(Steven Spielberg, 2011)
Steven Spielberg's gifts and his flaws are so bound up in one another, it can be hard to divine exactly why some of his films work, and why others do not. War Horse is a perfect example of that.
For the last few years Spielberg has seemingly been engaged in a project to make "old" films by modern means. War Horse, then, could very well have been made in the 1940s or 50s. That period entirely suits Spielberg in that it is entirely sexless, warmly, unashamedly sentimental, and founded on simple but extremely strong visual storytelling. It uses the horse of the title, named "Joey" by the boy who raises and trains him on Dartmoor in Devon, to string together an episodic series of vignettes along the front during the Great War. Joey is sold to a Cavalry Officer who rides him into battle, then used by the Germans as an ambulance horse and to pull Artillery, then found by a sickly French girl, then bonded over by an Englishman and a German in No Mans Land..this way we get a sort of panorama of the War.
The source material is a Childrens novel by Michael Morpurgo, and it has the simplicity and directness of the best material for children. But in some ways that brings out the worst in Spielberg. The characters are all cardboard cut-outs, the good guys all warmth and kindness, the bad guys all cruelty and pure meanness. The sentimentality is at times overwhelming, the world Spielberg creates idealised and as simplified as the characterisation. This is a First World War somewhat softened for a general audience, the true horror and gore suggested rather than shown, as Spielberg acknowledges the brutality and harsh reality of War but largely, and characteristically, chooses to focus on the essential decency of the people who populate his world.
And yet, he remains a singularly talented storyteller, and there are passages of effortless brilliance here, filled as it is with beautiful imagery, compulsively watchable, and, despite that wretched sentimentality, much that is extremely moving. The characters may be cartoonishly broad, but they are played by a brilliant cast of British actors with class and wit, and the nature of that episodic structure dictates that none of the stories drags on for too long. The horses, of course, are fabulous.