War Horse: Spielberg’s Searing, Splendid Christmas Gift

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Andrew Cooper / DreamWorks

How many Steven Spielbergs are there, anyway? One Spielberg released a 3-D animated comedy yesterday: The Adventures of Tintin. Another has an emotionally urgent live-action epic opening Christmas day: War Horse, the story of a boy who so loves his horse that he follows it into World War I. These Spielbergs: they contain multitudes—vast crowd scenes.

Of course the two faces of Steve belong to the same 65-year-old boy wonder, and as narratives his new films have plenty in common. Based on books that are favorites with young readers—Hergé’s Tintin comic books and Michael Morpurgo’s novel—they are tales of a teenager whose father (figure) is an alcoholic and whose best friend is an animal: the fox terrier Snowy to Tintin, the stallion Joey to War Horse‘s Albie (Jeremy Irvine). The ideal viewer for both movies is a bright 12-year-old, like Spielberg in 1958 or now. One film is meant to appeal to his sense of humor, the other to his finer sentiments.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’ review of The Adventures of Tintin)

In the script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral but also the World War I battlefield season of Blackadder), Albie is the son of the wastrel Devon farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) and his flinty, long-suffering wife Rose (Emily Watson). To spite his grasping landlord (David Thewlis), cash-strapped Ted pays a princely 30 guineas for Joey, though a thoroughbred would be impossible to train as a plow horse. Impossible, that is, except for the love and dedication Albie shows the animal. If Joey can learn to plow, Albie tells him, “Then we can be together, just the way we were meant to be.” If the entire film had been about this tender love affair amid poverty and a turbulent family dynamic, it could have been called We Bought a Horse.

But the Great War is looming, and when it breaks, Ted sells Joey to the British Army. The glory of being an officer’s steed in France soon explodes into the human and equine carnage of that awful conflict. Joey wanders into the care of a French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and a German soldier (not Michael Fassbender, oddly, but The Reader‘s David Kross), then into the suicidal No Man’s Land between the warring nations. When Albie is old enough to join the Army, he searches desperately for his one true friend.

(MORE: War Horse on TIME’s 10 Best Movies of 2011)

A twin to Tintin in certain story elements and the timing of its release, War Horse is also Tintin’s opposite and antidote. After embracing the most modern technology, Spielberg returns to the most honorable, traditional film styles. With Tintin he referenced himself, essentially remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark as the cartoon it may always have aspired to be. In War Horse he pays homage to past masters John Ford and David Lean, and to the antiquated notion of taking things seriously. Tintin‘s action-adventure scenario required keeping all the plates spinning at warp speed; War Horse begins as a stately pastoral poem whose pace is not so much accelerated as elevated in the battle sequences.

Daring comparison to Robert Bresson’s majestically depressing Au hasard, Balthasar no less than to Elizabeth Taylor’s girl-loves-horse National Velvet, plus Ford’s The Quiet Man and Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, Spielberg is also revisiting his own finest war movie: not Saving Private Ryan but the 1987 Empire of the Sun, in which the 13-year-old Christian Bale endured the Japanese occupation of China—a lost boy forced to grow up in war.

There is one other specter Spielberg must confront: the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, an award-winner in London and New York. In this version, adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, Joey was a lifesize puppet crafted on cane and leather and operated—inhabited, really—by a team of four. The sorcery of the NT adaptation was to make a metaphor visible: to transform the obvious (this was no horse) into the ineffable (Joey lives, he breathes, he feels!). Spielberg coaxed great “performances” from the seven or eight steeds who played Joey; but theatergoers mesmerized by the NT show must think: No fair using real horses.

(MORE: Richard Zoglin’s review of the National Theatre’s War Horse)

Spielberg has always hated killing people off in his movies, even his war films. Recall that Schindler’s List was a Holocaust film about 1200 Jews who didn’t die. So War Horse is a World War I movie about an interspecies devotion that survives four years of devastation. It’s as if the goal of the Allies was not to defeat Germany but to save Joey and Albie. (The movie also spares the lives of several characters who died in the play version, and turns Ted Narracott from a Boer War avoider to a Boer War wounded hero.)

Yet horse and boy go through hell, which Spielberg films with a punishing expertise. The NT production’s most famous scene, of Joey trapped in barbed wire and rearing in pain, is matched for intensity here (where the barbed wire was plastic). Even more wrenching is the frenzied gallop of horses, driven mad by gunfire and starvation, through the trenches of men in a state of doomed fear every bit as palpable.

In the early, Devon section, Spielberg concocts excruciating tension not by shock editing but within the frame. Humiliated by the landlord, and now kicked by Joey, Ted has determined to shoot the horse and points a gun it, the camera taking the rifle’s point of view; Rose grabs the barrel of the gun, warning, “You shoot that horse, we have nothing,” and the camera swings as if aiming at her, then quickly back to Joey, and there is Albie standing in front of it, blocking Ted’s aim and suggesting that for him to shoot the horse would be to kill his son. Lasting just six secs., the shot imparts a world of information and emotion about this family. Here is a director revitalized, investing scenes with all his passion and his craft—his heartistry, if you will. Perhaps he wants to prove that “Spielberg” is not only a high-end commercial brand but the name of one of film history’s most committed creative spirits.

(MORE: TIME’s Top 10 Movie Performances of 2011)

When the real Steven Spielberg was that 12-year-old boy we mentioned earlier, he was already directing his friends in 8mm movies—war movies, about the derring-do of tough guys with skins and souls so hard, no enemy dire could penetrate them. Since then, part of him has grown up and realized that organized slaughter on a mass scale is no game; and in this, his most painterly film, he may take Goya’s Disasters of War as one of his models. The other part of Spielberg, the part that is still 12, wants all loving things, including a boy and his horse, to live forever. To acknowledge the world’s tendency to inflict fatal pain, yet to hold an optimistic belief that love conquers all, is the grand contradiction at the center of this searing, splendid film.