Your correspondent likes to think he has a heart that can be touched. The list of Disney movies at which I’ve cried, now that I tally it up, is long indeed, and I was moved to tears in a cinema as recently as The Muppets. It wouldn’t be true to say that Steven Spielberg has never produced this emotion in me, but those occasions have been rare. Most of his productions are too antiseptic and artificial for that. They often feel as though the screenplays were generated by a computer, then market tested, then given one last polish so that they won’t go over the heads of any Mongolian Idiots who might be in the audience. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think he is a genius of horror, spectacle, suspense and action. But you can almost count on one hand the occasions when he’s gotten it completely right.
Thus, nothing short of the Oscar nominations would have induced me to see War Horse. It seemed from afar what it looks like up close: a movie devised for eight year old girls to see with their History Channel watching grandfathers: one part The Black Stallion and one part Sergeant York. I love horses, and I love movies in which horses play a useful and necessary role, but putting one of the brutes in the center of a story – unless it is sentient – seems a bit much to me. Apparently, the original book is told by the horse. That sounds interesting. And the use of puppets in the stage production? Equally interesting. How will Spielberg transcend, make a picture that’s not just another children’s horse movie, another Black Stallion, National Velvet, or My Friend Flicka? The answer: he doesn’t. It’s one of those movies where the characters repeatedly tell us how “special”, “magnificent”, “miraculous” and “one-of-a-kind” this horse is, and we look at the screen, and it’s just a horse. It looks about like any horse, and Spielberg photographs him that way. Much has been made of the beauty of the opening scenes (set on a Devonshire farm where boy gets horse/ boys loves horse/ boy loses horse), but these scenes looked less like John Ford to me than a Golden Grahams commercial.
The shape of the film is fairly monstrous. We spend eons meeting this boy, his best friend, his parents and an antagonistic landlord, all relationships that will go precisely nowhere. It’s all so much wasted screen time as we then abandon these characters and head off into the War, where we meet a succession of the horse’s subsequent owners…all of whom we spend ten or fifteen minutes getting to know in the La Ronde fashion before they are swept out of the stable like so many horse-leavings. As you can imagine, the best part of the film is Spielberg’s depiction of No Man’s Land: the trenches, the gas, the barbed wire, the barren, muddy landscape broken only by the charred remains of limbless trees. But even this is marred by Spielberg’s need to be cute and cuddly. The climax of the film occurs when a British soldier and a German counterpart each risk their lives to collaborate on freeing the horse from entanglement in barbed wire directly in the middle of the line, while both armies look on. The British soldier makes a clacking noise to attract the horse, then all his compatriots make the same noise. The German whistles, then all the Germans whistle. When the soldier asks for a pair of wire cutters, twelve pairs of wire cutters are instantly tossed to him. It’s this kind of contrivance that’s tough for me to take.
In the end, of course, the boy is reunited with his horse and they go home together. It’s the knowledge that this would happen above all that made this movie an unbearable charade for me. If this had been a real story, with real characters, in which a real boy lost his horse, and there seemed to be real danger that the loss was for good, then I might well be among the suckers who were sobbing. But Spielberg is not capable of pulling such a thing off, nor should he try. If this had been a movie in which a horse gets eaten by a giant shark, then he might have been on sound footing.