Steven Spielberg is part of that crop of ’70s directors, the cineastes, who shared in the period’s critical nostalgia for Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 50s. Admiration is one thing, adoption something else entirely. Victor Fleming and Douglas Sirk, the great sentimentalists, are now revered, but it’s not often they inform the aesthetic of modern movies. War Horse doesn’t owe them much – it owes them everything. Banality’s repackaged as novelty while the movie’s pastoral values bypass the head to massage the heart. The cracker-barrel philosophy, the piety, the unreconstructed belief in heroism and gallantry, it’s all so reassuring; it’s like the second half of the 20th century never happened.
Spielberg’s regressed to a time before Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, with their bloody realism and moral quandaries, to give us depictions of war that only ever existed within the hermetic, Technicolor universe of yesteryear. It’s bloodless and non-profane, the violence hidden from view, occasionally with some of Spielberg’s trademark embellishment. The sail of a windmill shielding our eyes from a moment of execution for example, one of many moments that illustrates the director’s relationship with violence completing the full one-eighty; casual and fantastic, to matter-of-fact and brutal, to paternalist and timid.
Lovers of the homespun tale, harbouring a romantic bent, often mistaken for a stoop, will admire Spielberg’s dam bursting torrent of sentiment and ruffle his hair, praising the restraint in this show-it-all age. What a tonic! For others, who don’t like country walks, who restrict their contact with the rustic to two weeks in fifty two, who can’t quite bring themselves to anthropomorphise dumb animals and so feel nothing when a hound barks its last, following twelve years of reeking, drooling and noise pollution, War Horse’s over earnest heart compressions, administered by a horse with a human brain, may cause blood to start oozing from the mouth in scenes reminiscent of Christian Bale’s ill-fated attempt at CPR in Empire of the Sun.
The moving image has loved the horse since Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope successfully recorded its motion in 1877, but it’s hard to remember another film that relied on an equine lead to the same extent. Spielberg knows that there’s something unique in the relationship between man and this particular beast, respect perhaps and a perception of nobility, and he astutely taps into it, imbuing Joey with enough agency to give the horse with a soul fantasy some authority. Giving audiences what they want, or facilitating suspension of disbelief, has always been Spielberg’s great gift and one of the reasons why his commercial record is second to none. If the storytelling acumen isn’t as sharp as it used to be, he’s still a great manipulator when, as here, his heart’s still in it. War Horse successfully bundles child-like innocence with preternatural ideas about our relationship with the land, bound with John William’s elegiac strings, and presents it to a 2012 audience without shame or apology.
It’s well made, beautiful in part and utterly regressive. Common sense says it will come a cropper when tested against modern sensibilities, but I suspect horse sense will prevail, with the very young and very old finding common cause in bolstering its reputation in the face of intransigence from those, who like me, find their tears less easy to come by.