Much has been made of Steven Spielberg having shot on location, in actual film, with real actors and real horses, this deliberate throwback to grand family entertainment of Hollywood's golden age, and of his debt to a certain tradition of British cinema - especially after the all-digital environments of The Adventures of Tintin. Certainly, this is one of the director's films where his love of cinema, his innate classicism and eloquent storytelling flair best come to the fore. War Horse asks the question of how well Mr. Spielberg could have fit the American studio system, and how much more the master he clearly is would be recognised if he had indeed been working within it in the 1940s/1950s. That such a system no longer exists is both heart and bane of War Horse, its impeccable cast of British stalwarts and defiantly hand-crafted production highlighting that it takes a director with the clout of Mr. Spielberg to mount such a movie today - and that even he can't fix the problems such a film eventually faces in this day and age.
The biggest of those problems is simply that Michael Morpurgo's kids' book on which it (and Nick Stafford's extraordinary stage play) is based is much too slight to sustain a 150-minute epic, especially since the tale of Joey, the horse that travels from the fields of Devon to the trenches of World War I, and Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the farmer's son who has bonded with him, is already episodic in nature. Some of the episodes (namely the French pastoral and the tragic escape of two German underage soldiers) come off essentially as padding that might have worked on the page but does little or nothing to advance the plot, and the peripatetic arc of events risks reducing War Horse to a predictable series of sketches.
That it doesn't, and that despite the staid moments the film remains so engrossing and even moving at times throughout, is thanks to Mr. Spielberg's skills as a visual storyteller, and the many pleasures he finds along the way (the way the film's opening, the British cavalry charge or the windmill execution say all that needs to be said through purely cinematic means are outstanding, for instance). There is almost a balletic grace in the way the film flows smoothly from one moment to another, its gentle rhythm, almost like a trot, masterfully shaped by the hands of editor Michael Kahn. It is almost as if Mr. Spielberg had decided to actually put in one film all that he is capable of as a filmmaker - and in doing so, he makes War Horse something more than just a vanity project (made more for himself than for an audience that may no longer exist for a film as old-fashioned as this is), but something less than a classic. But what a glorious less-than-classic this is!
Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell.
Director, Steven Spielberg; screenplay, Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse, and its stage adaptation by Nick Stafford; cinematography, Janusz Kaminski (Deluxe prints, widescreen); music, John Williams; production designer, Rick Carter; costume designer, Joanna Johnston; editor, Michael Kahn; producers, Mr. Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy (Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, The Kennedy/Marshall Company), USA/India, 2011, 146 minutes.
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), February 17th 2012.