Of all the Directed Viewing projects I’ve done so far, Spielberg has easily been the most difficult to summarize. Maybe it’s the mainstreamness of his films, or the lack of authorial intent, but by the time I was finished catching up on all his movies in the summer of 2011 I was so sick of him I barely wanted to write about the experience. I ended up making a giant, half-hearted list of impressions (you can see it here), and it was in many ways the impetus that led me to now take Directed Viewing entries on a film by film basis so I’m not left trying to summarize at the end and unsure quite how to proceed.
Maybe some day I’ll go back and talk about those movies. I certainly have opinions on a lot of them. But in the meantime, Spielberg has made more movies, and now that I’m doing these continued amendments to the projects I’ve done I am left trying to cover his new releases. I’ve already talked some about The Adventures of Tintin during my favorite films of 2011 article (seen here) so I probably won’t retread any of that ground. Besides, as far as Spielberg films go, aside from his directorial flourishes it is one of the least Spielberg films outside of A.I., redolent with the influence of the screenwriters and Peter Jackson and of course the books it is based on.
Which leaves us just one movie to cover. Yeah, you know which one. That movie.
War Horse (2011)
I fully expected to hate War Horse. From the outset, the idea of a movie about a horse and World War I and Spielberg just seemed like the most baldly manipulative thing I could imagine. Hell, I saw Always and The Color Purple. When Spielberg wants to lay thick the saccharine, there’s little to stop him from upsetting even good ideas by going too far (not that Always is good, in fact it’s easily his worst movie, but this nonsense also spoiled the last ten minutes of the otherwise pretty great War of the Worlds so it’s a concern). This was not helped by a trailer, linked below, that is absolutely ridiculous, edited in such a way that you could construe the story to be about a horse who has pseudo love interests and feels very patriotic and responds to speeches with concerted, grim British determination. It’s maybe the dumbest, most unintentionally hilarious trailer I’ve seen for a movie I ended up liking.
That’s the story here, though, a minor miracle of expectations being thwarted: I genuinely like War Horse. With all my cynicism and general apathy towards ‘animal movies’ firmly in place, I saw it all stripped away through sheer talent for storytelling and a sense of genuine earnestness that seemed ready to dare me to dismiss it as sappy nonsense. War Horse is, in many ways, a brave film, outright challenging Spielberg’s detractors as much as it is built to delight his fans. The secret to this double play, apparently, lies almost entirely in structure and presentation.
War Horse is a World War I movie because it can be nothing else. Taking place nearly a century ago, with every person and event it references only a part of history for all but a handful of people on Earth, War Horse from the beginning is less concerned with realism than it is with a pastoral romanticism. The England it paints isn’t to be found in reality, but is instead the rolling hills and charming rural peoples of a thousand Anglophile stories told in fiction for centuries. From the start, it’s an artificiality that is built to create less a real place but instead a symbol of a place: the endlessly unspoiled land that subtly evokes the matte paintings of old Hollywood; the lovably stubborn farmers; the amazing, fantastical lighting that paints every scene with its own unique reality. Oh, and an asshole goose.
There is a very obvious tipping point when you’re either going to come along for the ride War Horse is going on or realize it’s ‘not for you’ and that happens fairly early on in the movie. Joey, the horse in question, is being taught to plow a field he has no business plowing. His master/trainer Albert, a young boy ashamed of his father’s financial troubles that led to them nearly losing this farm, ends up nearly working to death both himself and Joey to plow a huge, rocky field one day and night during the pouring rain. At first the town comes out to see him fail, then ends up cheering him on, only to leave when the work turns grim and the stubbornness too much for onlookers to observe. It is the first hero moment, unabashedly asking you to root for this horse and this boy and their efforts to do what seems impossible, not even bothering to hide the appeal to a baser emotional nature with a stirring score and a grandiose sense of triumph attached to the moment.
That’s the linchpin of detangling what works so well about War Horse. It isn’t a naturalistic film, predicated on some concept of realism; it’s idyllic, romantic, happy to delight in concepts of what should be over what was or is. It is a conscious rejection of the trend in movies these days towards the ‘grim and gritty’ (the epitome of which, Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, managed to open at nearly the same time). It is happy being sentimental, recognizing that as a thing to treasure. Cynics need not apply, unless they’re willing to be won over by charm and emotion put on screen by someone who knows how to use them without unfairly manipulating the audience.
And all of this effort to build up these emotional attachments comes up against one of the most brutal and senseless wars in modern history. By the time the World War I part rolls around, and Joey ends up being handed off from soldier to soldier across both sides of the conflict, Spielberg’s dual mastery is ready at hand. His skill in battle scenes is still in many ways the gold standard, and the scenes in the trenches towards the end of the film are a stark, terrible contrast to the opening, filled with death and horror shot with an eye for spectacle that never forgets the human element of the conflict. It’s exciting, but in the bad way of fight or flight, terror writ onto every face and violence pounded into every scene. It’s a reminder that what made the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan instantly famous wasn’t necessarily the action itself, but how utterly it painted war as an evil simply by showing its arbitrary destruction of human life.
War Horse rides into this territory with the same surety that it covers the softer, quieter moments, doing so on the attachment it tried so earnestly to build up around a lead character that never speaks and arguably only has the dimmest idea of what is happening to him. It’s a strange thing, animal movies, a delicate balance of relatability and recognition of otherness. But through that main character comes a metaphor for incorruptibility, of an innocence that can never quite be lost, of someone unable to choose being thrust into this terrible situation.
I’ve heard it said by a few movie critics that War Horse is Spielberg’s answer to Lord of the Rings, a book written primarily as Tolkien’s way to express the courage of his generation in the face of the newly wrought mechanized horrors of the first (where he fought) and the second (where he watched the generation after him get decimated) World Wars. I’m not sure it’s entirely conscious, but it casts in clear light the intention of Spielberg’s aims, from the idealism of the farm where Joey begins and ends just like that of The Shire and the endless barbarism of the war not entirely different than the wastes of Mordor. It’s certainly something to think about, and as a metaphor for humans dealing with questions of evil and bravery works on the same level as that book and those movies (though not nearly as abstracted).
And it’s that same sense of heavy burden coming after the war that colors the ending of War Horse. I feel it the elegant and not-obvious choice to leave the two leads alive at the end of the film, foregoing the obvious tragic ending for the realization that these two individuals will in some way never be the same again. That change, that fundamental alteration of nature, is the true legacy of war and of how men rise up to tackle it. It’s noble, perhaps, but ultimately terrible and costly. When Joey and Albert come home, the sky a fire red that no sky has ever been, casting everything in crimson light, you get the sense that returning home is both a final relief and understanding that they can never truly escape. Albert greets his father, a veteran haunted by his actions in the Second Boer War, not with a hug of familial love but the handshake of men who recognize kindred burdens. That is the legacy of War Horse and of many of Spielberg’s attempts to portray the history of the last century of film: not a story of triumph, but of humanity’s struggle to be better than its own evil.