I’m a terrible person. I know that I should like War Horse. It’s not even that I am afraid of/resistant to sentimentality. I fully expected this to be a full-throated emotional and sentimental film, and that would have been OK. I even thought that the film would be in the same class as The Artist and Hugo, and would have been the third part of a trilogy of films this past year looking back to the golden or olden days of film—in this case, when films weren’t afraid to go big with the emotional moment. When films earn their sentimentality, I’m right there cheering.
But War Horse isn’t a sentimental story. It’s THE PENTULTIMATE BOY-AND-ANIMAL STORY. There are no characters, just archetypes. Where does one begin? Jeremy Irvine (The Boy) handles his scenes well, and may be a real actor. But who can tell? He’s just the boy who loves the horse, not a specific individual. Even his face is of a piece with this—he’s Young Handsome Strapping Lad, not a person. Dad (Peter Mullan) is every slightly lovable drunken dad who is still loved by his family, though his personal decisions regarding his family’s support are well nigh appalling (he really should be Irish). Mom is not just The Boy’s mother, but is Everymom who cajoles and nags, but of course really loves her weak-willed and lazy husband after all is said and done (and when did Emily Watson go from fragile to sturdy and indomitable?)
The look is luscious, sun-dappled, honeyed and relentlessly archetypal. It’s not just beautiful, but is filled with Everyshots. The shots of boy and horse are not this boy and this horse, but are shot against the sky, with perfect painterly lighting and a dedication to a studied resistance to individuation. The war footage is not these folks in this war in these trenches, but has “This Is War” stamped on every frame. And perhaps most in-your-face of all (spoiler alert) is when Boy returns from War, and we are treated to the All-Time Mom Greets Returning Son shots. It’s not Albert coming home, but All Sons Coming Home from Every War. The shots here are so self-conscious that we lose all sense of the genuinely emotional reality of A son returning home; it’s stunning to the eye, and only lightly touching upon the heart.
The film’s look reminds me of a combination of Days of Heaven, Barry Lyndon and Gone with the Wind. (You’ll also find Joyeux Noel, Old Yeller, the Atlanta crane shot from Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, and a dozen more Hollywood classics here.) Barry Lyndon was so self-consciously artful that it was distracting. Days of Heaven was gorgeous, but its cinematography lovingly contained, even augmented, the story. Gone with the Wind is Gone with the Wind. War Horse’s look keeps pulling us out of the story to the Idea, and its beauty, which is often enough on its own in an epic, is a near-constant slave to the archetypical. Occasionally, the beauty and self-consciousness work together to the film’s benefit, as when (spoiler alert #2) the young German boys are killed, and the sweeping arms of the windmill both hide their death and make a welcome small comment about the relentlessness of war, hate and death.
The acting is good throughout, but is uniformly generic, or classic, or Hollywood studio, whatever you want to call it. It’s a good 20+ minutes too long, and the barbed wire scene in particular goes on for far too long. And the music! As a musician who respects John Williams immensely, I’m confused. At times it’s rich and full as a classic epic film. But it seems to want to be a throwback as well, as it sounds straight from the ’40s; it seems to be a little too old and a little too bold in telling us that we’re supposed to guffaw “right now” and then well up later. He’s as master a craftsman as Spielberg, so the style must be purposeful. It seems to be riffing on music styles that now seem too leading or manipulative, and therefore seems to call attention to itself as an historical homage rather than an integral score.
The morality of the piece is fascinating. It’s set during WWI, and one might think the Germans are the bad guys and the British and French the good. But what is moral here is an appreciation of Joey, The Horse. He/she who appreciates Joey and “gets” him is good; those who don’t are bad or inconsequential.
There is a power to specificity. Annie Hall is a great relationship film while still being set in the 1970s on Manhattan’s West Side. The death of the “girl in the red coat” in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is one of the most powerful visual statements about the Holocaust by virtue of the girl’s anonymity and individuality. War Horse is a Grand Statement by a master craftsman who is completely in control of his craft. Spielberg isn’t accidental about any technical element of his filmmaking, but the film’s lack of power and emotional can’t be deliberate.