It may be a new year in the real world, but it'll still be 2011 in movie theaters for at least another week, and probably for longer in the arthouses. To celebrate the holiday I took a walk to the Spectrum, Albany's cultural treasure, where Steven Spielberg's newest film (a matter of months or days, depending on where you live) received a heartfelt round of applause once the lights went on and the credits rolled. I note this to concede the objective fact that War Horse will move people exactly as Spielberg intended, however unmoved I remained. Let's make clear upfront that the great man has made a tearjerker. That fact alone is a bit of a disappointment to me, given that this is the first full Spielberg film since Munich, his brutal terror-vs-terror historical thriller of 2005. Since then, of course, he made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an act of loyalty or charity, depending on the object, and more recently released the motion-capture Adventures of Tintin, which I haven't seen yet. War Horse is his first live-action movie on his own terms in six years, and while I'd rather he didn't revert to tearjerking I want to stress that I don't dislike it because of that. It doesn't fail as a tearjerker. Its failures are matters of form rather than content.
Spielberg's War Horse is the latest adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel, following a radio play and stage version. The title character is Joey, a semi-thoroughbred steed purchased on impulse by Farmer Narricott (Peter Mullan) despite his unsuitability for ploughing. Narricott's boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has had a sort of crush on Joey since the colt was foaled, which I assume factors into his dad's otherwise daft decision. He outbid his own landlord to get the horse, paying far more than any plow horse is worth and putting his farm's finances in jeopardy. Unless Joey can be trained to plow a rocky field for turnip growing, the Narricotts will lose their farm. Suffice it to say that Joey succeeds with a little help from nature, but what nature giveth, nature taketh away. A timely rainfall softens the earth for the plow, but a later torrent washes away the soil. It looks pretty bad for the Narricotts, but fortunately for them, Great Britain declares war on Germany and the Army is buying horses. Poor Albert can't bear being parted from Joey, especially with the horse being sent to war, but a friendly officer (Tom "Loki" Hiddleston) assures the lad, who's nearly fighting age himself, that he'll take good care of his new steed.
What follows might be described as Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar with explosions. Bresson's 1966 classic follows the tribulations of a donkey as it passes from owner to owner. Just so, Joey soon loses his rider -- cavalry charges even in the earliest days of World War I are not a good idea -- and passes through many hands, military and civilian, German and Entente. There are animal lovers on all sides, but despite everyone's best efforts Joey (after receiving several alternate names) ends up on hard duty haulign heavy artillery. Meanwhile, Albert has gone to war and suffered hardships of his own. As this is a motion picture based on a children's book, the odds of Joey reuniting with Albert are a lot better than you'd think. Indeed, since Joey has a Ben-Hur like tenacity, surviving practically the entire war in the thick of the action, I suppose anything else could happen....
Horse, schmorse, sez I. I went to this movie to see what the director and cinematographer of Saving Private Ryan would do with World War I. Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski are inherently limited by the director's desire for a PG-13 rating, but on the other hand realistic gore isn't the point of War Horse. What we get is a nicely staged cavalry attack on a German encampment, a bit of business that reminded me of the several raids on Indian villages staged in John Ford's westerns as horses charged through lines of tents. In a twist on the Ford formula, the enemy simply retreats to the edge of the forest, where their machine guns are waiting. At this point, Spielberg opts to evoke carnage rather than show it directly. We see horses and riders charging. We see machine guns firing. We then see riderless horses leaping over the gun nests. Something seemed unreal about this -- weren't the horses taking bullets, too? -- until an after-battle long shot clarified matters. A similar decorative reticence prevails throughout the picture, most notably when two deserters are executed in the shadow of a windmill. One of the blades gets in our way just as the squad fires, only to reveal the two dead soldiers. The artistry is too obviously designed for concealment to have the eloquence Spielberg hoped for, but the overall reticence isn't a crippling weakness. Since this is the story of the horse, we needn't dwell as much on the suffering of men as we might on another occasion. The highlight of the picture shouldn't be any combat of men but, as it actually is, Joey's sudden flight from retreating Germans into No Man's Land. We've already seen men fight here, and that's served to underscore Joey's peril. While the stunts Joey must perform in long takes inevitably require the use of a CGI horse, and the situation itself is fantastically unrealistic, the scene is still electrifying as Joey smashes through lines of barbed wire in his race for freedom as shells burst around him. This is the climax of the film, and one of the big problems with War Horse is that there's still about half an hour to go, and Spielberg makes that time seem even longer.
War Horse is a failure of pace, shockingly so for Spielberg. It suffers from an interminable first act and an insufferable human protagonist. Albert Narricott has no other attribute apart from his unconditional love for his horse. Nothing is done to make him interesting before he sees the colt born, and nothing is done afterward to make him seem anything but monomaniacal in his obsession with the animal. There has been no such devotion on film since Buster Keaton fell hard for a cow in Go West -- and Keaton meant it as a joke. I wanted to laugh when Albert vowed to find Joey in almost the exact same language Natty Bumppo uses for his beloved in Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans, but I doubt whether Spielberg would have shared my mirth. War Horse would be a better story had Spielberg left Albert behind and simply followed Joey from owner to owner -- or caretaker to caretaker. But that would mean less tearjerking and less fidelity to the source novel ... though speaking of which, Spielberg may have made a fatal error by attempting to naturalize a story that was originally told from the point of view of the horse. I can't say, however, whether Spielberg and his writers or the orginal author is to blame for the way the film limps to its finish. I noted the film's climax a paragraph ago. To pick up the story (I'll try to keep spoilage to a minimum), Joey doesn't quite make it out of No Man's Land; he's still alive and upright, but sort of stuck. This becomes known to both the British and German forces, who in an utterly ridiculous scene attempt to entice the horse to one side or the other by whistling and clucking at it. Once they figure out the trouble, a friendly competition ensues to free the horse from its predicament. The novel may say differently, but cinema logic seemed to require that Albert be here. There's a good reason why he isn't, but that's a detail Spielberg should have tweaked. We have to endure another cliffhanger behind the lines before a reunion is even possible, but even from there the film stumbles from false climax to false climax as at least one of Joey's erstwhile caretakers (Niels Arestrup, the "Corsican" from Un Prohete) comes back for a bitter encore before our remaining heroes are safely settled back in Hobbitown -- I mean Devon. My confusion is somewhat excusable, given how Spielberg and Kaminski turn their rustic location into a pastel fantasy land. I had the awful feeling that Spielberg's Devon was a re-enactment village dedicated to classic Hollywood cliches -- emphasis again on the Fordian mode -- and that the director had no actual empathy for farming or village life. My alternate explanation is that Spielberg was really only interested in the war stuff and did the first and last parts on autopilot.
Here it's only fair to remind you of that applause I heard in the theater, though I'm no more bound to defer to it than I was when a Spectrum audience loudly protested the end of Meek's Cutoff. Flaws and all, this film moves people, and some of those people might not see the flaws I saw as flaws. Maybe my problem is that I'm not an animal lover and can't empathize with Albert Narricott. Even if I concede that, the fact remains that there's nothing to him but his love for Joey, which means that you either have the temprament necessary to enjoy War Horse, or you don't. If you do, you may well enjoy it in spite of its narrative handicaps. I'll write it off as a warm-up for the Lincoln movie Spielberg has wanted to make for some time and is only now shooting. The current picture has predictable moments of pictorial genius, but those aren't enough for me to recommend it. You can take my word for it or infer the opposite from other people's applause. It'll be no crime to like War Horse, but I want Spielberg to do better next time, and I hope you will, too.