Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's book War Horse is a match made in heaven--almost too much so, I think. As in his best-known film E.T. (1982) a young boy meets a strange but wondrous creature and they form a special bond that eventually redeems them both. Unlike in E.T. the creature in question (a magnificent bay with four white socks and a white star on its forehead) spends most of the middle section of the story on his own, witness to the 'great suffering of war' that writer Morpurgo said he wanted to depict.
Well, darn it--Spielberg has done war before; he has done great themes before, and he has certainly done largely mute creatures who cuddle up to young kids before, so this should be right up his alley. The camera cranes up to capture great swathes of both English and French landscapes; it clambers atop the hood of a roaring Vauxhall to watch the horse racing alongside. The sky glows like hot embers when it's not a perfect deep blue, the perfection interrupted on occasion by sudden downpours that ruin painstakingly tended turnip crops. Spielberg has cinematic poetry in him, he does; for the occasion he rams the spigots wide open and inundates us with his prodigious talent.
He also unleashes his collaborating composer of some forty years, John Williams--this is easily Williams at his most shameless, all symphonic horns and strings (both violin and harp), cloyingly arranged. If I were to fault Spielberg as a filmmaker, I'd say his worst sin is his tin ear for music; he seems to leave all thoughts of a soundtrack to Williams, trusting the poor man to come up with something dependably appropriate instead of developing a more eclectic sound (arguably the only exception is Williams' jazzy score for Spielberg's underrated Catch Me If You Can (2002), which was both breezily cool and paranoiacally menacing at the same time). Spielberg takes Williams' sentimental music and, like a tub of maple syrup, pours it indiscriminately all over this particular stack of pancakes.
Which almost ruins the movie for me, this display of Spielberg 'magic' with the volume turned up to an ear-bleeding eleven. On the whole I'd much rather watch Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion (1979)--there the cinematic magic seems unforced (and hence more genuine), the lighting wielded not to bruise your jaw with a Mack truck approach but instead mesmerize with a limpid, mysterious quality. The natural world isn't crammed and pummeled into a prepackaged kiddie entertainment but is patiently observed, with open eyes and open heart, knowing that the wonderment in store (a chance gesture between man and beast, a sudden configuration of earth, sky, animal) is more than worth the wait.
(Tempting to compare Spielberg's to another film, Robert Bresson's Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), which it resembles in not a few ways--but that would be too unfair, like David with rock and sling confronting a Goliath armed with Chinese repeating crossbow (undersized, outgunned and outmoded)).
That said--there's something to be said for the movie. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson are appealingly grave as the boy's parents (sometimes a role played with conviction is enough reason to enjoy it). The horse's attempt at the impossible task of plowing a rock-strewn plot of land takes on a majestic--and later tragic--pathos (even if the solution's obviousness makes you want to yell at the big screen: “DUH!”). Spielberg's actions sequences still possess kinetic power--witness the unstoppable momentum of the cavalry charge early in the picture, the contrast of hurtling bodies against the golden wheat; or the horse's panicked run across No Man's Land, trailing barbed wire and fenceposts like party streamers (some of the imagery evokes the monochromatic horrors of trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957)).
Arguably the picture's finest moments come near the end, when Spielberg evokes the magic of an idol of his: John Ford. Figures are framed in silhouette, against stone fence, wood gate, and sunset sky; two other figures appear, and music swells as both pairs approach each other. Suddenly the sentiment of Spielberg's style is transmuted, as if by magic, into powerful simplicity; suddenly the crudity of his approach appears elegant, almost elemental. This is second-hand Ford, mind you, applied by a talented apprentice-admirer, but still recognizably Ford--potent and almost impossible to resist. War Horse in the end is an enjoyable, even moving experience, but you have to wade through a lot of thick treacle to reach the kernel of genuine feeling located at the core of this movie; some people wouldn't want to waste the effort, and I'd understand why.
First published in Businessworld, 3.1.12