In vying for Oscars and popularity, most films nowadays constantly experiment to make themselves new. As well-done as they may be, many award-winners are becoming more dependent on gimmicks, whether it be a retro silent picture, a coming-of-age tale shot over twelve years, a drama meant to appear as one continuous take, or a musical that does away with pre-recorded tracks. Few films return to the pure, old-fashioned filmmaking of Hollywood’s Golden Age as wondrously as Steven Spielberg’s 2010 masterpiece War Horse, a return to a time when epic journeys could indulge in straightforward schmaltz and emotion without being called “sentimental,” as if that were a bad thing.
Paulie already proved that “meet ‘em and move on” films could feature an animal protagonist, but unlike that film or Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron or the Michael Morpurgo book on which War Horse is based, the animal involved is not anthropomorphized to provide narration. He acts as a character but also a sounding board for those he meets along his odyssey. In doing so, he experiences the many angles of World War I depicted throughout the story: the confident bravery of the war’s beginning, the early losses, the fears and misgivings on both sides, the heartbreaking cost forced upon innocent civilians, the devolution of battlefields into ravaged wastelands, and the unexpected kindnesses displayed throughout.
As a war film, it manages to show multiple perspectives and never demonizes one group or the other. As with every war, there are sympathetic angels and hard-nosed warriors on both sides. A scene of cooperation between a British and German soldier acts as a microcosm of the previously reviewed Christmas film Joyeux Noël, uniting them over shared humanity and sympathy for an injured innocent. One way in which the film recalls the war features of yesteryear is in its realistic but sanitized depiction of battle; despite much loss of life and some intense sequences, there’s no blood and no unnecessary brutality. I applaud Spielberg for that.
My VC doesn’t believe War Horse should be this high on my list (she’s not partial to any film with a suffering animal), but for me, War Horse is the most recent film to find a special place in my heart. Certain movies like this, Heart and Souls, and Whisper of the Heart just retain an unusual personal fondness that can’t be fully explained. The opening might be a little slow, but it highlights the formation of a life-leading friendship that compels the viewer to follow this special horse, and certain elements are made more relevant and poignant as the film progresses. In addition, the breath-taking cinematography and scenery of Devon, England, are more than enough to hold one’s attention, especially when combined with yet another moving score from John Williams. The actors are all excellent as well, from newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Albert, a heartfelt and consistently admirable lad whether in the turnip field or battlefield, to a number of recognizable English thespians, including Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug, Sherlock, Khan, etc.).
War Horse indeed feels like classical filmmaking, like that of John Ford mixed with Lassie, but updated with Spielberg’s artistic touch and more natural acting. Shots of the Devon sunset carry a painterly beauty, while a scene of an execution is evocatively hidden by a turning windmill. The Artist may have been more lauded for its innovative take on classic Hollywood, but I consider War Horse the best film of 2011.
Best line: (Rose Narracott to her husband Ted, after he fears his failures will alienate her) “I might hate you more, but I’ll never love you less.”Rank: 59 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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