While his films don’t come out with the clockwork reliability of those directed by Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg works to his own halting, arrhythmic beat. Years of silence often give way to flutters of wild activity, with the Hollywood superstar sometimes stuffing more than one of his new flicks into the cinema calendar.
This has been done to calculated effect on more than one occasion, where blockbusters have shared space with bids for dramatic respectability. Most successfully, in 1993 Spielberg ruled both the box office and the Academy with the one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. The twinning of popcorn adventure and super-serious historical drama continued with both The Lost World and Amistad, and War Of The Worlds and Munich, in 1997 and 2005 respectively.
Superficially, 2011 seems like a similar case, with mo-cap adventure Tintin appearing just before War Horse, a lavish World War I drama which draws on the sentiment of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and a little bit of Blackadder Goes Forth. It seems to be another double bill of fun and fable – that is, until you realise that the latter film is a retelling of the Great War from the perspective of a horse.
In this alternate universe, the moral and emotional heart of the First World War resides in Joey, a young nag from Devon. As war looms, he forms a loving bond with a local farmboy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), but he is soon conscripted into a cavalry regiment as an officer’s steed, and is ferried to France. There, he experiences the conflict on both British and German sides, observing the atrocity and futility of such a war.
Spielberg is no stranger to overly saccharine stories. He has, after all, made films hinging on all sorts of schmaltz, from a boy’s relationship with an extraterrestrial, to a middle-aged Peter Pan searching for his inner lost boy – but the conceit of War Horse is simply beyond his capabilities. While there is a great deal of impressive horse wrangling on display, any attempts to imbue Joey with the characteristics of a protagonist fall flat, and the lumpy screenplay (co-penned by screenwriter Richard Curtis) is an interminable marriage of sentimentalism and melancholy.
There’s more than an air of masculine melodrama throughout, as an almost-entirely-male world loses its innocence in the trenches, with their doomed youth represented by the equine lead. A Black Beauty for boys, maybe, but such is the focus on Joey, and his comprehensive travels, that the human element slips out of frame.
As his companions – two young German conscripts, for example, or a German artillery commander – become less distinct, the film starts to feel more like Mister Ed Goes To The Somme. And once the major set pieces kick in – which see Joey charging through No Man’s Land, facing off with a tank, and, in his greatest feat, grinding the war itself to a halt – it’s enough to make sane viewers feel a little hysterical.
If you’re an ardent believer in the inherent nobility of horses, then you will cry your heart out as crassly-written characters sermonise about the forgotten fillies that reside in the cracks of history. If you’re not, then you’re in for two and a half humourless hours of insensibility.
The fog of war is only broken intermittently, with cameo appearances from an eclectic bunch of top-rate actors. Emily Watson finds herself once again propping up a dull domestic subplot (see also: Cemetery Junction), while Spielberg forcibly mixes up the stagy and earthy traditions of British acting, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston providing a much-needed dose of stiff-upper-lip stateliness, and Peter Mullan, Liam Cunningham and Eddie Marsan bringing some Leigh/Loach dramatic grit.
It hardly works, primarily because of the film’s messy, indulgent sweep. The characters have little time to stick, as the plot skips forward through the war years, leaving them behind. Unfortunately, this forward march also scuppers the one or two shots which, in a film full of over-saturated, over-stylised, oddly-coloured photography, actually have some heft to them. One is an execution, and the other is a cavalry charge. Both mask the direct bloodshed, presumably to satisfy a 12A rating, but they successfully attain an evocative, poetic effect that the rest of the film lacks.
It may sound blasphemous, but Spielberg seems out of his depth here, or at least off-balance. He’s had tremendous success translating the Second World War into easily digestible, popular entertainment, crafting films which, according to Terry Gilliam in a recently-revived interview clip, “Give you answers… they’re comforting… you go home and you don’t have to worry about it”.
However, while Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers set the tone for modern World War II storytelling, War Horse finds it hard to say even something comforting about the Great War. Instead, it poses a question: is the Hollywood master, with his recent record in mind, starting to lose his touch?