If David Thomson was accurate when he said of Tom Hanks, “he carries the automatic sentiment of a dog in a film about people,” then the hero of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is the equine equivalent of Tom Hanks: among his human counterparts he attracts such instantaneous concern and compassion that audiences are helpless but to sympathize with him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean you’ll care about the film itself as automatically, because here, Spielberg dials up the sentimentality to almost unbearable levels. His film version of the 1982 novel by Michael Morpungo, which became, in 2007 Nick Stafford’s stage play, comes to us overloaded with nostalgia both historical and cinematic as well as a joylessly persistent sense of nobility. “War Horse” is the type of film for which the term “Oscar bait” was invented, precisely because it feels like there’s no motivation for it to exist except to win awards.
The true star of the film is the horse itself, a magnificent creature raised on an English farm by Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) after his souse of a father, Ted (Peter Mullan), outbids their overbearing landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis) for the steed at a local auction. In spite of his diminutive, sub-Clydesdale stature, the horse – named “Joey” – quickly proves his mettle as both a do-er and a thinker: after accepting a challenge from Lyons to plow an untenable plot of land, Albert discovers Joey’s almost preternatural ability to learn, and his perseverance in accomplishing almost any task that is demanded of him. Nevertheless, Ted sells Joey to Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) for battle in WWI, and he’s soon shipped off to the front lines. But despite Nichols’ promise to Albert to take care of him, Joey gets lost in battle, and the horse soon begins an epic, unpredictable journey across the scarred landscape of war-torn Europe, even as Albert enlists in the British Army in order to find him and bring him back to their family farm.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Spielberg made “War Horse” in the same year that Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” because despite both auteurs’ own distinctive styles, both films reflect the influence of their cinematic forebears. But in Scorsese’s case, Melies and the artists of the silent era provided him with a foundation of celluloid inspiration to both celebrate and draw upon as he created his own story, while Spielberg seems nakedly – and pointlessly – interested in recreating the theatricality of John Ford and Victor Fleming, all the while mining his own back catalogue too, in combining the visceral intensity of “Saving Private Ryan” with the primal sentimentality of “E.T.” As with all of his films, Spielberg’s technical bona fides are indisputable, but here they’re employed to reductive, and ultimately redundant ends. It’s unclear whether he should get a gold star for evoking films like “Gone With The Wind” and “Paths Of Glory,” or if we should get one for recognizing the similarities between his shots to theirs, but his homages carry no greater emotional weight than an average cutaway gag on “Family Guy,” even if they are paid and executed more respectfully.
That said, Spielberg may have exhausted what he can do with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he’s worked on every film since “Schindler’s List” and who in the past decade particularly has given his work a milky, desaturated sheen. While most of “War Horse” is as vivid and stylized as the works it references, the duo nevertheless make some genuinely odd choices, starting with the disorienting abundance of light in the opening scenes that shines from a sun that’s apparently beneath the earth. As if referencing the Riddle of the Sphinx, Spielberg shoots the film with lighting that’s tonal, not purely chronological, suggesting it all takes place in the span of one day – the opening scenes take place “in the morning,” the final ones “in the evening,” and so on. And that’s an interesting stylistic choice, but how does it really enhance the storytelling, other than perhaps making the audience feel as if they’ve been sitting there for a full day as opposed to for the film’s two-plus-hour running time?
Then, of course, there’s the film’s cast, which includes Irvine, Mullan, Hiddleston, Thewlis, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, and Niels Arestrup – a who’s-who of European actors recruited from the independent film world to give this crowd-pleasing melodrama some much-needed gravitas. But while their performances are interchangeably effective as delivery systems of exposition or emotional punctuation, with the exception of Thewlis’ petty landlord, they fail to offer more to their characters than stiff-lipped nobility, albeit in a narrow spectrum that ranges from tragic to heroic. This truly is a film for any person who regularly says, “I don’t believe in war, but I support our troops” – every soldier only reluctantly fulfills the demands of his contract to kill for country, and on multiple occasions a character is given an opportunity to supply ambivalent observations like, “maybe he threw away his medals of honor because he wasn’t proud to have killed people.” Almost uniformly, the worst crime any military officer commits is callousness towards our animal protagonist – which admittedly in this film is tantamount to a hate crime – but for the most part they’re one step away from being an ideal of what we want soldiers to be, if they aren’t already exemplary.
Finally, the horse (or horses) used for Joey gives the second-best nonverbal performance of the year (after “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin), and Spielberg shoots him/them as beautifully, and expressively, as any animal has ever been photographed. Indeed, it’s easy to believe that Spielberg undertook the film as a test for himself, to see if he could build a film around a nonhuman protagonist – and in that regard, he certainly succeeded in telling a complete and well-rendered story. Moreover, for a film that features a main character who instantly if not automatically has the audience’s sympathies, it’s surprisingly difficult (or at least it was for yours truly) to get fully invested emotionally in a tale that can’t decide whether it wants to pay more attention to that main character, or the “supporting” ones that walk on two legs and actually talk.
Otherwise, however, there’s no obvious reason other than its inevitable acclaim why one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the modern era took on such conspicuously generic material, especially since he already tackled much of its subject matter in more distinctive and interesting ways previously in his career. Because if his contemporaries can still work within their wheelhouses while exploring new territory, and further, expanding their cinematic mythos, then so can he. That said, “War Horse” certainly doesn’t tarnish Spielberg’s reputation as a virtuoso purveyor of four-square mainstream entertainment, attended to with an artist’s eye -- it’s handsome, old-fashioned in appreciable ways, and executed with stunning technical acumen. But the final disappointment isn’t that he failed to provide a better film – it’s that if you’re making a film that feels like a surefire award-winner, then at the very least it needs to feel like it’s worthy of those awards. [C+]