War Horse: Spielberg's awesome masterpiece of overkill
Steven Spielberg’s reliance on sentimental overkill nearly smothers his WWI epic, War Horse, but there are also countless moments in this film only Spielberg could achieve. Working with his longtime director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, and the composer John Williams, Spielberg has crafted an old-fashioned adventure story which is overshot and overscored and oversold, but also relentlessly effective. Schmaltz, blood-and-guts, and moments of quiet heroism are blended into a commercial cocktail that deliver both a rousing moviegoing experience and an exemplary lesson on film craft. War Horse is never dull and always stunning to look at, even if it is as predictable as a cash register.
Once the movie begins, in the rugged stony heath of the Devonshire countryside, you can bet it will also end there, with a honey-hued homecoming of boy and horse. The through-line of this film, that both young Albert and his steed, Joey, will not only survive one of the bloodiest wars in England’s history but also be reunited, is the fantasy engine that drives the story through some otherwise realistic and gripping episodes, including a battlefield sequence reminiscent of both Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a breathtaking dawn execution of two German deserters, and a tortuous scene of a panicked Joey galloping into a slicing net of barbed wire. But there are also regrettable moments of tearjerking hogwash in which we’re asked to believe that Joey and his master’s story are more important than the human misery and terror going on around them.
Spielberg and Kaminski, working on a scale which makes the monumental Westerns of John Ford look like home video, soak the screen in one gorgeous composition after another, each one bathed in an almost hyperrealistic natural light, an effect so impossible not to drool over that you marvel at the imagery while ignoring, Spielberg hopes, the flat and perfunctory nature of the dialogue and the acting. Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and the lad, Jeremy Irvine, look authentic enough, but their scenes with each other are straight out of an old apron-and-apple pie Disney film. The movie’s straightforward narrative introduces new characters with a sensitive intimacy, but then casually dismisses them. Again, Spielberg hopes you won’t notice, and he thankfully has John Williams, working with the bombast turned up to eleven, to distract you from the untidy intrusion of real feeling.
Yes, War Horse intimidates with the ego and talents of three giants of the craft, Spielberg, Kaminski and Williams, working hard to overwhelm. The effect is too much too often, but you can’t say these three don’t know what they’re doing. Kaminski, famous for eschewing the now-fashionable tools of digital cinema, makes a case for the enduring malleable beauty of film stock, delivering a swoon of muscular images. Williams, too, is a master at the epic score, knowing instinctively when to quiet his ham-fisted orchestrations. And with Spielberg you can still see the excitement and sheer genius of the former boy wonder at work, both in his use of foreground as a subtle framing device, his brilliant editorial schemes–his gift of knowing the exact shots to enter and exit scenes–and his feel for the authentic environment, whether it be the bloodied trench of battle or the golden sunset of the shire. The director has also found a way to portray screen violence realistically in what is, essentially, a children’s movie.
War Horse is, typically for Steven Spielberg, expensive, indulgent, entertaining hooey. But 99 out of 100 other directors will go to their graves still wondering how he does it.