It’s a measure of Steven Spielberg’s skill as a director that though he’s become one of the most beloved and bankable brand names in the movies, he’s never made a film that could be easily pigeonholed as a “Spielberg movie”…until now. Whether you love or hate War Horse will depend on just how much Spielberg you want with your Spielberg.
From the first scene of this WWI adventure, the director lays the schmaltz on so thick that it would be laughable if it wasn’t done so extremely well. Spielberg has never had any shame about using cinematic flourishes to tug the heart strings, but here he sets a new personal bar for shamelessness. We watch a newborn colt struggle to his feet, we see the colt purchased inadvisably by a farmer with big dreams, we see the farmer’s son raise the horse into an animal who can run like the thoroughbred he is but who’s not too proud to pull a plow, and then, amidst rumbles of thunder, we see the horse drafted into a war his trainer is still too young to fight.
All of this is frequently shot from a low angle and lit warmly from below, as though Spielberg dug the Ark of the Covenant out to help with the cinematography. Scored by the peerless John Williams—the 79-year-old composer (Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.) is coming off a three-year break—War Horse intends to sweep you away, and won’t take no for an answer.
The sprawling story—adapted by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall from both Michael Morpugo’s 1982 children’s novel and a 2007 stage version of that story—is a cyclorama that follows the eponymous equine through a series of owners on both sides of the Western Front. To call the concept preposterous is generous; any other director would have been hard-pressed not to turn War Horse into a groaner, but Spielberg jumps through these flaming hoops so unerringly that even hardened skeptics may find themselves wiping their eyes by the silhouetted (of course silhouetted, of course against a sunset) final scene.
Besides his near-perfect mastery of pacing and transition, Spielberg knows how to earn your affection for even minor characters—which is crucial here, since everyone but the horse is a minor character. I won’t even bother to name the cast, because this movie is not about the actors; each in turn arrives onscreen equipped with an identity of comic-book clarity. You know who’s good and who’s bad, and you’re not wrong. The film’s war-is-hell message is enhanced rather than contradicted by its moral clarity: here, the bad guys are the ones on both sides who force the good guys to wage brutal combat instead of rolling around in the hay with their favorite steeds.
A lot of directors set out to recreate the classics of their youth and to improve upon them; few succeed, and none have succeeded as often or as well as Spielberg. War Horse feels like a Wonderful World of Disney action film from 50 years ago, except that—unlike many of those—it doesn’t suck.
This is a movie that knows that movies are just flickering images on a screen, and knows how to use that illusory nature as an asset rather than a liability. War Horse will surely be praised for its lack of “gratuitous violence,” but as Roger Ebert has pointed out, that phrase when applied to movies is silly because the whole idea of filmed entertainment is gratuitous. It’s a gift…if you choose to accept it.