Saturday, March 05, 2016


The following is the third of five highlights from my nine years writing for the Muriel Awards, my essay on Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of War Horse, which the Muriel Voters placed 26th in the running for Best Picture in 2011 and was number one on my list for that year.


In the digital D.I.Y. age, filmmakers have an incredible arsenal of technique available to them. They know tricks some directors who learned their craft on Super 8 and 16mm, cutting film on Moviola decks like sausage makers, may still not have mastered. And yet, to crudely paraphrase a nugget of Christian theology, what does it profit a woman or a man if they can shoot film like a gunslinger yet they come up short in the soul department? 

Nowadays, knockoffs of the dolly zoom Steven Spielberg popularized in Jaws or the kind of hair-raising, relentlessly fluid, anything-goes sensibility that characterized Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1941 or the emotional acuity of movies as disparate as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Empire of the Sun are a dime a dozen. Yet their true spirits are much harder to capture. Many filmmakers have dazzled audiences with mastery of technique in the wake of these movies, to the point that some audiences may have begun to have trouble even mustering the effort to differentiate between well-crafted art and sheer audio-visual noise. Amidst all the cacophony, few have swept us up the way Spielberg, working at peak form, is capable of doing. And I’d like to suggest that War Horse represents Spielberg in peak form, marshaling a marriage between the early impudence of his technical prowess, his continued, even more potent desire to connect his sensibility with the traditions of film history, and an emotional freedom that unites the director and his audience, absent the need for mutual flattery regarding the social importance of the subject matter. 

By embracing the melodramatic splendor of the story of the bond between young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), his beloved horse Joey and their journey of separation and eventual reunion across the impossibly gorgeous landscapes and ravaged, scarred battlefields of World War I, and then robustly channeling that splendor into his filmmaking, Spielberg finds the emotional power he often overreaches for when he approaches “mature” subject matter head-on. Ironically, the director accesses a portrait of the human condition that bests even that of Empire of the Sun by following Joey’s journey of hardship and reflecting the experience of soldiers (British and German) not through Joey’s perspective -- as some have claimed -- but simply by the fact of the animal’s presence and how it affects those whose lives are most derailed and devastated by the war. 

Simply put, Joey reminds them of their own humanity. War Horse suggests a way of looking at stories about the way boys and men relate to animals that transcends anthropomorphic excess; the movie’s opening 45 minutes are a glorious fantasia on themes of loyalty and determination played out on one of the most glorious Technicolor-esque Irish countryside ever committed to film, perhaps the best movie on a classic Disney template that Disney himself never made. (We’ve encountered the likes of Albert’s downtrodden dad, his stern but loving mother, and their gruff, unyielding landlord, played wonderfully by Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and David Thewlis, respectively, in countless other movies, but rarely brought to life with the kind of commitment and passion these actors display.) 

But when the story begins its episodic movement from Joey’s conscription into service with the British Army to his theft by a pair of German deserters, his brief adoption by a Belgian farmer and his granddaughter, and his navigation across the front lines of battle, Spielberg takes up a more artful, suggestive approach to depicting the horrors of war than the more plainly overwhelming barrage of death on display in Saving Private Ryan. Critic David Edelstein described a sequence in War Horse in which two German soldiers are executed, the moment of their death obscured from our sight by the slow passage of a windmill’s blade, as one of the movies’ most merciful depictions of death, “yet still unspeakable.” It’s Spielberg’s restraint, which is emphasized throughout War Horse despite the movie’s impossibly pleasurable grandeur, that makes his canvas of horror so immediate, so powerful, and which also aligns him with the epic tradition of classic cinema rather than the razzmatazz younger generation, many of whom are working so hard with their shaky-cams and violent editing schemes to outdo effects they probably first saw in Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s design reminds us how artists can use aestheticizing effects without buying into the pomp and circumstance and rush of excitement about war that probably lured the soldiers into the trenches in the first place. The British Army’s first charge across a wheat field and into the camp of a surprised battalion of Germans begins with this kind of rousing purpose, and ends with a horrifying sight of suddenly rider-less horses running into a forest where a deeper nightmare awaits.

Those who dislike War Horse often cite its length, or its flush of melodramatic imagery, or John Williams’ typically ornate score, or even alleged inaccuracies involving the behavior of horses as evidence that it’s somehow boring, over the top, or in one way or another shameless and false. But resistance to War Horse, including Williams’ contribution (which I find to be one of his loveliest accompaniments to a Spielberg movie), was a willful act far beyond my meager strength as a moviegoer -- I was engaged far more quickly and deeply than I could have ever guessed possible, then completely overwhelmed at the conclusion by Spielberg’s deliberate evocation of a Technicolor majesty long since abandoned by an industry more interested in “found footage” gimmicks than the zone where craft becomes art. As I choked back and then succumbed to tears while the credits rolled, the friend with whom I saw the movie (he also loved it) patted me on the back and said, “Isn’t that why we go to the movies?” In that moment, and in all the moments which have occupied my remembrance of the movie since, I could not disagree.


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