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Review: Steven Spielberg's "War Horse"

All of Spielberg's sumptuous pomp and sweep add up to little more than an inflated equine remake of _Lassie Come Home_.
War Horse

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.

I find most of Spielberg unwatchable for the simple fact that he makes melodramas. It is by definition something that manipulates your emotions. Can’t I make up my own mind how I want to feel? It’s like Disney where all the fun is programmed, and they tell you where to stand to take your pictures.
I don’t have a problem with a director telling me how to feel. Hitchcock certainly did well with it, although he manipulated his audiences to feel fear and terror, whereas Spielberg sticks to the sentimental end of the spectrum. My main problem with Spielberg is that the feelings are simply less interesting.
I don’t think being a melodrama makes something unwatchable, as some of the great masters of the past were masters of melodrama. See Sirk, Ray, Minnelli. I highly recommend reading Linda Williams’ “Melodrama Revised” in which she not only places Spielberg into the context of American melodrama going back to Griffith, but also gets to the heart of why many of us find melodrama problematic.
Whether affixed with bumper stickers that say War Is Hell or Be Kind To Animals, “War Horse” plods through a well-trod turf. The nadir of the fable is a mawkish vignette that drops Joey into the arms of a French farmer’s sugar-sweet granddaughter who seems airlifted in from a 1930s Deanna Durbin movie…. By the time the climax is dragged in, the battle for the audience’s minds, if not their hearts, is over. In the thick of a battle between the British and Germans at the Somme, Joey becomes the catalyst for the most improbable wartime plot turn since McHale joined the Navy…. (Entire review now playing at deepintomovies.blogspot and on Facebook as Deeper Into Movies.)
“Thou should not take Bresson’s name in vain”, absolutely and especially when there is a horse/donkey mixed in sprawling melodrama.
are you a profesional critic or are you a scholar of the dvd extras? everything you reference here i’ve heard on special editions of fan favorite films, while you didn’t grasp hardly any of the complex themes on the film. that’s ok. there’ll be a WAR HORSE criterion special edition at some point were you’ll be explained why it is good and what it’s about and you’ll like it then. just a matter of time.
I enjoyed the film. The sappiness never turned me off, and I like his attempt to weave a large ensemble piece together. It felt a touch experimental for Spielberg.

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