Ah, Spielberg. Probably the most renowned and prolific director in history. His name alone can sell a movie. “Well, it’s Spielberg.” Simple. Direct. He’s come to embody an expectation of quality, one that he will never escape at this point (and why would he?). Still, even with arguably the most impressive resume in Hollywood history he isn’t without his flubs. And, believe me, it’s not easy to critique the work of someone of his magnitude. Spielberg is by no means a God, but a man that has followed his passion as a filmmaker down the rabbit hole, much farther than most could ever dream. For better or for worse, Spielberg has followed his gut and made films that inspire him, even if not every one turns out to be a crowd-pleaser. For me, films like A.I., ALWAYS, and HOOK are the weakest of his works, but even those are a thousand times more enjoyable than some of your standard fare.
In short, Spielberg is, without a doubt, a splendid filmmaker, who has established himself as someone to expect greatness from. The question is: Is that a good or bad thing? With expectation comes the possibility of poor reaction at the smallest sign of something being “off.” As an artist grows in popularity and his style becomes easily recognizable it can lead to a somewhat negative or cynical outlook on his work. “Well, it’s Spielberg” takes on a whole new meaning. Spielberg has said in past interviews that he loves to see people’s faces as they react, as they experience emotion, just hovering on them as they soak in an experience. It’s exceptionally evident that he enjoys that as his “slow push in” shots of characters experiencing everything from war, aliens, slavery, and other not so great things, their faces displaying an emotional response that holds for a longer-than-usual shot. Personally, I think these shots are part of what makes Spielberg’s films so special: He takes the time to let you get in the character’s head. In an age of quick cut, get-to-the-action films, it’s great to see someone stick to their guns and maintain that presence.
Spielberg is uncompromising in his vision and I love that about his work. I’m sure he’s sacrificed certain things throughout his career, but ultimately he holds true to what’s important to him and I believe that to be the “wonder” of cinema. In many ways, Spielberg is remaking the same film, taking his characters through a journey of discovery, of wonder, of self realization. For some, it may feel like this is too much of a rehash to get involved in his work. For me, it’s something you can count on.
For WAR HORSE, Spielberg’s latest opus, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, the director takes us on a very familiar journey, but in a setting we haven’t been in for this type of tale. It’s playful, emotional, rousing, sad, and inspiring, instilling the same sense of wonder that Spielberg gives to his best work. For that alone, WAR HORSE is a film worth seeing. The film begins with wonder and innocence and ends with inspiration and humility. How many films can you say actually took you on a journey of that magnitude? Okay, besides Step Up 3D?
WAR HORSE begins in familiar territory as a young boy named Albert (what we’ll call the Elliot, another Spielbergian trait) who is filled with curiosity and youthful spirit. He is instantly drawn to a newly born Bay horse with white socks, following it around the farmlands of rural England. During an auction for the horse, Albert’s proud father (Peter Mullen) buys the horse in a particularly fun bidding war between him and his “evil” landlord (David Thewlis). He brings the horse home, much to the shock and dismay of his wife (the always engaging Emily Watson). As a farmer, Albert’s father needed a plow horse, but bought the Bay horse instead.
Albert is instantly enthused and embraces the horse he’d been so in awe of before, naming him Joey. Albert and Joey become inseparable as Albert takes to training and bonding with the horse. However, Albert’s father is soon faced with the need to plow the farm, let alone pay his rent, which is rather difficult when you bid more than you can spare to buy a horse that isn’t made for what you need. Got all that?
For whatever reason, Albert’s father has faith in the horse and promises to have his fields plowed and planted and rent paid with interest. It becomes a humorous joke to the landlord and the first major hurdle in Albert’s journey. How do you get a Bay horse to plow a field? In one of the most rousing moment’s, Albert is able to accomplish the impossible and it’s a reminder of why Spielberg has the power that he does. Spielberg, like Albert, believes. Or, at least he wants to. He believes deeply in overcoming obstacles, beating the odds, and, in the end, winning the day. If you think about it, most of Spielberg’s films follow this lineage to a certain degree, even if the outcomes aren’t always as cheery (see SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHINDLER’S LIST).
Time marches on and as Albert’s father struggles to keep up with his rent he is forced to sell Joey, much to Albert’s objection. Joey is sold to an English Officer, played by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston (the villain from THOR…in case you didn’t catch my Loki reference). The Officer is moved by Albert’s insistence on keeping the horse and proposes that he will return the horse to Albert if he can. Albert swears to Joey that they will be reunited and with that they are separated.
Thus begins Joey’s journey, which takes him through the perils of World War 1, his reins being passed from owner to owner as he witnesses the war from every side of the war; The British, The Germans, The Americans, and The French. Whether being used to charge a German camp, Haul artillery guns, Carriage wounded, or ridden by a young girl, Joey stands as the one constant witness to the bleak and ugly harshness of everyone involved in the war, be they Soldiers, Civilians, or other Horses.
Joey bonds with a black Arabian horse named Topflight, who becomes his “battle buddy” throughout his journey, which serves to further show the sacrifices made not just by people, but by animals during war. There are a number of brutal scenes in WAR HORSE, but Spielberg handles them deftly. This isn’t SAVING PRIVATE RYAN bloody. The violence is handled subtly, but not ignored. Spielberg has made a film that could easily be handled by a fourth grader on up, but taking anyone younger will likely you have up all night with a sobbing child. Best to stick with the Muppets if you fall into that category.
Spielberg’s lifelong musical collaborator John Williams is back in top form here, producing the best score he’s done for a film since STAR WARS: EPISODE 3. It’s rare enough to get a Williams’ score and this is a real treat for your ear holes. Williams’ music lends a severe amount of emotional impact to every scene, as is usually the case with his work. He can make the most lamented film a tearjerker; Imagine Williams scoring the latest Adam Sandler or Step Up movie. You would be moved to tears and not by the sheer pile of movie turd that was just wiped in your eye.
WAR HORSE is one of Williams’ crowning score achievements in my opinion and it fits the film perfectly. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski once again delivers a moving work of art in terms of cinematography. He’s truly gifted and it makes you wish he could lend his talents to every film being made today. The cast delivers on all counts, although I wasn’t necessarily blown away by Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert. He does a fine job, sure, but nothing that would make me believe he’s the next DiCaprio. I’m sure that’s not the point. However, I did feel that he is the only one who could’ve given just a tad more in his performance.
The horses used in the film are all beautiful animals and I’m always amazed at how they are captured in a feature length film. The training and logistics have to be a nightmare for these kinds of films and I extend a box of kudos to Spielberg and co. for making something this epic featuring a horse in nearly every scene of the film. That’s no small feat. I also love that Spielberg stuck to mostly practical effects. One of the chief complaints of the last Indiana Jones was the use of clumsy and highly noticeable CGI and that simply isn’t the case here. I’m sure there is a generous amount that’s snuck in, but I never noticed.
WAR HORSE is an emotional journey that shows the perils of war from the unique perspective of an animal. I never felt that it was pro or anti war, merely a picture of it. I’m sure everyone will draw their own conclusions. For me, like most Spielberg films, it’s about the journey. The transition from pure innocence to the harsh reality of the cold, cruel world to the final understanding and eventual glimpse of hope that shines through in the end, WAR HORSE is every bit a moving, old-fashioned, sentimental film, chock full of the Spielberg spirit we’ve come accustomed to expect. The more I’ve thought about this film, the more I like it and I sincerely look forward to a second viewing. In this instance, “It’s Spielberg,” is a great thing.
For shits and giggles, take a look at this video, which highlights “The Spielberg Face.”