping.

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