War Horse

In “War Horse” Steven Spielberg has made a big, weepy, melodramatic, old-fashioned war epic that gave me giant, black, soppy horse eyes as I watched it.

Time and again its expansive locales, swimmingly patriotic John Williams score, folksy character actors, cloying tearjerker plot developments and dopey comic relief moments typically involving livestock recall how John Ford would’ve done it much better in a number of his movies, and Spielberg knows it.

Perhaps more so than “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Super 8” or even “The Artist,” “War Horse” is a throwback to Classical Hollywood in so many ways that from a modern lens the film just feels so phony and unrealistic but oh so right.

Old Hollywood was obsessed with simply making their films look beautiful, even if that meant light came from unnatural places. Spielberg’s approach to “War Horse,” and for that matter all of his films to a slightly lesser extent, was to set out to make a damned gorgeous movie at whatever cost.

War torn landscapes seem other worldly, the weather magically changes from bleak fog to sunny and snowy within minutes, light permeates everywhere in a stable, the world is tinted with a healthy orange glow with a sunset on Mars. And yet no one makes movies that look anything like this anymore.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is a veteran cinematographer who has worked with Spielberg many times before, knows exactly what he’s doing and has a wonderful command over the many tricks up his sleeve. Kaminski uses the pristine cloud filled sky as an endless backdrop for nearly half the film. Deep focus photography is not outside his grasp, and his camera moves through war zones with the speed of the title horse.

All of these visual marvels are the glue that holds together a plot that makes a hero out of a horse. Lesser films have made us feel sympathy for even sillier animals, and Spielberg’s simple yet stately dramatic elements are so winning and hokey that it’s impossible to watch even a moment without a dopey grin.

It follows the horse Joey from birth and how the boy Albert Narracott (first time screen actor Jeremy Irvine) raised and trained this fancy foal into a fast riding, hardworking horse. The boy is supposed to train the horse to plow his family’s field before their home is repossessed. It’s no wonder these opening scenes that recall “National Velvet” and “How Green Was My Valley” are adorned with a drunkard father with a thick English accent (Peter Mullan), a tart and strong housewife (Emily Watson), an entitled, condescending landlord (David Thewlis) and of course a goose that keeps showing up for no reason. These scenes don’t immediately show the epic scale of the rest of the film, but the lush rolling hills and glorious horizon certainly help.

But when weather hurts the crop on the farm, the father is forced to sell Joey the horse to the war effort, and Joey changes hands from a British sergeant, a pair of German deserters and a grandfather and granddaughter living on a French farm.

Really, no one human element is that compelling or terrifically acted. And in each segment of the horse’s journey we get a bunch of familiar characters who can’t stop admitting how marvelous a beast it is or bad hearted people with no faith or appreciation for beauty when it comes to of all things a horse.

This leaves our entry point to be Joey the horse himself. He is a marvelous beast, however many times it’s said. He does get a few too many reaction shots, and his friendship with another miracle horse is not exactly a welcome replacement for even a corny love story.

The crowd-pleasing ability of “War Horse” however is to truly make us feel sympathy for this animal. I heard much of my audience gasping or aweing as Joey endured perhaps a surprising amount of abuse. But it felt like the good kind of manipulation, as Joey is the star in a number of magnificent, nerve tugging war scenes done in the way only Spielberg can.

As “War Horse” reaches its tearful reunion between mother, father, son and horse, the completely orange horizon with the characters each in silhouettes is just about the most classically saccharine thing a movie can do, and yet so few movies today actually do it.

For that reason, all of “War Horse” is a rare and beautiful beast.

3 ½ stars

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