To take on John Ford—a task for Peckinpah, Cimino, Eastwood—is to take on the tension between burnished iconography and blemished reality. For Steven Spielberg, who as a young man famously received some advice from the cranky titan himself (“Learn where to put the horizon on the screen, and get the hell out of my office,” or something like that), it means the problem with How Green Was My Valley is that it wasn’t green enough. So War Horse opens with sprawling, ostentatiously verdant aerial vistas of a storybook England. The closing shot, by contrast, is a billboard-sized canvas of silhouettes against burnt-orange skies that comes off more like South Pacific than Gone with the Wind. Between these two visions of grandiose artifice lies the obstacle course for the titular steed, a slender thoroughbred named Joey first seen as a newborn stumbling like Bambi.
The Spielberg push-pull—the way a trenchant slap is always followed by a reassuring cuddle, as if the director had suddenly realized that he had gone too far and pulled back apologetically—is already clear in the horse’s first owner, a soused farmer and former Boer War soldier (Peter Mullan) who just about ruins himself in outbidding his greedy landlord (David Thewlis) at an auction. The class injustices that drive a poor man to make himself even poorer for the sake of a brief victory over a rich man are laid out with startling clarity…and then along comes the comic-relief pet goose, honking away. Likewise, the torturous plowing of a stony field for turnips becomes such a stage for viewer-friendly uplift that the whole town comes to watch and cheer. Since it’s the 1910s, however, an even bigger spectacle is around the corner as the Great War wedges itself between a puddle-eyed youngster (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved pony. A British cavalry officer of soft-to-the-touch, John Mills-type earnestness (Tom Hiddleston), a pair of cherubic German deserters and a French salt-of-the-earth rustic (Niels Arestrup) are some of the folks who supply generalized routines of laddish eagerness, cruelty, stubbornness and nobility for the animal to blankly witness. (The urge to relate any of this to Au Hasard Balthazar really should be resisted—isn’t "Thou should not take Bresson’s name in vain" one of the Commandments?)
Bertolucci once extolled Sergio Leone for his cinematic handling of horses: He focused on their rears, rather than on their “beautiful but banal” profiles. War Horse is an all-profile epic, even when all that’s visible on screen is one of Joey’s inky pupils. Working with lustrous celluloid while switching for the first time to digital editing, Spielberg showcases his unifying motifs: The clash of the sheltered and the unknown, a fascination with large-scale, dehumanizing carnage (trench warfare is vividly visualized as a welter of mud, warped metal and billowing clouds of poison gas), daddy issues, a faith in faces and in the expressiveness of film. And yet, all the sumptuous pomp and sweep add up to little more than an inflated remake of Lassie Come Home, a step backwards from his mostly splendid mature films that feels closer to the labored and hollow Spielberg pastiche of Super 8. The fascinating bits are the bizarre ones, the moments of possibly subconscious thrashing that suggest an unsettled artist clawing against his own gold-plated cage of prestige and respectability: A dash of no-man’s-land absurdism as the horse endures a protracted barbed-wire crucifixion, or a reunion between the now-sightless Irvine and his equine object of obsession (staged before an awestruck doctor who magically forgets all about the other dying soldiers) that plays like a silent-movie anagram of Equus. May this strangeness flourish in the upcoming Lincoln biopic, Spielberg’s next round with the shadows of Ford.