WAR HORSE C
USA (146 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Steven Spielberg
Despite the Spielberg money and credentials, this painting-by-the-numbers effort could only be described as film mediocrity, resembling a Reader’s Digest, family friendly version of war as seen through the travails and changing hands of a highly intelligent and well-trained horse, a variation on the Black Stallion theme, sort of a Lassie Goes to War movie. When it was over, the two kids sitting next to me wrapped it all up with the familiar refrain, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Ever since E.T. (1982), director Steven Spielberg seems bound and determined to reinvent children stories, as if movies were made exclusively for the awe and wonderment of children, including adult content seen through the eyes of a child, where his storytelling consistently reflects his indulgent tendency to spoonfeed and overexplain, where the viewer is seen as an innocent mind to be molded. Now that may work for some kids who might need the explanations, though one has their doubts, as many kids like to figure things out for themselves, but it can become a real deal breaker for adults who prefer movies that are not sugar coated with this overwhelmingly melodramatic, saccharine coated emotional world that is literally dripping with artifice. For some, there’s nothing comforting about such heavy handed earnestness that comes across as preachiness, a pre-packaged, black and white moral message that rings of surface level superficiality bordering on phoniness.
Spielberg films that exude a moral ambiguity feel more mature, like MINORITY REPORT (2002) and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), where it’s up to the audience to make sense of the situation instead of the manipulating use of music and narrative to drub sanctified truths into our heads. These two works are anomalies in the storied career of this director, where the same could not be said for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), told through the awestruck eyes of a thirty-year old lead actor Richard Dreyfuss who may as well be an overanxious teenager who can’t help but to follow his instincts, leading to a surprisingly hopeful good and evil moral dilemma if ever there was one. Even the INDIANA JONES (1984, 89, 08) series uses another adult lead through a collection of discoveries and mishaps that resemble a teen adventure story, where the black and white depiction of good and evil is so clearly drawn with such distinctive certainty that few could possibly mistake the good guys from the bad. In JAWS (1975), perhaps the first movie blockbuster, the moral guidelines are carefully explained and drawn out in great detail ahead of time before humans cross the line with terrifying results.
One could go so far as to suggest the tone of Spielberg’s “black “ historical stories ring false, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and AMISTAD (1997), which are meant to be teaching vehicles, where Spielberg presumptuously accompanied the release of AMISTAD with teacher packets that could be used in classrooms across America, while others delivered this message better without the right or wrong, good and evil moral lesson, such as black director Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) and white Jewish director Michael Roemer’s NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964), both of which come across as near documentary truths without an ounce of artifice about the black experience, while Spike Lee’s actual documentary 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) about a Birmingham church bombing during the Civil Rights struggle all offer better teaching vehicles because they’re not filtered through the unambiguous moral certainty of a well meaning director.
This holiday season, one might compare Spielberg’s take on a children’s story with Martin Scorsese’s HUGO (2011), as both cater to the wild-eyed awe of the world of children before introducing harsh realities that make their world’s explode with chaos. While Spielberg dishes out loads of sentimentality, turning this into an epic drama of innocence lost, where an animal turns into the tearful object of affection, much like the lost and homesick alien from outer space in E.T, Scorsese fills the screen with real wonderment, dazzling the viewer with nothing less than an imagined recreation of the birth of cinema, using actual vintage clips from over 100 years ago and making their art relevant in the modern world—no small task. Spielberg uses wooden horse puppets and computer graphics to decorate his artificial landscape without the slightest hint of character development while Scorsese reinvents an historic Paris train station in 3D, one of the most artfully mature uses of the form, imagining the secret interior life of no less than one of the founders of cinema while maintaining an all-ages intelligence that delves into complicated emotions and never speaks down to the viewers, allowing the world of cinema to speak for itself, filled with contradictions and a multitude of individual interpretations.
On the contrary, Spielberg’s style is to tell the viewer what to think and feel, allowing no margin for meandering thoughts or interpretations, as everything is explained with certainty, where the good guys win in the end and through a steadfast belief in a miraculous horse, like Pinocchio, a boy becomes a man. In this manner, storytelling reveals what happens without imagining why or what for, offering an exhausting glimpse into the horrors of war while completely avoiding any historical impact. This is the kind of movie that once it’s over, it’s over, as there’s nothing left to ponder or figure out. Based on Michael Morpugo's 1982 best-selling children’s novel, the film opens with impressive landscape shots of the rocky farmlands of Devon, England where a young boy (Jeremy Irvine) who witnesses the birth of a colt immediately falls in love with him, where his father (Peter Mullan) foolishly overbids at an auction, but the boy spends every waking minute raising a thoroughbred for the harsh and laborious farmwork needed to work the land. In something of a miracle the horse adapts, but heavy rainstorms ruin the crops, forcing the horse to be sold to the British cavalry at the outset of WWI. Immediately sent to the battlegrounds, the story progresses through the eyes of the horse, as it continually changes hands, offering a differing perspective on war based on the contrasting lives that care for the horse. Once he comes of age, the boy eventually enlists and the two are separately hurled into the bloody no man’s land of trench warfare, a brutal and horrific experience that few men or animals survive, leaving behind a mountainous pile of dead corpses. In the end, battered and bruised, both lucky to be alive, the boy and his horse valiantly reunite, returning from the front sharing their battle scars with the family they left behind—not exactly PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or even IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962).