The trailer for this film played to many as a joke, a satirical sketch akin to something that you would see on Funny or Die, so obvious were both its sentimentality and Speilbergality. The comedy stemmed from the fact that the concept alone is a combination of two of Spielberg’s most commonly explored tropes: the battlefields of wars past and the pets of young boys, following as it does the daring adventures of a horse that is raised in rural England then shipped off to fight in that last, great war. What is less obvious from the trailer though is just how mature a film this is; though the jokes were funny Spielberg has never been so serious and Funny or Die has never, ever been this well directed.
Though the opening sections are on the surface the usual scenes you would expect to see in your average boy-meets-dog picture ( the script quite often refers to Joey, the horse, as a dog in reference to the genre that it truly belongs to, biology aside) after this introductory half hour the film takes a daring turn of its own, splintering into a series of vignettes tied together only by the presence of this tough thoroughbred. It is in this way not a traditional feature, but rather an anthology film and as unusual as this idea is in contemporary media it still sits rather seamlessly upon the screen.
Jumping from trench to trench and front to front, tethered only by the reigns on Joey’s back is a contrived construction yes, but it is also one that allows for a remarkably broad scope depiction of its topic. Each story is around the length of a short film; long enough then to get to know the charming characters and their wonderful worlds before we get to see how war can come and in seconds tear both apart. Though it lacks the depth of a full-length feature this is ultimately a much more moving approach and one that speaks more to the communal suffering of war than it does the specific.
That is until the story attempts to wrap back around to its humble beginnings and connect all of the characters into one central journey, that of the boy. This is where the contrivances burst through the seams and the sentimentality seeps out the cracks caused like literal sap. Ultimately then there simply isn’t room for the film to move, it’s over bridled and cannot be both of the films that it promised to be. Spielberg has to choose one word from the title to focus on, either the war or the horse, and despite this slight attempt at compromise the film is really about the former.
The horse, as charming and courageous a character as it is ( and it surely is both, Spielberg owns omniscient animals this summer with Snowy also on our screens) stands strongly as a metaphorical reflection of the people it encounters. Just as one cannot truly see their shadow without the sun, without the innocence of animals as an offset we also cannot truly comprehend the horrors of humanity; they are the counterpoint, the yin to our yang. And oh the horror, the horror! Those expecting E.T. on all fours need leave now, if anything this is more reminiscent of Schindler’s List than that lovable flick.
Some argued that war was glorified in Saving Private Ryan’s stunning, visceral action sequences but no-one could say the same Of Spielberg here. Despite its focus War Horse is not an action film, in fact there are very few scenes of action to be found anywhere within it and those that are tend to be more impressionistic than visceral. For example, the first battle scene shows the heroic british cavalry charging not an opposing army of faceless fascists as most do but a simple group of separate human beings; the simple tasks that they are attending to when they hear the horde of hooves instantly humanizes them and this destabilizes us as viewers. In an elegant touch we are not shown the cavalrymen fall, instead we watch as they charge the guns, then cut to riderless horses leaping overhead. The entire film is censored in this way, we never see anything occur that could conceivably be called ’cool’ and yet the impact of the action is entirely unadulterated.
Obviously, ’War is bad’ is a message older than the movies themselves and yet it is one that still seems to need saying. What makes this film fresh though is the way in which it embraces this vintaged quality and puts it to work on the plow. The film stock used is if the highest quality and the logistics and effects are thoroughly modern and yet the film both looks and feels like an old John Ford western. The way in which the sun sets in the background, over these focus pulling picturesque backgrounds is very old school and the film has the tone of drama to match. It is by far the classiest production of the year and just stunning to stare at. Spielbergs best looking film? I think it would be hard to argue against.
This class however is a double edged blade because as well as adopting the style of the era Spielberg has also taken in the feel of the location, incorporating a stiff upper lip into his style in the same way one does an accent. This is a very British film, and i’m not just talking about the actors. Though it will certainly jerk tears from the audience at times, especially during that finale that I criticized earlier, the film itself lacks some feeling. It’s essentially a melodrama, a genre which, despite being constantly overblown on the surface, is in its own way very repressed. I feel like I could have felt more for these people if only the film would have let me.
So though War Horse is without a doubt a strong and diligent animal, it’s one that cuts a wide and uneven swathe through its field and falls short on the ride. It’s not a work horse, it’s a prize animal; one to look at, not one to harness. That though is fine when the film is this well-bred. So no it’s not a joke,nor is it really even remotely funny but this sweeping, sentimental epic is without a doubt entertaining in a way that movies haven’t been for quite some time.