December 23, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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WAR HORSE:  Watch It At Home –  Spielberg’s Beautiful Muzak


Earlier this year, audiences were presented with Super 8, J. J. Abrams’s pastiche of Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi adventures from the 1970s and 80s (Spielberg was a producer on the project).  Now with WAR HORSE, we have Spielberg’s own pastiche:  of John Ford, Carroll Ballard, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Gone With the Wind… and Steven Spielberg.  War Horse is the Colonial Williamsburg of Steven Spielberg movies, an exquisitely detailed but over-calculated and hence never convincing imitation of the real thing.


 This War Horse, by the way, although based on the same Michael Morpurgo novel, is not an adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway hit play by Nick Stafford.  The film, with a script credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, tells largely the same story (the movie includes a few more episodes), but in a completely different visual form


Both play and movie begin in the period shortly before the beginning of World War I, in a rural English town where teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) becomes caretaker of Joey, a gorgeous black, um, beauty, with a distinctive white diamond shape on his head (which comes in handy when Joey needs to be identified). Albert’s heavy-drinking, resentful father (Peter Mullen) bought Joey at an auction at which he badly overpaid in order to outbid the landlord (David Thewlis); now the family will lose its farm unless the thoroughbred Joey can be trained to work as a plowhorse.  With the encouragement of Albert’s sympathetic mother (Emily Watson), this leads to very Black Stallion-esque sequences in which Albert trains Joey to do the impossible and the two bond for life.

But the World War intervenes, and Joey is shipped off to France and a variety of owners, including a British officer (Tom Hiddleston), a French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, memorable as the aging gangster in A Prophet), and so on.  Through Joey’s microcosmic experiences of war, we as an audience are exposed to its brutality and occasional random humanity, the expressive beast serving as an object lesson in the ways combat damages the innocent. (This idea is closely related to Bresson’s use of the donkey in Au Hasard, Balthazar, although the intensification of suffering by showing it inflicted on non-humans is a Spielberg trademark from ET to A.I. and beyond.)  But as soon as Albert is old enough to join the army, he’s on another seemingly impossible quest: to be reunited with his horse.

The stage production of War Horse is famously and quite brilliantly stylized, most notably in its use of puppets operated by on-stage humans to play the horses, but also including projected backdrops, interruptions for chants and song and other overtly theatrical techniques.  Spielberg’s film is stylized, too, but in a far more second-hand way:  it recreates the imagery of bygone movies.  So the early sequences, apart from Black Stallion, recalls How Green Was My Valley and other John Ford dramas, while the battles include homages to Kubrick’s tracking shots of the trenches in Paths of Glory, Lean’s warfare in Lawrence of Arabia and, it hardly needs to be said, Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan.


This is Spielberg’s third consecutive retro project, after the dismal Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the more entertaining The Adventures of Tintin, and one can’t help wondering what’s on his mind these days.  In War Horse, he’s not using the techniques of old movies to make any comment about film history (as Scorsese does in Hugo) or dichotomy between form and content (as in Scorsese’s earlier New York, New York, Soderbergh’s The Good German or Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven); he just seems to be indulging his own film buffery, and at the age of 65, and at this stage of his career, I think it’s fair to ask more of him.  Spielberg went through a vibrant period in the 1990s and into this decade, with films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, A.I., The Terminal, War of the Worlds and Munich, which, whatever their ultimate success or failure individually, each had its own distinctive, eclectic look and feel.  Why retreat now to an aesthetic of film school imitation?

The problem isn’t merely that War Horse, while gorgeous and expertly made, feels synthetic, but that Spielberg’s Hey-ma-look-at-this! style gets in the way of his own material.  When he bathes the film’s ending in all the red lighting (and probably digital manipulation) in Hollywood, you may be thinking “Aha, there’s his Gone With the Wind shot,” or maybe just “Why the hell is everything so red?” but in either case, it pulls you out of the emotion of the moment to concentrate instead on his obtrusive direction.  War Horse, for all its mastery, is directed nervously–Spielberg is like a comic who keeps jabbing taglines into his act because he’s afraid people will stop paying attention.  In this case, he pours syrupy sentimentality on material so emotional already that what it really needed was some restraint.

In fairness to War Horse, its overwhelming dollops of technique aren’t in vain–you can’t help but respond to the rich visuals and string-pulling score, let alone the sight of that poor suffering horse.  Spielberg is one of the world’s great filmmakers, and every shot, every sequence is worked over to a shine.  He’s collaborated with his creative team of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, and production designer Rick Carter for decades, and they respond to him like fingers of his own hand–the film is an often spectacular piece of moviemaking craft.

It just isn’t very much more than that.  War Horse is, as much as Super 8, a tribute to Steven Spielberg and his own favorite movies.  Watching it is like watching someone hand himself an award, delivering both the presentation and the acceptance speech for 2 1/2 hours.  It’s self-indulgence as epic filmmaking.  Spielberg’s next film is his long-awaited biography of Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and from a script by Tony Kushner.  Let’s hope he’s gotten his personal Netflix out of the way, and he’s ready to make a real movie again.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."