On War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s movie about a horse who goes to war is as pretty as it is preposterous.  It’s gotten positive reviews from a wide array of critics, including some very good ones, and a Best Picture nomination.  It’s better than I thought it was going to be; given the advertising I had pretty low expectations.  It just looked like the most overbearing schmaltzy nonsense, but I should have remembered that even the worst Spielberg films at least look great.  This is going to end up sounding more negative than I really feel about the film, mostly because I just don’t understand the arguments being used to in favor of its greatness.  I thought it was fine, a lovely, silly movie.  Better than Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Ron Howard’s Far and Away, but somewhere in that area.

One thing that constantly pops up in reviews of the film is that it is a harkening back to an older style of filmmaking, often dropping names like Ford, Lean, Borzage and Capra and genres like melodrama, but I don’t really understand what is so old fashioned about it.  There are shots that recall Gone with the Wind and The Quiet Man, but that’s not what people are referring to, and anyways the film is more Spielbergian in visual style than anything else (and he remains a composer of lovely, often striking images and excellent editor, this film would play brilliantly with the sound turned off).  The film’s sentimentality can’t be what is old fashioned about it, because sentimental films get made every year, and it seems to me that the kind of sentimentality it presents, a very obviously constructed and manipulative kind of sentimentality, is more a product of modern cynicism than anything else, that and the obligatorily overbearing John Williams score.  This kind of broad emotionality has long been a major part of Spielberg’s work, but I’d say it’s a lot more effectively done in films like ET or Empire of the Sun, which are grounded in a real world filled with unusual and complex characters, than this one which exists in a kind of theoretical movie-world filled with cartoons. 

I’m frankly flabbergasted by any comparisons with John Ford, who never made a film whose characters and relationships were this lacking in nuance.  Franks Borzage and Capra make a little more sense, but in their films the emotions grow organically out of the characters and their specific spiritual/political belief systems, whereas in War Horse every sequence is built instead around the emotional note Spielberg wants to hammer into you.  Compare the construction of a Borzage film like Street Angel or Seventh Heaven, built around small-scale character interactions that slowly build to an ecstatic spiritual release, one that, despite its unreality is made believable by the solidity of the characters and their relationship with each other, to the construction of War Horse, which leaps from emotion to emotion with no time for character development in between.  This is partly a byproduct of the film’s episodic nature, but even the central relationship of the film, the one that bookends and unbalances it, the relationship between Albie the English Farmboy and Joey the Horse begins at 11 and never modulates, never deepens.  Instead, the characters we get are pure types: precocious but sickly girl, kindly grandfather, naive kids, cruel German and all kinds of horse-lovers: melancholy rich officers, kind-hearted fat man, determinedly insouciant Englishmen, etc.  It’s telling that the most authentic, believable relationship in the film, and one of the loveliest same-sex partnerships I’ve seen in awhile, is between two horses.

Bilge Ebiri makes a decent case for the movie over at his blog and I buy what he’s saying up to a point, especially as regards the film’s ending, which he seems to think is a lot less happy than the way most people seem to be reading it.  It’s telling, though, that his case for the film is almost entirely based on its visual style, the way the film builds its story of war from the bucolic beauty of the 19th Century to the mechanized horror of the 20th.  In this reading, the ending, with its enflamed sky and characters as silhouettes (a striking homage to the end of the first half of Gone with the Wind) is not so much a vision of redemption and triumph, but of a world consumed by fire, reducing humanity (but not the horse) to shadows.  I can ignore a lot in a film in favor of a few great moments like this, and while War Horse does have several moments as great as any in any film this year, there’s just too much nonsense to overcome for me to really consider it a great movie.

4 thoughts on “On War Horse

  1. I guess I can try to explain why it's old fashioned. You say that those films have the melodrama grow organically out of the characters. For me, the point of comparison was something like Lucky Star, which really doesn't have that much nuance to the characters. Sure, it spends for time developing them, but then it has an entire film to do so. Many of the characters in War Horse feel rounded enough to me anyway. In terms of comparison to Ford, well, from a visual standpoint the way Spielberg approaches the landscapes in the film is what recalled it most for me. Not the specific look, but the way the lanscape becomes fuel for the characters and the drama. This is also drawn from Lean, of course.

    But most of all it comes down to the style of melodrama. First of all, melodrama has nothing to do with characters and everything to do with emotional state. A film like Lucky Star has great characters to draw us in, but the mode of the film is one of emotional ups and downs. Obviously a lot of films have emotional ups and downs, but the simplicity of them in War Horse felt old school. That's not to be confused with the simplicity or complexity of the themes, mind you, just the emotional states. The scene where Joey and Albert reunite felt a lot like the magical scenes you'd find at the end of Lucky Star or Seventh Heaven.

    The movie doesn't couch itself in emotional ambiguity almost ever, expect maybe the very final scene. But even there it's bold in a way you very rarely see in modern films. I find that films today try as hard as possible to ground things in “reality”. Even Slumdog Millionaire has a level of grittiness to it, as though it's a form of stylized hyper-reality. War Horse doesn't do this. It's not hyper-real or particularly fantastical, but it goes big in all directions.

    That's really where the old fashioned feeling comes from. I can very easily imagine War Horse as basically the same film but shot black-and-white and 1.33:1 and it would really feel at home as a film from the 40s. Certainly the filmmaking is modern, and it reflects Spielberg's sensibilities, but I'd propose that a lot of the silliness of the film would seem less silly if it had been released 70 years ago.

    Not sure if you buy that explanation, but really, to me it at least felt more old fashioned than, say, The Artist, which is way too self-aware to ever feel truly like a film from the period it imitates.


  2. I think you're mixing up “melodrama” with “bad melodrama”. Just because a film has emotional ups and downs doesn't make it good just because you can slap a convenient generic label on it. I haven't seen Lucky Star, so I can't comment on that Borzage in particular, but something like Street Angel is built out of coincidence and unreality but that is always secondary to the emotional reality of the characters. What makes the film magical is not the ups and downs, but the strength of the relationship between the characters. Something like War Horse apes the emotional payoffs without doing the work of building the characters, instead it uses generic types as stand-ins, as shortcuts.

    I really can't imagine this film being made in any other decade. Those just no old movie that's anything like it (Old yeller is the closest I can think of, and that isn't particularly close at all). It's not that “they don't make 'em like that anymore”, they never made 'em like that. The only person who makes movies like this is Steven Spielberg.

    The scene that's really sticking with me from the film, almost as much as the final image, is when the horse is being chased around the battlefield by a tank. It kind of encapsulates my reaction to the film, both good and bad. On the one hand, it's a thoroughly haunting image, mechanical modernity ruthlessly running down the forces of nature, dignity and honor. On the other hand, it's totally contrived and absurd: why the fuck is a tank chasing a horse?


  3. The only thing I especially liked in the film was the scene where the two soldiers cut Joey out of the barbed wire. Not that the rest of the film was unlikable, necessarily, but that's the only bit that had any sticking power with me. That scene felt like it could have been part of a better movie.


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