War Horse (5/5)
“They don’t make them like they used to”: it’s what they say about movies. But the same can be said for directors themselves. This isn’t much of a surprise. As artists age their perspectives change. We aren’t the same person from year to year, and we are certainly not the same person in our twenties that we are in our fifties and sixties, for better and for worse. And yet people often expect artists to produce work reminiscent of what they made when they first started out. In part this may be because the audience for a director’s work carries around nostalgia for when they first encountered the artists. But artists also need to change. And it hardly seems fair to hold older artists to work they produced decades ago.
Perhaps no other director has had his early work shoved in his face by rabid fans than Stephen Spielberg. Fans of Spielberg, and cinema in general, can be protective of his early work and are often fiercely territorial when it comes to Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Jaw, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For these cinephiles, nothing Spielberg has done since can ever measure up to his output in the 70s and 80s. And I can relate. Spielberg came on the scene as the wunderkind from nowhere who reshaped the landscape of popular filmmaking and positioned himself as America’s storyteller. How can you compete with that kind of debut? Spielberg’s answer has largely been not to even try. Since the 90s he still pumps out the perfunctory actioner now again, whether it’s a Jurassic Park film or a War of the Worlds, but Spielberg’s “entertainments,” to borrow a phrase from Graham Greene, don’t have the same heart to them as his earlier work. Where Close Encounter was about fear of adult responsibility, represented in Roy’s escape to the stars, Jurassic Park was little more than a monster movie. It happened to be a well crafted monster movie, but, like all of his latter day adventure films, it also seemed impersonal compared to his earlier output. Instead, Spielberg chose to outsource the job of keeping America entertained to other directors, serving as a producer on the Transformer movies, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, and subsequent Jurassic Park sequels. Sure, he puts on his entertainer cap every now and then, but increasingly he seems to do so only to prove that he can still craft a better action sequence than most directors half his age.
As Spielberg’s career progressed, he became restless. No longer content with entertaining America, he started to make “important” films, films that won awards, films that told the world he was more than just an entertainer; he was an artist. But I’ll tell you a secret about Spielberg’s attempts to be taken seriously: these movies are as good, if not better, than his early output. For the past twenty years Spielberg has attempted to balance his need to entertain, to be loved, with his need to be accepted into the club of filmmaking greats. One might point to Schindler’s List as the obvious transition point between the two sides of Spielberg, but he had been building up to his dramatic opus and Oscar winner with Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple. The lazy critique against Spielberg is that he delves too often into sentimentalism, and while this may be true on occasion, times when his need to please a large swath of the America public is at odds with the story he is attempting to tell, on the whole Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality is exaggerated. A.I., Schindler’s List and Catch Me If You Can, among others, take us to some rather dark places.
So just as Spielberg released both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the year of our lord, 1993, so too has he released The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within a few weeks of each other in 2011. To quote another film, perhaps he is “trying to suggest something about the duality of man,” and that man is Spielberg himself. War Horse is destined to become an essential entry into Spielberg’s oeuvre, a sumptuous piece of filmmaking that forms part of a conversation between Spielberg and the epics from Hollywood’s golden age. If the film has a central protagonist, then it is Joey, the stallion who makes his way from pastoral England to the war torn continent. As the film begins, Ted Narracott, a well meaning drunkard, is searching for a suitable horse to plow an arid but rock filled plot of land. He travels into town with the intention of bidding on a solid work horse, but a little too much drink and a betting match between Ted and his seedy landlord leads him to buy a young stallion, a horse that, as his friends note, is completely unsuitable for the grueling work of plowing a field.
When Ted returns home to his wife, she, quite understandably, becomes upset and tells her husband he will have to return the horse immediately. Ted’s son, Albert, becomes taken with the horse and convinces his parents that he will be able to train the horse to take a harness and pull a plow. As Albert trains his horse, Joey, the two of them form a bond. Spielberg gets plenty of drama out of the nearly wordless communication necessary to teach Joey to eat out of a bucket, to stay or come on command, or to remain still as Albert fits a harness over his head. Of course, Spielberg has a distinct knack for communicating sans words. My guess is that if one were to watch War Horse with the sound off, it wouldn’t take much to follow the ups and downs of the story. Albert does manage to get Joey to plow the once useless plot, if only after the ground has been softened by the English rain. But this doesn’t end the hardships of the Narracotts. Shortly after planting their crops, a thunderstorm upends their crops, and Ted must find some way to make the rent. World War I has just broken out, and he decides to lease Joey to the English army. Joey will be returned, if he survives.
From here, Joey makes his way from owner to owner, crisscrossing a war ravaged Europe. He begins in the care of an English officer, but ends up in the hands of two underage German brothers, a young French girl and her grandfather, and a German caretaker. For a film that borrows so heavily from traditional Hollywood cinema, War Horse has a plenty of experimental elements. And while Joey serves as a constant, each new set of characters he encounters function as a kind of vignette, as if Spielberg had connected several short films into a full length. These vignettes allow the film to get away from the protagonist versus antagonist narrative found in most war films. Because Joey traverses borders, our sympathies lie not with nation-states, the English versus the Germans, but with individual characters. If there is a villain in the film, then it is the war itself. This structure seems especially suited to WWI, perhaps one of the most singularly idiotic wars ever waged.
Spielberg is borrowing heavily from the epics of the mid-twentieth century. There’s plenty of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, David Lean, and early Stanley Kubrick in the DNA of War Horse. He takes from these artists a painter’s sense of how to fill up a canvas. Here Spielberg is painting every little corner of the screen, to the extent where seeing the film in your living room is a completely different experience from viewing the film on the big screen. Perhaps one of the most interesting choices in the film is the decision to obscure most of the violence when portraying one of the world’s goriest wars. This is an especially intriguing decision when you consider that Spielberg taught an entire generation how to recreate military violence in Saving Private Ryan. And yet, just as many people were enraptured by Ryan’s violence as were repulsed. One particular scene in War Horse is arguably a more effective representation of violence than all of Ryan’s gobs of blood. In what is most likely a scene influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Spielberg cuts back and forth between images of English cavalry charging, German machine guns firing, and a slew of riderless horses. The audience can easily fill in what occurs between each cut, perhaps more effectively than any filmmaker could.
In War Horse we have a perfect coalition between Spielberg the craftsman and Spielberg the student of film. Watching War Horse it becomes evident why the 1970s were the golden years of American cinema. These directors were formally trained in film school where they were introduced to criticism that dissected the classics. These directors didn’t watch movies; they studied them. And yet the movie isn’t just fodder for film buffs to pick apart. Any casual fan of Spielberg’s work will find plenty of affecting moments in War Horse. I saw the film over the holidays with my family, and at the conclusion of the movie, my mother turned to me and, rebuffing common assumptions, said, “He made it like they used to.” She’s absolutely right, in a way. This is a film that looks to the past for inspiration, but at the same time it cannot be mistaken for the work of anyone other than Spielberg himself.