Film review: War Horse

The wonder of a heroic wartime tale is lost in Steven Spielberg's cinematic landscape, says Will Brooker

January 12, 2012

War Horse

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine and Benedict Cumberbatch

Released in the UK on 13 January

Nobody who has witnessed the National Theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse will forget the moment when Joey the foal transforms into his adult, stallion self: the parts of the first puppet burst apart and a life-size beast gallops on to the stage, his handlers almost invisible.

Spielberg's film production has no direct equivalent, and in casting real horses as Joey, it chooses to sacrifice both the play's most staggering illusion, that a puppet could convince as a living, breathing animal, and the book's underpinning achievement of using Joey as narrator. What it offers instead are characteristic images of intensely cinematic visual power, rather than the play's stunning coup de théâtre or the novel's sustained first-person voice. Spielberg's magic is in the attention to visual detail: the close-up on a juddering glass of water as a Tyrannosaurus approaches in Jurassic Park (1993) or the nail edging out of the slave ship's wooden deck in Amistad (1997). War Horse adds to the director's compendium of best-of clips, but there is no single transformative spectacle here; no startling reveal in the translation from one medium to another, and perhaps no justification for yet another version of the story.

The first fine shot comes in the film's opening act, and pulls it up just in time from a soporific, downward slide. We fly over the Devon countryside, and light spreads like butter over fields as characters tell us, in heavily steeped accents, what they already know, while John Williams' score instructs us how to feel. Yet just when War Horse threatens to become a full-length version of the 1970s BBC television drama Follyfoot or a live-action adaptation of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, a close-up of the brown, woollen corrugations in a piece of crocheting merges perfectly into a long shot of a ploughed field, and we're off.

The story is structured into sections, and images of this kind punctuate each act, lifting our attention just when the film threatens to sink into generic convention. Spielberg shows us little of war that we have not seen before in previous movie conflicts - from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) to Atonement (1997) - all of which struggle through the same slow-motion mud. The horse becomes our constant companion as his human owners drift in and out of the story; but as a real animal - rather than a miraculously compelling puppet or a memorable first-person narrator - he is not a strong enough character to carry the film alone.

So we wait instead for the next well-crafted image, the next clever combination of sound and picture. When Joey is sold to the army, the director and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski (a veteran of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List), offer something that the novel and play cannot: a cavalry charge through a field of wheat, with grain flying in freshly cut, fragile clouds around the bravely outstretched sabres. In the third act, as Joey wanders across occupied France and the tone shifts uneasily, like the European accents, a military execution - the moment of the bullet's impact obscured by the turning blades of a windmill - is the dark highlight.

Then the sunlit fields give way to ash, dirt and flame, and Spielberg evokes the montage of Sergei Eisenstein, cutting between the mass of bodies to the turning of great wheels and the rise of cannon barrels, as Joey becomes part of the German military machine. When the horse battles through barbed wire, we have an image straight out of Picasso's Guernica.

The thick, bright Technicolor of the closing scenes feels earned after an hour in the trenches, and the sight of heroes making their way back to the family, silhouetted against a glorious amber sky like shadow puppets, recalls John Ford's The Searchers. The wordless final sequence of War Horse cuts through sentiment and becomes elemental and grand; a scene of mythic return from wilderness to civilisation, from hell to home.

However he does it - through cunning pastiche of the 20th century's greatest directors, or through steadily hammering at the viewer's heart through repeated motifs (another last-minute sprint, another last embrace) until something has to break - Spielberg ultimately leaves us with a sense of something moving and magnificent. Whether it lingers as long in the mind as the novel and play, rather than achieving its ends through a more superficial, short-lived emotional manipulation, remains to be seen.

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