21st century spielberg podcast lincoln

(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st-century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: War Horse and Lincoln.)

War is hell. Any sane individual knows this and knows that the old romanticized notions of glory on the battlefield are little more than fantasy. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from returning, again and again, to depicting big, loud, action-packed battles on the screen. Whenever reviewing a war movie, Roger Ebert was fond of pulling out a quote attributed to Francois Truffaut, that it was impossible to make an anti-war film because movies made war inherently entertaining. The real quote, as close as I can tell from my own research, comes from a 1973 interview Truffaut gave with Ebert’s colleague Gene Siskel, in which the legendary French filmmaker said: “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” 

Steven Spielberg is no stranger to war movies. From Saving Private Ryan to the Band of Brothers miniseries, and beyond, Spielberg has portrayed war and all its horrors, but even when portraying the harrowing battles of Ryan, the truth of the Truffaut quote sneaks in: sure, war is hell, but it’s also pretty entertaining in the hands of a master filmmaker. The real way to hammer home the horrors of war isn’t so much to portray extended battle sequences. Instead, the secret is to move beyond the bullets and the blood and find the humanity lurking beneath; humanity in danger of being snuffed out like a candle in a cold wind. And with War Horse and Lincoln, two films focused on World War I and The American Civil War, respectively, Spielberg did just that.

Part 5: History Has Its Eyes On You – War Horse and Lincoln

joey running

Remarkable Humanity

Full of battles likened to slaughterhouses and meat-grinders, World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, claimed nine million combatant deaths and 13 million civilian deaths during its long four-plus bloody years. And then there were the non-human deaths. “I was not prepared for how many millions of horses perished during the Great War – it was over 4 million,” said Steven Spielberg. “And it wasn’t all in close combat; a lot was just through malnutrition and mistreatment. But don’t forget that the Humane Society was born out of the First World War, and it was a huge turning point in technological warfare that supplanted the horse once and forever.”

Other statistics state eight million horses and countless mules and donkeys died during the war as the beasts of burden were used to transport ammunition and supplies to the front, dying from battles, weather, and other horrific conditions. We, as a species, are inherently cruel to animals. We claim dominion over them, and therefore believe we have the right to do whatever we want to them. And during World War I, horses were thrust into horrible savagery they had no control over. Men make war – animals suffer because of it.

When the war began in 1914, there were 25,000 horses in the British army. The War Office increased that number to 500,000. By war’s end, the older horses who had served their human masters were killed while younger horses were sold for meat.

After speaking with a World War I veteran, novelist Michael Morpurgo struck upon the idea of telling a story about the horrors of the Great War through the point-of-view of a horse – a horse named Joey. “Joey gave me a voice that was beyond patriotism,” Morpurgo said. “His was a gentle, compassionate voice that spoke on behalf of all conscripts everywhere.”

The novel, War Horse, was published in 1982, and would eventually go on to be adapted for the stage in 2007. By 2009, the play had attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg after longtime producing partner Kathleen Kennedy mentioned the West End adaptation. Spielberg had just finished motion-capture work on The Adventures of Tintin, and was now forced to wait a full year for the animation to be completed. Ever the workaholic, Spielberg was already looking for a new project to pass the time, and as fate would have it, no one had yet to snap-up the movie rights to War HorseThe end result would be a film adaptation featuring 5,800 extras and 300 horses, shot during a relatively quick 63 days with a small (for Spielberg) $70 million budget.

And what a lovely film it is. Shrugged off by some as being far too sentimental, sappy, or old-fashioned, War Horse is Spielberg firing on all cylinders, crafting an unapologetically sincere, uncynical, kind-hearted film. “Despite…the horrors of war and the shattering of their innocence our heroes encounter on their journey to be reunited, this film is not about who is right in war,” Spielberg said. “It is about the remarkable humanity that an animal is able to bring to these characters – be they English, German, or French.”

The Best of Us

War Horse is Spielberg’s most episodic film. It’s almost an anthology piece; a work of several smaller tales with a wraparound set-up tying it all together. There aren’t really any main human characters, not even Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the young English boy who raises Joey the horse and first realizes the animal’s potential. Joey is our main character, a silent witness to multiple sides of the war, and our guide. We follow him through peace, and war, and peace again. Through the loving warmth of home to the hellish terrain of battlefields.

Starting in 1912, we meet Thoroughbred Joey in Devon, England, where frequently drunk farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) spends more money than he has in order to win the horse at auction. The Narracott family needs a plow horse, but Narracott sees something in the Thoroughbred. He’s also seized with an urge to one-up his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis), who was also bidding on the horse.

It seems like a big mistake from the start, as Joey has no interest in, or understanding of, how to plow the farm. Things seem so dire, in fact, that Ted is ready to give up on Joey completely. But Ted’s kind-hearted son Albert steps in and personally teaches the horse to plow, much to the amusement, and then approval, of the locals. These early scenes set the tone for War Horse, with Albert frequently offering encouragement to Joey while Albert’s mother Rose (Emily Watson) looks on approvingly and Ted scowls. The Spielbergian poor father-son relationship theme returns yet again, but Ted is not a villain. He’s just a broken, melancholy man, wounded both physically and mentally from his time in the Second Boer War. He is not a cruel man – but he doesn’t know how to be kind, either.

Joey is an expressive animal, and on more than one occasion, his reactions and actions are played for laughs – such as when he intentionally halts from jumping over a wall while Albert is trying to impress a local girl, sending Albert flying into the mud. But War Horse never fully anthropomorphizes the animal. This isn’t an animated Disney film with a talking beast. The furthest it’s willing to go is to treat Joey like a faithful dog occasionally – although at one point a character snaps, “That’s enough! It’s a horse, not a dog!”

But the bond between Joey and Albert is unmissable. It’s strong and warm, and unabashedly tender. “I knew when I first saw you that you’d be the best of us,” Albert tells Joey. Albert cares for the horse as if it were a member of his own family. Indeed, he shows more love for Joey than he does his father. Which makes his father’s next betrayal all the more heartbreaking: even though Joey is able to plow the fields, poor weather destroys the crops, and with war looming, and the family in dire need of money, Ted sells Joey off to the British Army.

The parting between beast and boy is undeniably heartbreaking, and Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis soften the blow with how the animal changes hands. Albert arrives too late to stop the sale but finds comfort in the horse’s new owner, Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who appears to be cut from the same unashamedly kind cloth as Albert. Nicholls promises to take the best of care of Joey, and even promises – if possible – to bring the horse back to Albert one day. This could simply be seen as a sweet, but empty, gesture. Our knee-jerk reaction is to assume that Nicholls is merely pouring honey in Albert’s ear to ease his pain, and that he doesn’t have any intention of being such a humane individual.

A Love Story

Nicholls isn’t just telling Albert a tale – he really means what he says. Later, we see Nicholls painstakingly drawing a picture of Joey with the intention of mailing it, along with a letter, back to Albert. Nicholls is the first of several soldiers who defy expectations. All throughout War Horse, Spielberg is searching for a spark of humanity.

“The bones of the story, it’s a love story,” Spielberg said. “It’s a bonding story, where Joey basically circumvents the emotional globe of the great war and he gets very connected with the people who are caring for Joey. More importantly, Joey has a way of relating to people from both sides of the war.”

There aren’t many outwardly cruel humans in the film, but there are also individuals like Nicholls who stand out. Nicholls’ superior officer Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) seems like a nice enough fellow, but he’s also more interested in soldiering and thinks of his own horse – Topthorn – as little more than an object of war. But Nicholls cares for Joey, which makes Nicholls’ death all the more heartbreaking.

In one of the film’s many stupendous set-pieces, Spielberg films a battle charge with British cavalry through a German encampment that ends in disaster. The Germans are able to retreat to a cache of strategically placed machine guns and open fire. Rather than showing Nicholls, and other men, brutally obliterated with a hail of bullets, Spielberg cuts from a shot of the British men on horses to behind the German line, with the guns firing, and the now riderless horses galloping on by. We never see Nicholls fall, but his fate is unmistakable.

And with Nicholls dead, Joey moves on. He’s herded into the German army along with Topthorn, who becomes his side-kick. The two horses end up being whisked away by two very young German soldiers trying to avoid battle. Like Nicholls, these characters are also oddly humane individuals in an inhumane situation, and their desertion leads to their execution in yet another brilliant set-piece – the boys stand beneath a windmill with ripped sails, and just as they’re about to be gunned down by firing squad, one of the slowly spinning blades block our view. Like with Nicholls’ death, Spielberg is showing us the horrors and mortality of war without actually showing us anything. But it’s not a cop-out. Indeed, the deaths feel all the more heartwrenching when portrayed in such abstract ways.

From here, Joey finds himself on a French farm with Topthorn, raised by a kindly farmer and his granddaughter. It’s a brief moment of peace and tranquility, but it doesn’t last, and before long, Joey and Topthorn are pulling heavy artillery up muddy fields while men, and horses, die in agony around them. It leads to one of the most heartbreaking moments in a film filled with them: Topthorn succumbing to the conditions, dying as a German Private Henglemann – another of those uncommonly kind people – tries fruitlessly to help. The film hasn’t shied away from the darkness and horrors of war so far, but these sequences take things even further, bombarding the viewer with scenes set in murky, sinking mud and blasted wastelands, where the sky hanging overhead is the color of a corpse. And then Spielberg moves into the trenches.

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