Seen from one end, War Horse is quintessential Spielberg, a greatest-hits package from the most successful filmmaker of all time. Its narrative cement — the mysterious attachment between a young human and a non-human wrenched from its parent — is derived from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. The band of brothers wending their way through a war-spattered hell harks back to Saving Private Ryan. And the central conceit of a stubborn and somewhat obsessive boy seeking to be reunited with a loved one resounds with echoes of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

But at the other end, War Horse isn't a Spielberg film in the slightest. It's more a throwback to Spielberg's predecessors, those creators whose cinema came to define the classical Hollywood narrative, stirring and straightforward and unencumbered by influences from the more personal cinema that emerged from Europe. Two shots, in particular, explicitly evoke Gone With The Wind, the first where a rising camera pulls back from a single actor and records, with an unblinking eye, the slumped bodies of scores of dead and wounded soldiers, and a second one that frames an irrepressible woman beneath a twisted tree and bathes her with light from a red-orange sky.

The rock-solid (if unremarkable) early portions, especially, are right out of the mould that shaped How Green Was My Valley. Spielberg — intentionally, I think — opts for archetypes over characters, and we are instantly immersed into the pastoral world of a penurious tenant farmer (Peter Mullan), his loving and long-suffering wife (Emily Watson), their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and their money-grubbing, moustache-twirling landlord (David Thewlis). The film, thus far, tells the kind of tale where the tragedy is leavened by broad comedy from a cantankerous goose.

In other words, the people streaming out of the theatre at this point are the ones whose idea of cinema is characterised by subtlety and subtext, and who cannot abide by a score that unabashedly highlights the more sentimental aspects of the story, the measured deliberateness of the cutting, the open-faced earnestness of the acting, and a richly saturated colour palette that transports us to a world slightly more magical than our own.

All this makes War Horse something of a fable, the dispenser of whose wisdom is Joey, the horse that Albert looks upon like a brother. Like E.T., Joey is a miraculous creature, a dry-eyed, non-human observer of human folly as it passes from one owner to another. As World War I breaks out, Albert's father sells Joey to an English cavalry officer, from whose loving hands it falls into the care of two German brothers, after whose death it ends up with a French girl and her grandfather, and so forth — and that brings us to the big problem at the film's expansive heart. How do you make an audience, however complicit, buy into a sentimental story whose protagonist is an inexpressive equine?

Joey is the film's only constant, its connective tissue as the narrative lurches from one episode to the next, one mood to the next, one set of characters to the next, and none of the humans — the actors — are allowed much time to make an impression. Each new character that Joey ends up with is a notional marker of gender and age and nationality, little else, and the result is a series of fleeting subplots — many of them extraordinarily shot and staged, and suffused with a quiet grandeur — that simply do not possess the power to make us care. We remain as dry-eyed as Joey.

Spielberg is so reverential in mimicking the older masters that he forgets to be himself — except in a handful of scenes like the one where Joey is enmeshed in barbed wire in a no man's land between army trenches. Elsewhere, the director of Saving Private Ryan — another film that dealt with archetypes, but managed to elevate them into red-blooded characters whose fates we carried in our clenched fists — is barely in sight. War Horse is a curio, a film built on an abundance of Spielbergian craft but with very little Spielbergian heart.

War Horse

Genre: War

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullen, Emily Watson

Storyline: War separates a boy and his horse, and the reunion isn't going to be easy

Bottomline: Lots of craft, not as much heart

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011