Wednesday, September 11, 2013
War Horse - A re-evaluation
When I saw War Horse during its opening week of December, 2011, I recall liking the film very much. Yet, I didn't review the film at that time, probably as I was busy trying to see several other "big" films that month, released during the holiday season for Oscar consideration. Those other movies included The Artist, The Descendants, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, making it a pretty good month for cinema.
Maybe though, I didn't review the film as it didn't impress me as much when I thought about it a few days later. I was definitely moved by the beauty of the film as well as its message, but I was soon fascinated by a few of the other works I mentioned, especially Tinker Tailor, Hugo and The Artist.
But seeing a film a second time can be an eye-opening experience, no matter what Pauline Kael wrote many years ago. That was certainly true for me with War Horse when I recently saw it again for a second and third time. This is far from a great opus, as the film does have some problems, especially in certain parts of the screenplay. But it is immensely watchable and deeply moving and to me, this is a film that Steven Spielberg was born to direct.
I'm sure everyone by now knows the story of this film, that of a horse named Joey, a thoroughbred, who we follow from birth to a few years of age working on a British farm to a few years later, employed by the German army in World War One to pull tanks. Linked in spirit with this horse is a boy named Albert, who is a witness to Joey's birth (there is a marvelous image of Albert watching through a fence; we see his face framed by this, as in a portrait) and feels an emotional link with him, especially after his father buys the horse at auction. Joey the horse is the spirit that will drive Albert to discover that there are far greater things in life than simply existing.
The opening auction and the sequences where Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey, first at simple tasks and then, arduously, at wearing a harness and plowing a rock-strewn field (this set near Devon, England) are beautifully and precisely directed by Spielberg. When Albert's father Ted (Peter Mullan, in a very natural performance that is sadly underrated), sees that his son is having trouble getting Joey to move, so as to start plowing, he mutters, "It'll take the whip to move him." As he recites this line, Spielberg dollies on him, which is immediately followed by a cut to Albert's face, as we see that he realizes he must take the whip to his beloved horse. This coupling of father and son is a subtle moment, one that is very effective, especially as the son saves his father from financial ruin in this scene, much as the father opened up a new world for his son when he purchased the horse.
After some misfortune, Ted must sell Joey to a captain in the British cavalry, in order to save the farm; this over the protests of Albert. We follow Joey in his life as a war horse, from practice runs to actual battles in open fields against the Germans. The first battle in the story is magnificently directed, filmed and edited (by Spielberg and his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn) as we see the soldiers atop their horses rise up out of the wheat fields, first individually and then as a group (in some beautiful overhead and side shots). They take a German batallion by surprise at first, but are eventually overwhelmed; their defeat means that Joey and a few other horses that survived the carnage will now be working for the German army.
Throughout the film, Spielberg's compositions are first-rate. Along with the sequence described above, there is a striking sequence in which two young German soldiers who have left their ranks with Joey and another horse are captured and then shot. Spielberg films this scene from above, as we look down on a windmill the soldiers stand along side of. As the fatal shots from the firing squad are squeezed, one of the blades of the windmill covers our view of the young soldiers at their instant of death. It is truly a haunting image, one that has a powerful impact in its simplicity.
Another beautifully filmed scene is the gas attack in the trenches, as the British soldiers are completely taken by surprise. Kaminski shoots this so that the clouds of gas emerge rapidly in this claustrophobic environment, with the screen eventually turning to white. Is this white light a reflection of heaven, as these will be the final moments on earth for some of these young men? This scene, like the ones mentioned above, brilliantly display the random and sudden nature of the finality of war.
Kaminski certainly contributed a great deal to the overall effect of this film, his images varying from the sun-kissed hills of Devon to the dark earth tones of the battlefields. In keeping with the historical look of this work, the cinematographer - who has been Spielberg's director of photography since Schindler's List (1993) - has done his best to recreate the Technicolor images of the Golden Age of Hollywood. While I think he went too far at times with the dramatic, deeply saturated clouds, I will admit to being impressed with his filming of the final scene, complete with its hommage to Gone With the Wind, especially with the deep orange/russet skies. It's a marvelous moment, one that some may see as a bit over the top (especially critics who viewed this film as too sentimental), but I thought the visuals here were quite remarkable and perfectly fit the moment. (A note: Kaminski shot this movie with actual film and NOT with a digital camera. There's nothing wrong with someone using digital technology these days, even on the most expensive productions, but today when almost every film is shot via digital, it's refreshing to see that at least one great cinematographer continues to use film.)
War Horse generally received positive reviews (it's listed at 77% recommended by critics at the website Rotten Tomatoes), yet there were few raves about the film. Maybe the film wasn't serious enough for most critics; while a film about the brutality of World War One would seem to be a "weighty" subject, I'm guessing that most critics saw this as a story of a boy and his horse. In other words, this was a work that had some of the classic heartwarming overtones of many of Spielberg's works, a la E.T. or Empire of the Sun. Interestingly, Spielberg did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work on War Horse. When you consider that the two Best Director awards he did win - for Schindler's List and Saving Prviate Ryan (1998) were for "serious" war films, maybe the snub was not a surprise, given the human and his beloved animal angle. When you consider that he was nominated for Best Director for Lincoln the following year, it seems evident that the Academy - along with many critics - expect a virtuous film from Spielberg and will shower praise on him when he undertakes works of that tone. But make a "warm" film, well, that's not the Steven Spielberg those individuals fawn over.
This review is not to say that War Horse is a great film or even one of Spielberg's top three of four achievements. But it is a beautifully made, lovingly directed film that deserves a bit more respect than it's been awarded. Take another look at this film, as I did, and see what you think. At this particular point in his career, Steven Spielberg made a film he believed in and brought all of his skill and energy to this project; I think he succeeded admirably.