…that is of course unless that horse is a War Horse!
People have been crying for years that they don’t make films like they used to, but don’t tell that to Steven Spielberg. That silly Jewish lad from Haddon Township, NJ has been making films like they used to since the 1970’s. His patented brand of cloying sentimentality perplexed me even as a child (I say BOO to you, Mr. E.T.!) but when he was able to combine that with a true sense of wonder (Close Encounters of a Third Kind, I have always loved yee) or found ways to mature it and place it in the context of history and war (cough cough Saving Private Ryan…sniff sniff Schindler’s List) he catapults himself into the ranks of the greatest of pop-culture entertainers.
With his latest, War Horse, Spielberg pays homage to the grand Hollywood epics of the 1930’s and 1940’s in the same manner with which he paid homage to the low-budget matinée serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also conjures up some of that old Spielberg magic by taking the subgenre of the “Horse Tear-jerker” (a female-targeted niche) and serving it up avec “Epic War Movie” to get guys in the seats. Release it on Christmas Day following a lush marketing campaign targeted to discerning filmgoers of all ages, and gosh dang it, Stevey Old Boy, you’ve done it again! It’s a bloody crowd pleaser, I say, old chap!
Essentially this is a simple tale of a boy and his horse and their adventures, trials and tribulation during World War I. The early scenes are reminiscent of How Green Is My Valley by way of The Black Stallion, while the later portions take a cue from All Quiet on the Western Front (all quiet except for this John Williams music score). It almost doesn’t matter that much of it doesn’t make a lick of sense and is riddled with contrivances and two too many side stories full of earnest actors speaking English with bad German and French accents. There’s a poor British lad (played by someone unknown I’m told) with a deep sorrowful voice crying about his ‘orrrrse. His salt-of-the-earth tenant farmer parents are played wonderfully by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson. There’s some other people doing other things at other times, and they’re all played nicely by some familiar looking one-dimensional folks.
By many measures this is an odd film based on an allegedly award-winning stage-play (featuring a horse puppet) that was based on a novel. Yet it seems to fit Spielberg’s juvenile worldview like a glove where all boys find their most meaningful connections with animals or aliens, wars of equal parts gallantry and horror are just on the horizon, mothers are always stern but kind, French peasants love to harbor people/animals being hunted down by Germans, and little girls are fragile breakable things. Through it all gallops the titular equine, traversing each episode and obstacle with steadfast determination and a driving will to make it home and be reunited with his boy.
I’d argue that the film could’ve been trimmed by thirty minutes and at least one of the episodes (I dunno, let’s say the one with the young German brothers) could’ve been lifted all together and resulted in a tighter more resonant film, but then it wouldn’t have been soooooo epic and I suppose Spielberg did owe it to someone to be true to the source material. I could nitpick about the lovable goose character suddenly being absent from the denouement (perhaps they cooked that goose for Christmas dinner one year or maybe the goose had its own adventures and there’s a War Goose sequel in the works) or I could complain about the normally smart horse’s sudden stupidity involving barbed wire, but really…does any of that matter when you get a gorgeous sunset-drenched family reunion on a British hillside that looks like it was ripped from Gone With the Wind?
Longtime Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kaminski (whose cinematography has never looked more lush and better lit than it does here) and John Williams (whose score is note and epic swell perfect) pull out all the stops to help the film coalesce into something more enjoyable and memorable than it has any right to be. The two deserve whatever award nominations should come their way. Combine it all with that old Spielberg mojo, and you have a film easy to fault, but damn near impossible to dislike.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.
Yes, son, there is a War Horse.
And yes, folks, they sometimes do make ’em like they used to.