By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
Before going to see ‘War Horse’ with my family on Christmas Day, I caught a glimpse of Christopher Kelly’s review, which described the film as a “magnificently mounted, yet utterly soulless shell of a movie.” I was intrigued by the idea that this could potentially be one of Steven Spielberg’s rare blunders in filmmaking (he has made a couple.) I attempted to watch the film with the mindset that I was viewing an inherently bad one. I critiqued every potential flaw, every plot hole; I questioned the films credibility; I tried my hardest to see the film as having no emotional weight and being truly “soulless,” as Christopher Kelly put it. However, despite my best efforts to see this as a bad film, I failed. ‘War Horse’ is many things, but poor filmmaking it is not.
‘War Horse’ is not “soulless”; it is conventional, however. It seems pieced together from a wealth of other films. Countless animal pictures, including ‘Lassie’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘International Velvet’ are channeled during the first half hour as a boy befriends a colt, Joey, in pre-World War I England. Later, as the horse is sold to the British army and makes an incredible journey through the war, a thousand different war films — not the least of which is Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — will seem to pass on the screen as well. Furthermore, at no point during the film does Spielberg pull any fast ones — the story that the audience, from countless experiences at the movies, believes will happen does indeed unfold, albeit in a very beautiful way.
So yes, the film does rely on conventions, but that’s not necessarily bad. Writer/actor Harold Ramis once mused that conventions and clichés were essentially the same thing, conventions were simply done well; and that’s certainly true of this film. There is a reason conventions exist — they do tend to work — and Spielberg does not abuse them here. Rather, he executes them well, molding them into a story that feels organic and strong.
Simply put, this film is incredibly well put together and shows more genuine heart than I’ve seen in a while. A lot of that has to do with the characters. As the horse travels from new owner to new owner during the course of the war — the core piece of the film — Spielberg balances a plethora of roles without cheating any principal character of their humanity. British and German, civilians and soldiers, parents and children, young and old; Spielberg makes them all feel real. No one seems like a caricature, and certainly none a stereotype. A scene of a British soldier working with a German to free the horse from barbed wire shows beautifully the complexity and sympathy he has given to each character; it’s consequently one of the best and most powerful film scenes of recent memory.
I would especially like to point out the outstanding performance of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from this year’s ‘Thor’), in the role of a British captain. During his brief screen time, he exudes so much emotion and depth that he deserves at least a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actor.
If there’s one minor complaint I would levy against the film in terms of its characters, though, it is that there are so many that no one really gets an adequate amount of screen time. However, I think that is ultimately a good problem for the film to have — we like these characters enough to want to see more of them, and that is a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling. Perhaps an extended version down the road will rectify this.
Lastly, I commend the performance of the true star of this picture, the horse himself. From subtle gestures to gallops and leaps, Joey is an incredibly well-trained animal, and his personality in the film shines through brilliantly. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much for an on-screen creature.
In closing, ‘War Horse’ is a film you’ve already seen, but it’s told so well you’ll want to see it again anyways. Spielberg has proven once again that what matters most in filmmaking is passion and heart, and that certainly bleeds through here.
One final note on conventions: In these modern of times of art and individuality, a lot of us live under a myth that to be conventional is to be unambitious. To be conventional, is to sell out. To be conventional is to create something fleeting and shallow. And that does happen… sometimes. But if Spielberg hadn’t been willing to be conventional, he never would have made ‘War Horse’.