On a certain level, this is a film about looking, about the power of the reaction shot. Not only is this used to create a sense of an animal’s emotions – as the boy trains the horse, we see them growing closer, growing in trust and friendship – but characters come to care about the horse, and we about the characters, in the space of an edit. Spielberg knows the power of images and the even greater effect in juxtaposing powerful visuals. There’s may be no more iconic image in all of cinema than that of a galloping horse, from Muybridge’s experiments to westerns and period pieces, from National Velvet to The Black Stallion. Engaged with this history, War Horse is a film that’s an epic of Fordian fields and Lean landscapes mixed with intimate close ups and stunning sequences of the kind that by now can certainly be called Spielbergian.
It’s also a film that’s literally about looking at the effects of war. Under all the intensely sympathetic human detail that opens the film, the Great War is looming. The farmer, much to his son’s dismay, sells their horse to the army after which the animal is sent along to help the war effort. The script by Lee Hall and Richard Cutris (from the novel by Michael Morpurgo) has us follow the horse. As we do, we get to know the many varied people who come into contact with him. There’s, among others, the brave and honorable British officer (Tom Hiddleston), two German brothers (Leonhard Carow and David Kross), and a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens). It becomes a knockout of a film that gallops across World War I, catching glimpses of its effect on all lives the conflict intersects, no matter the age, no matter the social station, no matter the nationality.
Through the horse’s path we see the devastation of this war for civilians and soldiers alike. Spielberg stages the horror of trench warfare as a PG-13 Saving Private Ryan, grim and overwhelming. When he moves away from the front lines, there’s a terrific patience given over to the brief respites of uncertain solitude, the booming cannonade that can be heard from miles away intruding upon the hesitant daily lives of people desperately trying to avoid trouble if it can be helped. The fleeing soldiers who try to hide from the fight, the brief return to pastoral setting on the French farm, these are moments away from the front that feel nearly, if not just as devastating as the battles themselves. The horror of war may not always be foregrounded, but it’s always encroaching, booming off in the distance.
This is a film with emotion quivering right on the surface in John Williams moving, memorable, and rich score, in the painterly cinematography of deep red Hollywood sunsets, rolling green hills, and muddy gray trenches, in the scenes capable of evoking great warmth and great horror that Janusz Kaminski so handsomely photographs and that Spielberg arranges to play like a sympathy of empathy. Is this manipulative? Yes, in that Spielberg has the audience held captive by his ability to evoke any emotion, to trigger sympathy for any character. That’s hardly a bad thing. Getting a film to work on such a high level is hardly cheap and easy. This is a deliriously accomplished film of powerful emotion. An early battle scene features the cavalry charging a line of enemy machine guns. We hear the roar of the brave men as they ride their horses forward, and then cut to riderless horses leaping over enemy lines to only the sounds of gunfire. With elegant, devastating editing of sounds and shots, just one of many such examples that could be singled out, Spielberg creates a memorable and striking moment of deep emotional impact.
This film is epic Hollywood filmmaking on a scale that’s sure to satisfy those who grumble “they don’t make them like they used to.” While it’s a bit of a throwback in that regard – at times it plays almost like a new classic – it’s hardly old-fashioned or stuffy. It’s a lively, tremendously modern work. Only today’s effects and techniques could build its period piece world in such a visually accomplished way. This is no studio backlot. But what really works in the film, what marks it as neither old nor new, but timeless, is its deep, pure humanistic expression. Each and every character we meet becomes a fully fleshed human being. We learn their hopes and fears and then plunge with them into awful war-torn circumstances. Spielberg and his uniformly excellent cast have us fall in love with these characters in order to better break our hearts.
War Horse is stirring and moving and unabashedly sentimental in ways that never feel forced. So strongly thematically engaged – and with the horse as such a strong visual and emotional anchor – that what could easily have been episodic and clunky is rendered powerfully, elegantly unified. By the end, which has brought back some of the previously left behind characters in rewarding, sometimes surprising, ways, there’s the feeling of having had a filmgoing experience so completely full and fulfilling, a rare complete and total satisfaction. Spielberg is a master filmmaker, capable of marshalling the best techniques of the past to give us thrilling and moving new examples of filmmaking at its best. Moments like the final shots of a deeply heartfelt reunion silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset, accompanied by Williams’s soaring main theme, could be straight out of a Hollywood epic of any era. This is terrific, earnest, empathetic filmmaking that cuts straight to the heart with strong, direct emotion. It’s a film that’s involving, upsetting, and in the end somehow uplifting, that thrills and moves and lingers.