There are two kinds of Steven Spielberg movies: The ones in which the filmmaker is completely engaged and invested (Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the ones in which he lost interest in halfway through and just plowed ahead until they were completed (Always, Hook, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Just because Spielberg puts his heart into a picture doesn’t guarantee it will turn out well (for more on this, see 1941). But his enthusiasm and excitement glows in every single frame of War Horse. There isn't a moment in the movie where you don't feel Spielberg's passion, and this time, the film is worthy of his enthusiasm. It’s a knockout.
Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, about the bond between a boy and his horse during World War I, already spawned a stage adaptation that racked up accolades and awards. The movie, written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, incorporates elements from both the book and the play: The horse no longer narrates the story, but he remains the central character. Albert (played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine) is the kid from a ramshackle farm in the British countryside who raises the horse as a colt and names him Joey. Albert’s parents (Peter Mullen and Emily Watson) gradually take to the horse with the same affection as the boy does. But a greedy landlord is threatening to foreclose on the family’s farm, and when World War I breaks out, Albert can’t keep his father from selling Joey to the British military.
The first half-hour of War Horse is slow and deliberate and defiantly earnest – a conventional boy-and-his-dog story, complete with a honking comic-relief goose, used as the foundation for an epic. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has shot all of Spielberg’s movies since 1993, employs grandly artificial lighting and suffused colors to give the scenes the look of a pop-up storybook. And then the war comes and changes everything.
War Horse is aggressively episodic. The plot is chopped up into chapters that segue into each other using Joey as the protagonist. Soon after leaving home, the horse is galloping into battle carrying British troops, pulling heavy artillery through mud for German soldiers, and bringing brief solace to ordinary people caught in the crossfire. Eventually, he’s racing through trenches and dodging bullets and bombs, and the images are extraordinary and terrifying. War Horse uses Joey’s experiences to illustrate war in all its facets, and the film uses his point of view to rise above the usual business of heroes and villains and historical and political subtexts. The war is almost an abstraction: Spielberg is interested only in the toll it takes, not what led up to it.
But the movie – and this is critical – never anthropomorphizes its four-legged hero. Spielberg uses camera angles and shrewd editing to get real performances from his star (six different horses were used to play Joey). But the movie resists the temptation to saddle him with anything resembling human emotions. War Horse is a grand, sweeping film about a simple, precious idea: Even in the midst of hell on Earth, our innate compassion for animals can sometimes override hatred and fear. Some people may roll their eyes at that description. But Spielberg doesn't care, and his unwavering, unapologetic conviction is one of the chief strengths of the movie.
With the one-two punch of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, Spielberg cements his status as the best director of large-scale action of his generation. War Horse doesn’t linger on the horrors of battle the way Saving Private Ryan did: The violence is practically bloodless, with little explicit gore. But the intensity remains the same. In a remarkable sequence in which British forces charge at German troops hiding in the woods, the camera hurtles alongside the soldiers on horseback as they hack through the enemies they’ve caught off guard – then runs ahead of them to show us the cannon machine-gun cannons about to turn the tide of battle. A long scene depicting the surreal insanity of trench warfare is horrifying and nightmarish and an absolute tour de force of filmmaking: Spielberg dares to invoke Paths of Glory, then comes up with a few ideas even Kubrick never thought of.
The plot of War Horse stretches over several years, and eventually Albert and Joey are reunited, but under the most tragic of circumstances. The movie is filled with fleeting images and small details that sear themselves into your head, such as the hands of a frightened soldier that tremble so badly, he can’t pull the pin on the grenade that will save his life. And although this is a family-friendly picture, Spielberg never sugarcoats the reality of war. There is great death and horror and tragedy here.
In its final moments, War Horse returns to the larger-than-life style the movie opened with, including gorgeous skies that look like they were drawn by hand, and compositions that look like paintings. Spielberg tips his hat to everything from John Ford to Gone with the Wind to David Lean, but never at the expense of his own imprint. This is a Spielberg movie in all the best ways, right down to its intrinsic rejection of cynicism. The film’s unabashed embrace of operatic sentiment has been rejected by some as too schmaltzy or hokey or old-fashioned. But when did old-fashioned become such a bad word? This is a beautiful, generous, thrilling picture with a gentle spirit, a profoundly humanistic core and the same depth of feeling as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. That might make War Horse the object of hate and ridicule in certain circles. From here, it already feels like an instant classic.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullen, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenwriters: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo.
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy.
A DreamWorks Pictures release. Running time: 146 minutes. War violence, adult themes, graphic depictions of animals in extreme peril. Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters.