(No longer in theaters)
Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Walt Disney Pictures
Dec 25, 2011
In 1982, the British author Michael Morpurgo wrote War Horse, a book for younger readers that portrayed the suffering of World War I—on all sides—through the eyes of a horse. Joey, as he’s called, begins on a farm in Devon but is conscripted by British forces, seized by Germans after a bloody battle, adopted by a Belgian girl, taken back by Germans … and on and on, through 1918, when the horse ends up amid the corpse-strewn trenches of no-man’s-land. Despite the barbarous milieu, Morpurgo’s prose is modest and uninflected. You discover, for example, that a noble officer has been killed only when Joey realizes that he is riderless. In 2007, Nick Stafford developed a stage version in which Joey was a life-size puppet with beautifully delineated musculature. The puppets, their handlers in view, added a distance that was occasionally at odds with the sentimental story. But it was terrific theater.
Steven Spielberg’s film of War Horse has no distancing devices or puppets and returns Morpurgo’s novel to its roots. To say it’s a “family film”—for kids 13 and up—is no slight. The horror isn’t minimized, but Spielberg pulls back from the grisly bombardment of Saving Private Ryan. He aims for a limpid, old-fashioned style that puts him firmly in the “square” category beside contemporaries with their jittery cameras and splatter (most of them imitating Private Ryan). It’s the restraint that makes War Horse remarkable. Spielberg shows you enough to understand that what you’re watching—machine guns, mustard gas, bodies stretching into the distance—was unprecedented. And amid the incomprehensible slaughter, it’s a horse that reminds these warriors of their humanity.
Said horse is purchased at auction by the drunken farmer Narracott (Peter Mullan) after a bidding war with his landlord, the upshot of which is that there’s no money for rent. Bloody paradoxical victory! As often happens in Spielberg’s work, it’s the sensitive son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who must take over for his father, and the film’s first section affirms the boy’s belief that this animal is special. With the troops’ departure, the point of view passes to Joey and his new master (Tom Hiddleston), a gentleman captain who engages in a friendly riding contest with a major (Benedict Cumberbatch) atop a black steed called Topthorn. Tallyho, pip, pip, death to the Kaiser!
The British have no notion of what awaits them, and their cavalry charge through the tall wheat is both lyrical and ghastly. Spielberg proves that “aestheticizing” horror doesn’t mean cheapening or falsifying it. When two teenagers are later executed, the camera rises behind a turning windmill, one of its blades obscuring the instant of death. It’s among the most merciful depictions of murder I’ve seen, yet still unspeakable. It casts a shadow over the respite that follows in a Belgian farmhouse where a girl (Celine Buckens) lives with her embittered grandfather (the extraordinary Niels Arestrup). The old man knows he can’t protect the child, that war will take everything.
Spielberg has been ridiculed for shooting his actors from below against impossibly Spielbergian skies and a denouement that lays the love on copiously. But there’s nothing simpleminded about how he uses movie magic, as a spell to dispel nihilism, to save us from the worst of ourselves by summoning up the best.