“They sure don’t make ’em like they used to.”
That’s the thought that was running through my head after I saw War Horse for the first time. It took a few minutes before I realized the irony of that notion. War Horse is a brand new film, yet it feels so old-fashioned that my immediate reaction was to think of it alongside old John Ford and Frank Borzage movies. I’m not the only one to have picked up on this. It’s been mentioned in almost every review of the film out there. What I found more curious was the reaction of people to the sentimental and melodramatic aspects of the film.
The most common complaints about War Horse relate to its sap and sentimentality. What’s weird to me is that many of these complaints seem to take for granted the idea that sentimentality is a bad quality in a film. How did this become the case? Why is it a bad thing to be sentimental, or sweeping, or even sappy? The way many critics and film lovers talk, you’d think that for sentimentality to be acceptable it has to be couched in raw reality or ambiguity or even an ironic wit and cynicism. It doesn’t make sense to me that films like Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life can be called masterpieces, but War Horse can be taken to task for its sweep and romance.
So I got thinking. Maybe it’s that something has changed in our cultural appreciation of film, at least in North America, that makes us look down on classic melodrama. Looking back, it seems like the 70s are roughly the point when simple melodramas went out of fashion. After films like Easy Rider and Badlands and The Conversation, expectations for American films changed. If a film had something interesting to say about the human condition it suddenly needed to have more realism. Quieter films took over. Character studies took over.
Of course, that’s not true of American filmmaking as a whole, but I think there is a distinction to be made between that which is critically appreciated and what the public actually consumes. The public still goes to see weepy movies, and plenty of them win Oscars, including last year’s The King’s Speech. But do you remember what the reaction to that Oscar win was? Even the people that liked it were annoyed that such an “Oscar-bait” style film, filled with melodrama and inspirational scenes, would win out over other, more tempered films like The Social Network and Winter’s Bone. The critical community simply doesn’t hold these sorts of films in the same regard.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon writer and founder of Press Play, commented on Twitter on this issue, “Melodrama is considered a low art form today. Proof that modern audiences lack imagination.” I’m not sure that this is true of all audiences. There were plenty of people coming out of War Horse at my screening claiming that it was one of the best films they’d seen in years. But those people probably haven’t seen too many films in the last year anyway. More interesting is the barometer from film buffs. This is the group that decides what’s cool. They define the boundaries of the mainstream and the realm of the edgy and unique and artful. Unfortunately, as Seitz puts it, “You can’t be cool and get into melodrama. A lot of people cannot let go of that security blanket.”
And that’s really it, I guess. With older films, people are willing to give themselves over to melodrama a bit more easily they same way they accept older styles of film acting. But with new films, it just isn’t cool. It’s passé. An artful indie film can be quirky, but it should be “authentic”, which is a euphemism for subtle and realistic, which themselves are quite meaningless words in the artificial world of cinema..
All I can say to this is, screw subtlety. I’m growing very tired of supposedly artistic films working as hard as possible to make everything subtle and quiet and ambiguous to the point of elusiveness or even incomprehensibility. Some would say War Horse is manipulative. Well, sometimes I just want to sit back and have a director be honest about trying to manipulate me. It’s stupid to have to reiterate this constantly, but all films are manipulative. It’s their very nature. Steve McQueen’s Shame, with its soft-spoken dialogue, sexual subject matter, frank realism and a cypher of a main character is just as manipulative as Spielberg’s War Horse. There’s this idea among us self-titled film snobs that films which plainly manipulate us into having an emotional reaction are being cheap or dishonest. I don’t see that. I think forcing an unearned reaction out of an audience is annoying, but just because a film features a soaring score and big tear-jerking moments doesn’t mean that emotion is unearned.
What makes War Horse stand out as particularly old fashioned is the earnestness with which it approaches its story and the emotions it’s trying to convey. There is not a dishonest frame in the entirety of War Horse. It’s all very heightened, but the film believes in what it’s saying and does so without any self-consciousness whatsoever. Everything is put out there with big shots and big story and big emotional performances. The film makes no bones about its intentions. It’s looking to move you, first and foremost. It’s a melodrama and it doesn’t try to hide that.
And what a melodrama it is! It’s epic and broad and the ending is about as magical as anything you’d see in a Borzage film. At the end of the film, when Albert and his horse cross paths and find their way back to each other I was reminded of my initial reaction to Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star. When I first watched that film I wasn’t too schooled in the extremes of American melodrama. The ending broke a sense of reality that I was holding to even though the film wasn’t. It bothered me slightly, but I very quickly learned to love it. I think that helped prepare me for what Spielberg was giving us with War Horse.
The ending of War Horse is downright unbelievable. It requires a special kind of suspension of disbelief that I feel a lot of hardened cinephiles have come to lack. It’s not just about giving yourself over to a film’s universe or basic physical mechanics. There needs to be something more. You have to open up the walls that shield your heart from the world. War Horse tells the audience, “prepare to be moved,” and then proceeds to do exactly that. You’ll only have problems if you walk in shielding yourself with suspicion and cynicism. You shouldn’t go into a movie suspicious of the idea that it might try to manipulate some emotions out of you.
Many have said that Spielberg is a man past his prime. I beg to differ. Spielberg, with War Horse, proves that he’s just as vital a filmmaker as he ever was. The reason is his incredible sense of storytelling through the moving image. Spielberg has long been the master of creating iconic images in films. He understands the true nature of the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” There is a simplicity to the way Spielberg shoots, even when he’s got a lot of detail or special effects. Everything is focused on very simple compositions and colours and edits. He also knows, when he’s working at his full creative capacity, how to lay in emotional beats in small ways that feel huge.
One subplot of the film displays both these talents perfectly. When WWI breaks out, Joey, the horse, is sold to a British Officer by Albert’s father. The Officer, played by Tom Hiddleston, doesn’t have a huge role in the film, but his first scene is one of its most emotional. Albert begs him not to take the horse, but the deal is already done. For a moment it seems almost cruel given Albert’s attachment to Joey, but then Spielberg, through a close-up on Hiddleston, gives us an incredible beat in the story. Joey might be forced away, but the Officer is nothing if not kind and honourable. Hiddleston conveys this honesty perfectly. In that moment, with that close-up, you believe it when he says that he will take care of Joey and bring him home safe. With that one simple beat the film takes on a greater level of pathos. It’s no longer just a story about a boy and his horse, but one about the kindness, inspired by the horse, between human beings. It’s beautiful.
Unfortunately, things don’t go very well for Hiddleston’s character. There are a few brief scenes of character and scene-setting, and then we get to the big set-piece. The British cavalry mounts a surprise attack on sleeping German forces early in the morning. The ride is exhilarating, but also awful. Many Germans are killed and it’s a terrible thing to witness. But then things get even worse. The Germans seem to retreat to the woods, except that they aren’t actually retreating. They’re getting behind fixed machine guns. What happens next is pure visual virtuosity.
We get shots of the cavalry charging, shots of the machine guns firing, and then shots of riderless horses running through the woods. Then alternating shots of cavalry charging and riderless horses. We see these juxtaposing images and intrinsically understand their meaning, yet we don’t want to believe it. And then Spielberg makes it personal. Instead of just shots of the cavalry, we get a close-up on Hiddleston, riding in full charge, his face gone pale with the knowledge of what’s to come. Then a shot of a gun firing. Finally, a shot of a single horse, Joey, now riderless, running through the woods. We knew it before, but now we understand the impact. It’s one of the best scenes in Spielberg’s career.
War Horse might be a film about human kindness and love triumphing, but that requires something to triumph over. The film takes us to some incredibly dark places, with some grim deaths, but whenever all hope seems lost, Spielberg finds ways to inject it back into the story. This is most obviously true of the scene in which Hiddleston buys Joey, as well as one in which a German and British soldier help to free Joey from barbed wire in No Man’s Land. Spielberg is working in the realm of old school melodrama. Things get very dark so that they can get light again. The ending of War Horse, with its weepy reunion and epic final scene, is only possible because of scenes like the cavalry charge.
War Horse is not a complicated film. It doesn’t aim to be. The film exists to bring out emotions in the audience by presenting an emotional story in strictly emotional terms. Why this should be inherently off-putting is beyond me. I value subtlety as much as anybody, and I think Spielberg does too, as he proves in Hiddleston’s first scene. But I also value the power of the big and broad, and there’s no reason not to. War Horse is an incredibly powerful story. I laughed. I loved. I cried. I was inspired. Who cares if it wasn’t small and didn’t have deep character study? It’s just not that kind of film, and it doesn’t pretend to be.
War Horse is an old school film, with an old school story and an old school approach to melodrama. It’s also the best and most powerful new film I’ve seen in a long time, with fantastic cinematography, a rousing score, and a modern eye towards editing and action. Maybe it’s time we start re-examining the way we think about new films. If we can accept melodrama and sentimentality couched in gimmick and mimicry in a film like The Artist, or buried in the the nostalgic lecturing of Hugo, why not embrace a film like War Horse that does melodrama outright? It achieves so much more by being so simple and forward. It isn’t just a piece of nostalgia or mimicry, but a brilliant new story told in a way most of Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to do. Leave it to Spielberg, the bearded master himself, to show them again.