A throwback to epic war films, Spielberg creates a new genre: the family war movie, says Karen Krizanovich.
Citing Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan as two films of which he is most proud, Spielberg’s film-making aegis naturally extends to the material of War Horse. Initially optioning the project as producer after seeing The National Theatre’s innovative stage production, Spielberg himself stepped up to direct this stirring story of a boy and his horse struggling to survive the First World War.
Conceived as children’s fiction, War Horse was inspired in part by reminiscences told to author Michael Morpurgo by war veterans in his village in Devon. After the book was shortlisted for the Whitbread Literary Prize in 1982, Morpurgo and Simon Channing-Williams tried for six years to adapt it for the screen. Nick Stafford, in collaboration with the National Theatre and the Handspring Puppet Company, found a theatrical solution to the Black Beauty problem, i.e. how to tell a visual story with a non-human narrator. Pivoting the tale around rather than through the equine protagonist, Stafford further informed the text through workshops with life-sized, human-animated horse puppets; this effective stagecraft tempered any encroaching melodrama while abstracting from war’s full horror. Anthropomorphism of the equine puppets was kept to a minimum.
The cinematic transformation demands a script capable of handling heightened emotions against an epic background and Spielberg’s choice of scriptwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & A Funeral) exposes the difficulty of this task. A strong ensemble cast including Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and newcomer Jeremy Irvine acquit themselves with broad, archetypal performances; the first hour is devoted to cementing relationships between father, son, mother and horse. After a glorious 15 minutes spent with perfectly cast cavalry officers Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, the story descends into a harrowing if non-violent slog through the trenches, punctuated by unexpected kindnesses. Danish actor Nicholas Bro’s succinct performance as the German horse minder Friedrich is a memorable lesson in contained heartbreak. It is the ability of a legendary filmmaker to attract gifted actors such as Bro for ostensibly tiny roles. (Of course, there are no small roles…)
As a combination of the best of his oeuvre, War Horse provides a unique opportunity for Spielberg to make a family movie that is also a war film. Despite a healthy slate of upcoming projects, lukewarm receptions for his more recent works mean that even the master of American hopefulness must now play to his strengths. That War Horse’s original release date was moved back from late summer to Christmas (and amidst talk of post-production problems) indicates it is poised to be the good old-fashioned war movie a whole family could love.
Visually and aurally, War Horse is extremely emotionally evocative. Janus Kaminski’s cinematography creates the nostalgia of a crisp, clean daguerreotype. Rick Carter’s production design supports the story structure with golden tones at beginning and end, sandwiching foreboding sepia, greys, blacks and blues of war. Two exceptionally cinematic moments emerge from this technical excellence: an exciting cavalry charge headed by British officers Captain Nichols and Major Stewart is the only nod to the glamour of war. Spielberg’s Boschian vision of No Man’s Land overtakes despair: Morpurgo has said he was ‘haunted’ by a painting of cavalry horses trapped in barbed wire and this vivid, iconic image appears across book, play and film. Pacing the hope and horror, John Williams’ flexible, ever-present score pays homage to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. Detailed sound design pinpoints breath, birdsong, mud and hoofbeats.
A sumptuous if sanitised war film of classic proportions, War Horse’s cushioned ending belies the fact that during the First World War eight million horses died alongside their soldiers in brutal, mechanised battles where neither belonged.
In essence, War Horse isn’t about horses. It’s about the waste of warfare and the sheer wonder of survival. As a film, its simple linear storyline and lack of moral complexity obstruct its classic status: War Horse does not offer the intellectual or systemic satisfaction of, say, Paths of Glory. War Horse’s strength lies in bringing us back to basics in a most wholesome way: the suffering of innocents, the miscalculations of nations and the unique joy and sorrow of the one who makes it back home when all around him have perished. War Horse offers emotional cleanliness in the bastard landscape of war.