"I don't consider WAR
HORSE a war film"
- Steven Spielberg.
Judging the films that dominated 2011's awards season, it's
clear that for many of the big guns there was a sense of unapologetic nostalgia
running rampant. Hugo
was a "love
letter" to Meliés and the burgeoning of the cinematic art form, while The Artist
unabashedly borrowed from
both Keaton and Errol Flynn, creating a charming evocation of silent cinema's
Yet it was Spielberg who crafted what for some is a
touching, moving, timeless work, while for others it's a dreary, manipulative,
cloying work that's almost barbarically backwards in its tone and composition.
I'd suggest that War
is a bit of both. It's a "boy and his horse" movie, as Spielberg is
often quick to point out, using the device of a single animal to tell an
antiwar movie. As we gallop
from story to (improbable) story, we find both good and bad in each side of the
conflict, yet throughout it all we can find reflections of kindness and
humanity in the almost preposterously expressive eyes of the titular character.
There are moments in this film that are as good as anything
Spielberg's ever done. The masters of the 30s and 40s, working under specific
codes restricting content, were often able to transcend the limitations with
flourishes of dialogue or clever allusions to more political or libidinous issues. In crafting a modern "family
friendly" war film, safely rated for most of the family, Spielberg has used some truly extraordinary cinematic tricks to convey his tale. Shots of riderless horses streaming over machine gun
emplacements, a rotted, tattered windmill sweeping the screen to cheekily hide
an execution, or even the weave of cloth fading into the mounds of a plowed
field - Spielberg demonstrates his often overlooked skills as a
gifted visual storyteller.
Yet if the deft visual touch of the film and the
extraordinary sequences of warfare are to be lauded, there's a whole heap of
melodramatic nonsense that must be swallowed along with it. The clichés and
anthropomorphizing of the animals in the film must be accepted as readily as
the convenience of the lead characters breaking into song in a musical. If you
think for more than a moment, one more weepy shot of the poor, rain-soaked beast
huffing away in order to fulfill the (preposterously complicated) verbal commands
of his master/trainer would be little more than laughable.
Still, settling into what can only be considered a classical
pace, we have here the closest yet that Spielberg has come to living up to a pretense
of being a modern John Ford. With the final shots illuminating our characters
with a burnt orange, we're left with a sepia-like monochromaticism. The film has
been drained of all other colours, becoming, basically, a kind a classic that
was always shot in expressive black-and-white palate. Classic cinema was
littered with clumsiness and clichés, but it also brought forth sublime bursts
of experimentation and well-earned emotional catharsis.
It's far too early to tell if this will stand as one of
Spielberg's great works. On first blush, I think it fits squarely in the
middle, below genre classics like Jaws
, or Catch Me If You Can
, or Munich
, and way, way above the dreary
muck of Amistad
. I'd compare it to Spielberg's
other flawed, half brilliant, half mad film that also owed much to Kubrick: A.I.
There will come a time when we no longer get a new Spielberg
films on a regular basis (with Tin Tin
we got two this year), and, frankly, that will be a true tragedy for any movie
fan. The man has been one of the most prevalent voices in moviemaking for
decades, and while not always on mark, his works demand attention in much the
same way as those classic filmmakers who crafted films of unequivocal
popularity yet infused with their own, unique creative visions.
The near-magical trio of Spielberg, John Williams and
Michael Kahn can't be around for too much longer, but if War Horse
is to be seen as indicative of what the old boys can
still come out with, I think it's something that any serious lover of cinema is
duty bound to contend with.
Disney's done a really weird thing with the release of this
film - there's a 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack (in the regular, taller DVD
case) that includes one disc of film and some supplemental materials. The only
slightly more expensive 4-disc set includes a second Blu-Ray with considerably
expanded documentary material, and a digital copy disc with activation key.
The video is as excellent as you'd want it to be, with most
moments of softness or shimmering almost certainly the result of Spielberg's insistence
on shooting on good ol' film stock. Janusz Kaminski is a master of light and
shade, but here he's allowed to be even more bold with his colour choices, from
the opening pastoral scenes to the bold colours of the finale. The scenes of
war are suitably dank and horrifying looking, but read very well on disc.
The 7.1, lossless soundtrack, with sound design by Gary
Rydstrom, is absolutely a showcase for your system. Beyond the clanking of tank
innards or the thumping of hundreds of horses at full charge, there's the more
subtle natural noises that have been orchestrated as carefully as William's
score. The whinnies and snorts of the horses alone are expertly shaped to
convey wide ranges of emotion and personality from the animal participants
(more on this below).
I didn't bother with either the DVD or Digital version, but,
really, why would you? This is the kind of discs that you have home theatres
for in the first place.
It's no secret that Spielberg has long been against doing commentary
tracks for any of his films, yet it remains a real shame. It also means that
the associated documentaries have to do the heavy lifting regarding his
comments about the work, and when they're as relatively superficial as the ones
included here it's made all the more frustration. Strictly from the point of
view of posterity we're being denied a critical and detailed examination of his
works in real time, but it's unlikely this review's going to change his mind on
War Horse: The
Journey Home (Disc 1)
"I'd never directed
horses before, except for them to sit under Harrison Ford" - Steven Spielberg
In this brisk, 20 minute documentary, the key (human) actors
gather at what looks to be the Charlie Rose set to talk about the "humanity" of
the film. We begin with hugs for all around, and it plays like a kind of cast reunion
usually reserved for decades-later retrospectives. We get some nice comments,
such as that they actors didn't do a usual "boot camp" style training session
because they were then almost as ill prepared as those that went to fight in
the Great War themselves, but little else. The enthusiasm borders on the saccharine,
just as in the feature, but it's also quite charming the way they talk about
the story and the equine participants.
"We go reel by reel,
and pick the good stuff" - Michael Kahn, Spielberg's editor since 77's Close Encounters
Halfway through, Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy
remain seated while the actors are replaced with the key production crew. Here
we get very little detail, save for a few tasty behind-the-scenes tidbits, but
the mutual respect of all involved is made perfectly manifest over...and over
An Extra's Point of
View (Disc 1)
In just three minutes, we get a slight taste of the real
magic of filmmaking, where we follow "background performer" Martin D. Dew who
plays half a dozen different character, from townsperson to both Brit and
German soldiers, as part of an ensemble of a hundred or so utility players on
I could have watched an entire feature length doc from the
perspective of these guys, but, alas, this tidbit is all we're granted.
A Filmmaking Journey
Running just over an hour, this is the heart of the
supplementary material, relegated to a bonus disc only included with the more
expensive set. The documentary follows the sequence of the narrative rather than the order of shooting. We travel from from the moors of England to the trenches of the Somme, tracing the
film's production along the way. There's talk of the adaptation from the stage
to screen, the inclusion of the book's narrative bent, and so on. It's an enjoyable
watch, but again, like the film itself, it could have been much more. We get
glimpses of the training and filming of the horses, but little more. Instead,
the themes of the story are talked about again incessantly (they're not exactly
opaque in the narrative). It's an important thing to have, and certainly one of
the highlight's of the package, but not exactly the finest in making-of documentary.
Editing & Scoring
"This is a lyrical film requiring a lyrical response... More like
playing a concert than fitting the film." - John Williams
A 9-ish minute appendix to the Journey
doc, we find the yeoman-like creative partners for Spielberg giving
some insight into their craft. Naturally, John William's work is easier to
demonstrate, with orchestral sessions showing the recordings of the very fine
score. Kahn again seems not quite comfortable with discussing his work, but as
something a bit more technical than the longer doc, it's a welcome addition.
The Sounds of War
Horse (Disc 2)
something I would have loved an entire feature length look into as well. Sound
designer Gary Rydstrom (if you don't know the name, look up his credits and be
astounded) comes back to the Spielberg fold to create some pretty astonishing
sonic landscapes. Sure, the booms and blasts of the period weaponry are fabulously
rendered, but before this little doc, and as a resolute sound nerd, I hadn't
really appreciated the work that went into creating "vocalizations" for the sounds
of the horses. Rydstrom discusses the way he'd shape the performances with subtle
sound cues, the tiny elements that are near subliminal in our comprehension of
a given scene. Great stuff, and I would have traded more of this for almost
every other element on the disc.
Producer's Lens (Disc 2)
Like Bruckheimer, who seems to carry an even more impressive
Canon rig, it seems these Hollywood producers like Kathleen Kennedy have so
little to do with when shooting starts that they can wander around with a still
camera taking hobby pics. In this 4 minute doc that amounts to a slideshow, there
are some nice, if not particularly noteworthy snaps.
be considered one of Spielberg's finest works, and its heart-on-its-sleeve, gee
whiz attitude may be more off-putting to cynical movie goers than any film of
his since E.T.
Still, with a lovely video image, a decent if slightly disappointing
set of supplements and a ridiculously excellent sound mix, War Horse
should certainly be part of your home media collection.