My childhood is strewn with memories of animal movies: Kes, Watership Down, Plague Dogs, Storm Boy, Ring of Bright Water, Tarka the Otter etc. Invariably, these served as starter-wheels of grief, early encounters with death and loss. Things rarely ended well for these critters. Don’t worry, though: Steven Spielberg is not in the business of scarring children. His entry into the genre is Saving Private Horsey, which is ostensibly told from the point of view of a horse as it changes hands from one carer to another.It became a bit trendy to compare the sentimentality of War Horse to more severe films about the stoic suffering of beasts, such as Au Hazard Balthazar or The Turin Horse. That’s really not fair (Spielberg is locked into a commercial production circuit, arguably of his own making, in a way that Robert Bresson and Bela Tarr have never been), but it does show up the comparative anthropomorphism of War Horse: Joey the horse gets his close-ups, mimes human-like emotions (anger, compassion, fear and despair), and is tracked through some dramatic action scenes (occasionally replaced by a CGI double). Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is even more softly sweet than usual; Dartmoor is beautiful enough without colour correction. John Williams’ score is over-demonstrative, and the farm scenes are no less cutesy than those in the far superior animal movie, Babe.
Once you’ve noticed that Spielberg always does the same push-in to an actor’s face just before they say an important line, it becomes a nauseating tic. When you want him to stand back, observe, and trust his actors to get the message across, he has to punctuate everything with a flourish of the camera. He’s still a master with action set-pieces; the first battle, where we cut rapidly between the cavalry charging at machine-gun fire at the back, and the riderless horses at the front, is a supremely efficient conveyance of a massacre. He is also trying to imprint himself onto the American cinema canon, this time by aping shots from Gone With the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath.