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Movie Review: Steven Spielberg's Beautiful, Horrifying WAR HORSE

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War Horse begins in the bucolic English countryside, and almost immediately, the sweep of the filmmaking—the cloud against an endless blue sky, the green grass separated by grey stone fences, all set to John Williams’ grandly manipulative score—recalls those Old Masters.  We think John Ford directing How Green Was My Valley, we think David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia, we think Victor Fleming and Gone with the Wind.

Director Steven Spielberg has always wore these influences proudly (Saving Private Ryan is nothing less than a WWII-set The Searchers with Tom Hanks occupying the John Wayne part), but War Horse marks the first time I’ve seen him actively emulate his heroes.  The move creates a mood of unreality, the sense that we’re slipping back in time to hear an old fable.  We think we’re getting a softer movie than we are, and the early goings do little to dissuade us from this notion; in his depiction of the events that bond young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) with newborn foal Joey, Spielberg lays on the folksy warmth and honey-shaded cinematography.

This material isn’t bad; the early scenes between Albert and Joey are effortlessly charming, and Spielberg creates a mini-hardscrabble narrative out from the decades-long feud between Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) and his unyielding landlord (David Thewlis).  But it is slight, like the most extravagantly staged kids’ movie ever made.

Except War Horse then turns into a different kind of children’s story.  The best ones—the Grimm ones, for example—get the “children’s” brand because what makes them easily digestible for kids also gives them power: with clarity, purpose, and a minimum of editorializing, they lay out moral lessons about how the world works, good or bad.

And once Joey finds himself conscripted on the British side of WWI, War Horse jumps right into its Dark Side Clinic.

I’m astounded at those who think War Horse is sappy.  If it makes one cry, it’s because the events on-screen are so horrible.  We follow this horse through violence, and we get a first-hand look at how war disrupts the natural order of things.  This isn’t Seabiscuit; Spielberg doesn’t want to anthropomorphize his equine lead.  We can’t tell the degree to which Joey understands his situation or read his emotions at a given moment.  We just see him try to run the hell away, as fast as he can.

Even the cinematic homages provide no real relief.  Spielberg is operating on a stylized, David Lean scale, but the scope of his combat—a disastrous cavalry charge, a battle from one trench to the enemy’s, a harrowing dash through No Man’s Land—only magnifies the horror.  It’s as if war turns the picture’s dreamlike patina into a nightmare.

Furthermore, the film’s sentiment never overwhelms because Spielberg paints such a jaundiced picture of humanity.  War Horse is an episodic film, with Joey the only real link between the different segments, but the pervasive unifying theme is one of despair.  Spielberg populates his large ensemble (which includes actors like Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Kross, Toby Kebbell, Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, and the great Niels Arestrup) with decent people.  An idealistic British soldier who promises to protect Joey.  A German infantryman desperate to spare his younger brother from the front line.  A French jam maker caring for his sickly granddaughter.  They share one trait: no matter how hard they strive for goodness, the war chews them up.

For a supposed “kids’ movie,” Spielberg doesn’t let anyone off the hook—along with his underrated masterpiece Munich, this is the angriest, most political movie he has ever made.  Spielberg highlights humanity’s best, yes, but he also never lets us forget that we’re responsible for its simultaneous destruction.  While not explicitly graphic, his battle scenes have a churning, brutal inevitability, unburdened from the “Greatest Generation” patriotism that elevated Saving Private Ryan out of the splatter.  People fight and die, or they try not to fight and die, or they live in the shadow of death.  It may be World War I in War Horse, but Spielberg could easily be examining World War II or Vietnam or both Gulf Wars.  The machine is broken, and we all suffer.  So it goes.

I went into War Horse expecting a wartime jaunt, and I came out profoundly moved.  Spielberg wants to break your heart, and his excursion into the cinema of yesteryear lets him strip away all the irony and artifice that might cloud the objective.  This is honest, simple moviemaking, as primal as a sunset and direct as a bullet to the chest.

Dreamworks and Disney’s Blu-ray offers a stunning digital transfer; the picture has a shimmering, hyperreal hue that still contains lots of fine details and crisp textures.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is one for the books; you might think it’s overkill during the picture’s relatively quiet first hour, but then the shooting starts, and the audio immerses you in the battles without losing dialogue or any crispness in John Williams’ score.

Should you pick up the four-disc Blu-ray package, you get the movie on Disc 1 alongside the War Horse: The Journey Home roundtable discussion and the An Extra’s Point of View featurette.  These are well produced, if a little glib, but the real meat is on Disc 2, which offers over eighty minutes of bonus documentaries.  The most comprehensive is the hour-long A Filmmaking Journey, which alone justifies the lack of an audio commentary, though we also get the shorter (and more subject-specific) Editing and Scoring, The Sounds of War Horse, and Through the Producer’s Lens.

The set also comes with DVD and Digital Copies.  The DVD has the War Horse: The Look featurette (a condensed version of the Filmmaking Journey documentary).

Despite its golden-hued tones, War Horse is a relentlessly powerful film experience, and one of Steven Spielberg’s best films.  We will regret neglecting this one; I suspect it will gain stature far past its lukewarm critical and commercial reception.

The War Horse Blu-ray is now available.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.