In a holiday movie season full of postmodern delights like Victorian-era martial artist detectives, motioned-captured European comic book adventurers and dragon-tattooed bisexual hackers, Steven Spielberg’s boldly old-fashioned WWI epic War Horse is among the bravest movies of the season. These days many Hollywood movies are desperately trying to show us something new, and that’s certainly not a bad thing (see above for examples). In the midst of all of the bustling novelty, however, there seems to be a courageous little movement of filmmakers desperately trying to show us something old. This year, Martin Scorsese showed us the birth of cinema in Hugo, and Michel Hazanvicius’ silent film The Artist showed us its childhood. Now with his newest film, Steven Spielberg brings us back to the movies’ glorious Technicolor adolescence, the age of Gone With the Wind. War Horse is nostalgic, poetic and overtly sentimental; a movie that wears it emotions on its sleeve and in its saddle.
I know a number of people who hate on Spielberg for his "sentimentality." They always use that same word, “sentimentality,” as if they're all copy-and-pasting from the same negative review and as if sentiments were something to be ashamed of. If anything, the man who made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year has used the last three decades to become one of the most versatile moviemakers alive, tackling virtually every genre known to man with and without his so-called sentimental crutch. Remember all the touchy-feely moments in Minority Report or Munich? Me neither. But I do remember them in E.T. and Catch Me If You Can, and they were fantastic. Sentimentality is not Spielberg’s modus operandi, but it is a mighty tool in his arsenal, a switch he can turn on or off at will.
In War Horse, as in the classic films from which it derives its style, the switch is definitely on. Spielberg announces his intentions very early in the film with light-hearted farm scenes. These aren’t the bombed-out French towns of Saving Private Ryan (switch: off) but the lush, untouched pastures of pre-war England. Everything in these early moments is conspicuously romanticized. John Williams’ pastoral score and Janusz Kaminski’s storybook lighting create the near heavenly rural atmosphere in which a hardworking farm boy meets a hardworking horse. A local land baron wants to take their land, but the horse and his boy will have none of it. While the increasingly inseparable interspecies duo till the land, a loving mother looks on lovingly and a duck with immaculate timing provides a few laughs. All of this sugary quaintness made me smile.
Then rains destroy the crops, England declares war on Germany and the horse is sold into the army. The boy attempts to follow the horse, but he’s too young to enlist. In an improbable but brilliant move that stems from the novel upon which the movie is based, we leave the boy at home and accompany the horse for the duration of the film. Farm Horse turns into War Horse, and Spielberg’s film reveals itself to be the sweeping wartime fable that it is.
“Fable” really is the right word here. War Horse is not a realistic film in the strictest sense of the word. Its story is patterned more after the musings of a philosopher than the demands of a historian. The horrors are all there, but they’re abstracted into heartbreaking and mostly bloodless images. This PG-13 approach would be restrictive in less capable hands, but the pictures and dilemmas Spielberg and his team creates are so powerful, it would be downright masochistic to ask for more violence. Even the seemingly benign opening scenes transform themselves in retrospect into a series of placeholder images: green grass and honest work contrasted by the mud and soul-crushing toil of war.
Once it gets going, War Horse races alongside its equine protagonist and a wonderful cast of broadly drawn human characters or the better part of two hours. As the movie deftly moves from scene to scene (metaphor to metaphor, really), we’re reminded that no one on earth does episodic drama and gripping set pieces like Spielberg. Some of the sequences in War Horse stand beside the very best moments in Spielberg’s previous work. I can’t count the number of times the audience audibly gasped during the film, either from surprise, sadness, happiness, irony or any other conceivable reaction to the masterful dramatic turns that pop up every 20 minutes. When the closing moments of War Horse arrive, awash in Kaminski’s least subtle color palette and underscored by Williams’ least subtle orchestrations, our emotions and tear ducts have been almost completely exhausted. It’s wonderful.
Like the makers of Hugo and The Artist, perhaps Steven Spielberg decided it was time for a throwback like War Horse because he knows that they literally don’t make them like this anymore. By leaning into the very sentimentality that marks some of Old Hollywood’s greatest crowd-pleasers, he has given audiences an increasingly rare opportunity to re-experience a time when big movies meant big thrills and big emotions. As powerful and thoughtful as it is old-fashioned, War Horse is one of the best movies of the year.
Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and the co-host ofMoviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial workcan be seen at vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.