Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but the second film in Steven Spielberg’s late-2011 two-film punch, War Horse (2011), is literally the story of a war horse. Sure, the horse, Joey, finds a kind keeper in the young Englishman, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who tames the beast and teaches him how to plow. Once World War I breaks out, Joey is enlisted, while the underaged Albert, who’s unable to join his friend-pet, is forced to remain with his parents (Emily Watson and Peter Mullan) and help with their country farm. Admittedly, Albert returns to the screen in the film’s third act, but what’s rather stunning about Spielberg’s film is that the horse really is the main character and long segments of the film go by that feel torn from the antiquated playbook of silent film.
Essentially, War Horse presents a perfect mixture of the classical and the avant-garde. Spielberg, working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, composer John Williams, and editor Michael Kahn (although this was Spielberg’s first film to be edited digitially), hones the skills of his collaborators to match formally the films that came out of the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking. He presents sepia-toned sentiment that owes as much to John Ford (Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940)) as it does to Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind(1939)). Yet, the aesthetic is wrapped around a rather unorthodox narrative structure. Sure, War Horse is a linear narrative, but it’s a digressive, tangential narrative, chiefly because the main character is unable to express motivation. Joey doesn’t choose his path; he’s saddled and strapped to the artillery, already being towed along it.
Thus, much of War Horse is constructed out of unrelated vignettes. Joey goes from the hands of Albert to the hands of Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), shifting his training away from the agrarian to the tactical. On the eve of being deployed in France, Joey befriends his equestrian platoon mate, the black horse Topthorne. Almost immediately after being introduced, Nicholls is killed. Now, this is significant for a few reasons. First, it takes place off screen, underlining Spielberg’s intent that this really is Joey’s story. Second, while the film acknowledges the toll that war takes on people (from a French farmer and his granddaughter to a pair of German brothers), it’s primarily concerned with the sacrifices that mother nature makes in the face of destruction. War Horse is the Paths of Glory (1957) of animal warrior films.
Spielberg’s sentimental examination of Joey – adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book and its subsequent stage adaptation (a puppet was used in the play) – may come off as incredibly old-fashioned. Sentimentality is a rarity in contemporary film because it’s often overshadowed by cynicism and pessimism. Now, I’m not complaining about this. I normally view the glass as half-empty, and I expected to hate War Horse because of this. However, Spielberg, through his balancing act and perfected ability to pull at the heartstrings (thanks to the horses of course!), captivated me and moved me with his best film since Munich (2005).