War Horse, The: Spielberg’s Literal (and Trivial) Screen Version of Popular Play

With “The War Horse,” his new historical melodrama, Steven Spielberg continues to explore ideas that have been recurrent in his work over the past four decades, such as isolated childhood, family love, coming-of-age in unusual circumstances, bond between youths and aliens or animals, and the impact of wars on ordinary lives.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=47781

(War features prominently in many of Spielberg’s works: the vastly underestimated “Empire of the Sun,” in the Oscar-winning epics, “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and in the acclaimed TV’s mini-series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”)

Set prior to and during WWI, “War Horse” could be classified as a sprawling, old-fashioned historical epic, which while boasting some emotionally stirring moments, it is bland and sentimental.  In his approach, Spielberg has chosen an accessible mainstream style, one that should appeal to parents as well as their children.

One of Spielberg’s most conventional films, “War Horse” is a simple, and in moments even simplistic and corny, boy’s adventure. As such, it fits well with the fare made by its parent company, Disney, which will release the picture on Christmas. Too bad that family members don’t go to the movies together anymore—“War Horse” is a picture to which you can take both your parents and grandparents without getting embarrassed.

A family movie par excellence, “War Horse” adds an honorable panel to tales of children and their love for animals, a cherished classic Hollywood genre, hailing back to such 1940s works as “National Velvet,” starring Elizabeth Taylor as a young girl, “The Yearling,” and all the way to recent works, such “Seabiscuit,” “Spirit,” and the Diane Lane vehicle, “Secretariat.”

“War Horse” has a good story to tell, but it has no rich subtext, or latent and subliminal meanings, and not much subtlety. What you see on the screen is what you get—the movie is both over-explicit and literal-minded.

Thus, it would be a mistake to suggest that Spielberg has made a strong allegory in the vein of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece of 1966, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” a chronicle of the sad, tragic life and death of a donkey that passes from owner to owner, and serves as a symbolic condemnation of humanity.

The nominal plot of “War Horse” could be summed up as a journey of a boy and a horse, a duo once intimately close, but whose destinies drive them apart as a result of external social and political circumstances.

The narrative, as is well known, is based on the 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo, adapted to the screen by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. In 2007, the novel sparked a rousing stage production, truly a spectacle, by the National Theater in London. That production was then transported to Broadway, garnering five Tony Awards, including Best Play. (I saw the play, which is still running, last year at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater).

An emotionally transporting spectacle of sounds and lights, the play benefited from the whimsical use of huge yet bare-boned horse puppets, manipulated by acrobatic actors. Thus, the puppets were able to emote and bring out to the audiences the emotions of the horses at each phase of their tumultuous lives.

For the movie, obviously, real horses are used, which turns the saga into a more literal and conventional experience.  (The main horse, Joey, is gorgeous, though)

Other significant changes had to be made in the transfer from page (and stage) to the big screen. The book is told from the POV of Joey, and we get the horse’s complex thoughts and feelings and penchant for prose. For the movie, Spielberg and his writers are telling the saga from different viewpoints and multiple perspectives. Albert, the boy who raises and trains the horse, is more central in illuminating a mythic journey that propels him into a dangerous, risky world during the war, only to return to his rural life with a hard-won wisdom and a fresher view of life.

The film’s narrative unfolds as a series of dramatic (and traumatic) episodes in the life of a feisty colt horse in wartime duress, allowing Spielberg to explore such issues as friendship, loyalty and courage.  This is done through pictorially impressive set-pieces.

In the course of the two and a half hour film, we witness sweeping battles, good and bad soldiers, decent and evil British, French, and German citizens, desperate escapes—in short, an evocative odyssey through a world torn by politics and war.

Nonetheless, no matter where they are, or forced to be physically, or what they experience, both boy and horse are driven by unusual devotion, sustaining an unusual hope of reuniting and returning home. (Home is a particularly significant theme and metaphor in Spielberg’s oeuvre).

The tale depicts the sacrifices an innocent country boy named Albert (played by the newcomer Jeremy Irvine) makes in a time of war to find his horse, and, conversely, the sacrifices the horse makes trying to survive this dark episode in history.  It should be noted, that Spielberg and his writers never explain the source of Albert’s obsession for the horse.

The journey begins on the eve of WWI, when Albert’s poor English farming family buys a fiery hunter colt at auction, despite lacking the funds to pay for him or to support themselves.

At first, the horse, now named Joey, seems to be a loss for the struggling parents, Ted and Rosie Narracott (vet British actors Peter Mullan and Emily Watson), but their son Albert is determined to tame and train him. Gradually, Albert cultivates Joey’s enthralling spirit, speed and affection.

Day and night, the boy and his horse are inseparable. However, when war breaks out, they are pulled apart as Joey is sold, heading to the front as the mount of a dashing British cavalry officer.

Joey’s trek, which includes joy and sorrow, hardship and wonder, is divided into chapters, with titles cards that identify the time and place (and battle).  The tale begins in 1914, in France’s Quivre-chain, with a visually striking attack by the British on a German camp, unaware that there are German machine guns behind the camp.  (The sequence feels like a tribute to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” where Arab soldiers invade a Turkish encampment).

As the tale’s outstanding hero, Joey touches the lives of all those he encounters, all those who use and abuse him, on all sides of the war.

As soul-mates, Albert and Joey are defined by rural and provincial innocence, purity of motive, and, above all, unconditional loyalty and devotion to each others. We witness how Joey pulls battlefield ambulances, whisks away German soldiers on the run, and in the most touching sequence, ignites the imagination of a French girl (who’s also an orphan and is raised by her grandfather), who saves his life.

Spielberg has always been effective in telling heartfelt stories that lead to powerful climaxes, and “War Horse” follows that pattern. As Albert heads into the trenches on his own dangerous mission, Joey becomes ensnared in the haunting No Man’s Land between the British and the German soldiers. But even when the present is at its bleakest, Joey and Albert don’t quit, holding fast to a dream of reunion and a better future.

Spielberg imbues the simple narrative and its broad scope with strong emotionalism, which occasionally borders on sentimentalism. But his direction elevates the saga with his characteristically fluid and elegant visual style. Spielberg has decided to tell the story in the grand, classic style of David Lean, John Ford, George Stevens (specifically “Shane”), in the most accessible way.

In its effort to combine big-screen cinema, grand visual vistas, and intimate storytelling, “War Horse,” tells a story so particular that it becomes universal, signaling humanistic messages of sacrifice, honor, and love.

Due to its thematic limitations, “War Horse” does not rank among Spielberg’s strongest works; the production is too overblown and literal.  But it is nonetheless an iconic work, which bears his signature as a fabulist aiming at offering mainstream entertainment—and accessibly startling spectacle.