Steven Spielberg says his adaptation of the children's novel and Tony Award-winning play War Horse doesn't pay conscious homage to the lustrous David Lean clashes and John Ford chiaroscuros that the movie recalls in shot after shot. That's a pile of manure. War Horse doesn't recall those and other influences (most spectacularly, the florid sunset vistas of Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind) as much as it reconstructs them wholesale (and on film stock rather than digitally). But if this second half of the director's first-ever December double bill stands on pastiche more than any other film in the Amblin canon, it's a mode that serves the story. And some of those lush shots exert the power to haunt.
For all the praise heaped on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 book and the puppet wizardry still on Broadway, War Horse's source material (adapted for Spielberg by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis with only the dimmest flashes of the latter's contemporary wit) isn't a natural fit for the screen. The horse (Joey) is Morpurgo's narrator, a conceit that works well on the page, refracting violent history into intimately drawn observations on human will and its tragic, far-reaching consequences. Spielberg's Joey is a real horse and therefore disinclined to speak, even in voice-over. Instead, the movie departs from its parent text to remagnify the theaters of Joey's journey — endless meadow, struggling farm, polished cavalry, the scorched earth of mechanized trench warfare — and shows us what the horse sees.
The director uses a leisurely, dialogue-free opening to retrain us: Watch Joey move, feel him react to the light and the sound. The first 45 minutes, an act that runs Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan and newcomer Jeremy Irvine smartly over — and sometimes smack into — the fences of Hollywood prewar melodrama, don't pass swiftly. But this turns out to be, as is always the case with Spielberg, deliberate, not leaden but smart. By the time Joey is drafted into service at the start of World War I, human frailty has become as vivid to us as the colors in cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's stunning palette. Detractors will call the film obvious and sentimental, and so it is. It's also a gorgeous ode to pure cinema unlike anything else Spielberg has made.