On the fabby Big Thoughts from a Small Mind blog, writer CS likes to play a regular game called 'which is better?' (my old work colleagues once had a similar routine called 'who'd you rather?', but that's another story) - a simple concept, taking two well-known actors or directors who have comparable yet contrasting reputations and asking - well, which is better?
Of the more recent contests, the one that gave me pause for thought was between Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg; two divergent titans of the New Hollywood. After some considerable thought, I had to come down on Team Marty, but not without some painful internal justifications: hasn't Spielberg given us some of the best moments of our lives, from giant sharks and bullwhips to glowing fingers and red dresses? Yes, but he's had his fair share of down points too; there hasn't really been a really great film since his Schindler's List/Jurassic Park bumper year of 1993 (though I confess to seeing neither Munich nor the recent Tintin film); A.I. and Saving Private Ryan both had strong elements but were basically flawed, The Terminal was poor and Indy 4 was a frank abomination (of course, as one of the greatest directors of all time, we hold him to high standards). But c'mon: Jaws? CE3K? E.T.? Raiders (and the other two)? Duel? Empire of the Sun? Undoubtedly some of the best times you could ever have in the cinema. But where does War Horse fit in?
The story itself is Spielbergian catnip. Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel (also adapted to great acclaim as a stage play), it tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of a charismatic, handsome colt named Joey. Raised by young farmer's boy Albert (played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine) on Dartmoor, the titular horse is purchased by a kindly officer (Tom Hiddlestone) for the war effort, and in the ensuing confusion, carnage and fog of war engages in a picaresque line-crossing adventure, capturing the hearts (and narrowly avoiding the wrath) of participants on both sides. The great risk (and my great trepidation) was that it would all become a mawkish mess, somewhere between Lassie and Gone with the Wind: a veritable Verdun of gushy sentimentality. George Lucas once said "If you want me to make you feel something, that's not hard. I'll choke a kitten in front of you, and you'll feel something". the point he's making is that it's easy to wring cheap sobs from an audience - the question is, does Spielberg resort to this here?
I think not. While this is a highly sentimental weepy of a film, for my two penn'orth Spielberg earns his big emotional hits in War Horse. The characters are well-rounded, believable and, where appropriate, sympathetic (thanks in large part to the smart adaptation by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis). Even though the film is episodic, the script, direction and performances lead us to invest in the characters enough for us to care about how they feel. And, yes, there are a number of happy coincidences and unlikely events throughout the film, but I could live with them because they comply with the rules of the film's emotional universe which remain consistent throughout.
And let's not forget that it's a family film and, because I can well imagine thoroughly enjoying watching this on Christmas Day with my own kids one day, all of the sentimentality and pat dialogue and sweeping scores and butterscotch screen washes are somehow acceptable to me. In fact, cards on the table, I bought it wholesale. It's sentimental in the same way E.T. was; because we're in the hands of a master craftsman of sentimentality - and that's not a backhanded compliment, by the way - you can just sit back and revel in it. I really enjoyed this film, and I didn't expect to at all. I can understand why it could be criticised, but there's so much heart, humour and love in the storytelling that really, you just need to go with it. Surely this is why we all go to the pictures anyway?
I've mentioned that I liked the performances, and they are excellent across the board, but I should single out Peter Mullan and Emily Watson as Albert's parents; we know that both are wonderful actors already, but they really do convince here. I would have been more than happy if the film had never left their little tenant farm; their struggles with the landlord (an understated, tweedy David Thewlis) have a positively Western tenor, and the two characters are both given enough depth beyond their archetype (the strong -mother-who-holds-it-all-together, the damaged-yet-good-hearted-war-veteran) to sustain a good-sized movie in their own right.
I really want to talk about the humour in the film too. Spielberg has been very responsible in ensuring that this film is not just an unending slough of despond; there are a number of moments of levity, even wit, and there is a performance from a goose that deserve a Best Supporting Actor nod, such is it's superb comic timing (but as a Kusturica fan, I do like to see geese on the big screen). There are moments of (bloodless) horror too, though these are very neatly depicted: without being too graphic for a young audience they nonetheless convey the emotional impact very well. Again, it's a consummate family film.
But enough gushing - it's spoilsport time now. First up: it is too long. There's no way around that fact - two and a half hours is longer than most films can take and even with the episodic nature of the film we could've stood to trim a good twenty minutes out of it. Also, the score. John Williams is, of course, a movie composer nonpareil - but there are times here where it goes a touch too far in cueing the audiences emotions. Trust me, you don't need the music to tell you how to feel in War Horse. And, yes, on occasion the director just can't help himself in trowelling on the schmaltz; there is a sequence around halfway through on a French farmstead that feels a touch artificial in the motives of its participants.
Nonetheless, Spielberg has conducted a fine family entertainment that, despite the occasional schmaltz and the faintly bonkers tying up of loose ends, will endure for many years. And they say they don't make 'em like they used to...