There are few duos in Hollywood as successful and revered as Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The director and the maestro have had a lucrative partnership that spans five decades and a truckload of awards. To date, they have worked on twenty-eight films together (starting with 1974’s The Sugarland Express), and their partnership shows no signs of fading as each man enters their twilight years.
Both men are also considered to be the best at what they do. Although the jury is out for Spielberg (who has had his fair share of duds in his career), there can be little doubt over John Williams” claim as the greatest film composer of all-time. His resume, with or without Spielberg, speaks for itself. If you can think of an iconic piece of music from a film score, chances are it’s one of his. ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars? Yep. The theme from Superman? Yes. The iconic music from Jurassic Park? You betcha.
The legendary duo aren’t even the only recognisable names attached to this film either. The screenplay was written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Rocketman) and Richard Curtis (Four Wedding and a Funeral, Love Actually). It’s safe to say that this film was as thoroughbred as you can get (pun very much intended).
This film also sees Spielberg return to making a war film. Albeit one set during the First World War instead of the Second. Arguably, Spielberg’s history with war films makes the shoes War Horse has to fill even more prominent, a thought that stuck with me throughout the film.
Based on the popular children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a thoroughbred named Joey. We see his beginnings on a farm in Devon, his connection with Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and his role in helping Albert’s family farm’s fortunes. With the First World War outbreak, Joey is sold to the British Army to aid with the war effort. Albert is heartbroken but vows to be reunited with his horse one day.
From early on in this film, I knew it would be a difficult one to write about. Mainly because of what I said a few paragraphs ago, my subconscious mind was constantly trying to stack it up against Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, a comparison that War Horse was always going to struggle to come through positively. Maybe it’s unfair to compare them as they’re stories of a different war, but the film seems to hit similar beats to Spielberg’s World War Two pictures.
A phrase that kept occurring to me while watching was ‘playing the hits’. In much the same way an ageing rock band wheel out the same songs night after night, Williams and Spielberg go back to the same stream where they panned so much gold in the 90s. The result was never going to stack up reasonably. A few moments, specifically in the later open warfare sections, feel like a direct homage to Saving Private Ryan‘s now-iconic opening scene.
It’s not that War Horse isn’t good or doesn’t have its own merits. It looks and sounds fantastic, but given the talent involved, it was always going to. Williams’ score is a highlight, sweeping and triumphant as well as ominous and foreboding in all the right places; it’s definitely an effort worthy of the great maestro. But again, I can’t help but think about how it stacks up against some of his other works, and it inevitably doesn’t shine as brightly.
The cinematography is also a delight. With frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski in charge of the cameras, it would have been even more surprising if it wasn’t. Still, it truly is a wonderfully-shot film, matching the films’ epic tone at the moments it needs to, and once again portraying the horrors of war with a visceral sense of flair present in Spielberg’s previous masterpieces.
I think the main issue with War Horse is that it just isn’t as personal when compared to Spielberg’s best work. Schindler’s List is a movie that only Spielberg could have made, or at the very least someone like Spielberg. It was a story that demanded to be told from a Jewish perspective. It is very much an outlier in his back catalogue, too. With many of his titles trying to appeal to as vast a crowd as possible, Schindler’s List was instead an artful, very personal tale that you could tell meant a lot to him. Saving Private Ryan might not have had that much of a connection as Schindler’s List. Still, it certainly helped the film to have him at the helm, and the American imagery behind it would have been a lot closer to his heart than this film.
In comparison, War Horse feels like a film that could have been made by any number of directors. I don’t feel like there was a personal connection between filmmaker and film as there had been in the past, which works to its detriment. Suppose anything, it might have benefitted from a lesser-known director, as Spielberg’s excesses (the film’s length is the main gripe here) are also on show. In that case, you’d think a younger head would have been pulled back somewhat, and I doubt anyone would have said no to someone like Spielberg.
Besides being overlong, some other moments break the film’s spell, too, such as the German soldiers speaking to each other in English. I understand some of them would have spoken English to interrogate prisoners, but when addressing each other? I’m sure using German with subtitles wouldn’t have turned too many people off. It may seem like a minor quibble, but things like this can really break your immersion in a story. Or maybe that’s just me.
There are still things I liked about War Horse, though. For instance, I like the even-handed portrayals of each sides soldiers. The Germans aren’t necessarily shown to be the bad guys, but more like equal aggressors. In fact, perhaps my favourite scene in the film includes one soldier from each side working together to save the titular horse. This, combined with some incredible war scenes in no man’s land, the cinematography that so artfully pops off the screen, and another rousing Williams score, means that there’s enough to recommend about War Horse.
Depending on how much you read into films, you might love this film. It is when stacked up against other movies in Spielberg’s canon that it starts to diminish. It may be “playing the hits”, but when your highs are as high as Spielberg’s, your greatest hits might just be enough.