Last year, after The King’s Speech was crowned Oscar’s Best Picture many people looked forward and began discussing who would be the big contenders for this year’s Academy Awards. The film on everyone’s lips was War Horse, the film that would bring Steven Spielberg back into contact with the genre of war film, with highly acclaimed material which was transformed into an adored and critically lauded stage play. In other words: pure Oscar material.
Now that War Horse has been seen and reviewed by many critics that buzz has died down. Whilst still being reviewed generally positively it is now not the big Oscar player that it was once deemed to be, many people have deemed it to be far too sentimental and worst of all melodramatic; calling out the heightened emotional atmosphere, the epic John Williams score and the cinematography as just being too much.
My feeling is this, yes, the film isn’t perfect but the critics singling the film out for being too sentimental are entirely missing the point and in my view, the whole point of Spielberg’s cinema.
Spielberg’s War Horse is a film that does not fit into the genres IMDb so neatly lays out for us: War|Drama, there are elements of both these working in the film (although drama isn’t really a genre per se) but this is not what the film can be generically identified as. This is a melodrama, which for my money has now become a dirty word for critics. It becomes a point of derision if something is “melodramatic,” but why?
If you take the term literally, calling something “melodramatic” highlights its genre conventions. Like if we were to call a Transformers film “action packed” you are describing the conventions of its genre but not using it as a point of critical analysis. And yet this criticism has surrounded Spielberg’s career all the way from E.T. to The Color Purple to Amistad to Saving Private Ryan. But for me, Spielberg is one of the very few filmmakers working in Hollywood who works unashamedly within melodrama genre. And War Horse is an extension of his work in that genre.
We can identify the melodrama with several key signifiers, a lot of which derive from 19th Century Gothic literature. Most obviously there is a heightened emotional narrative where all the emotions are turned up to 11 and there is a strong out pouring of every single emotion imaginable from sadness, to happiness, to anger all played very intensely. And second most obviously, the use of pathetic fallacy. Weather is a big part of melodrama and it usually signifies a turn in the narrative or mood. Lashing rain and strong storms mean things are gonna get hairy, beautiful sun and glowing sunsets typically mean a state of tranquility.
There are other genre codes codes such as the use of emblems that are symbolic of themes or messages of the film; the characters can often be caricatures, swelling musical score. A convention which is inherent in the name, melodrama is simply melody with drama, meaning music and drama playing simultaneously, instructing the audience on what emotions are being conveyed on screen goes back to the days of silent cinema.
War Horse hits every single one of these generic conventions, the titular character is itself the biggest emblem in the film standing for hope and to a certain extent lost innocence which chimes very acutely with the character of Albert, who himself goes through his own loss of innocence. Everything is emotionally heightened and designed to make you cry which I think most mainstream critics and audiences have taken against it (more of which later) and there is plenty of pathetic fallacy in the cinematography.
This is purely a genre film and agree or not but genre films are looked down on by most critics, melodrama most of all, and here’s why I think that is. Genre films are specifically made and designed to make us feel some form of emotion. Horror makes us feel scared, comedies make us laugh, action films get the adrenaline pumping and arouse us and these three forms have become accepted and that if they achieve that level of terror, humour and excitement respectively then they have done their job.
However, if a film makes us cry then we are automatically meant to look down on it. Why should this be the case? Why should we be so apprehensive to cry in a cinema when we can make utter fools out of ourselves by being scared? For me, I regard a film as being able to make me cry as a massive achievement and it shows that I have been deeply touched by something that is ultimately a construct, a product that has been manufactured. And for a film to do that it must have some degree of artistry and skill behind it.
This was certainly not the case in the early days of cinema, there was a whole slew of movies called the weepies which were melodramas and held in very high regard by critics. Remember Gone With the Wind, that was a melodrama, the highly regarded Douglas Sirk made a career out of melodramas, and others Casablanca, Mrs Miniver, A Streetcar Named Desire to name but a few.
Spielberg is reverential for those kinds of films, the look harks back strongly to the work of John Ford and David O. Selznick who made careers out of melodramas, and yet critics who slam the film seem to be entirely against or ignore this notion. Then people go on to say the film is nostalgic. Yet they are quick to praise the reverential and yes, nostalgic nature that The Artist has, which is just as sentimental and mourning for the silent era of cinema as Spielberg’s War Horse is for the melodramas of the 30’s.
However, it is untrue to say that the melodrama has died out when in fact there are still some filmmakers trying to keep it alive, but they are the people who are particularly loved by critics for being a part of the art house stable. In particular two of the most notable names in the melodrama genre of today are Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodovar.
Both of them make films which are very typical of the melodramatic form, Haynes most recently had Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce (both of which had praise heaped upon them) and Almodovar had works such as All About My Mother and Volver which established him as world cinema’s most important voice. But because they are independent and quirky, critics are quick to jump on the band wagon and say they are brilliant.
I’m taking nothing away from them at all, both are terrific filmmakers in their own right and Almodovar remains a firm favourite, but Spielberg is essentially plying his craft to the same kind of films they are making. So why do critics take against him? My only answer is elitism, which I myself can perhaps be accused of, that critics take against Spielberg because he is a mainstream, Hollywood insider filmmaker. There are critics and in fact film tutors who entirely debunk all of Hollywood as mass produced rubbish, yet this is entirely a falsehood.
When Hollywood is at their A-game there are no other films that can hold a candle to them. When good, no one else is better and Spielberg is the definitive Hollywood filmmaker because he approaches everything he directs with his heart as opposed to his head. How rare is that in Hollywood? Very. And he has made deeply personal films that have been wrapped up in a big budget, mass market setting and I fail to notice why that is a bad thing.
Spielberg once talked to the BBC in an extended interview about his first movie experience (being taken to see The Greatest Show on Earth) and he recalls being taken through a whole range of emotion: from disappointment, to intrigue, to intense excitement and then joy. This is the formula that Spielberg approaches every film with intending to place the audience in the position he was in when he first saw the DeMille classic.
Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, but Spielberg is a filmmaker who isn’t dishonest about his intentions and he never tries to hoodwink an audience. The way many people have written about War Horse imply that Spielberg is trying to squeeze tears out of you as if you are being crushed to death.
Actually, what Spielberg is doing is playing you like a violin, so very perfectly and he never hits a bum note throughout the entire film, every single emotional beat is in there because he intended it that way.
War Horse is maestro Steven Spielberg’s best film in over 10 years because it does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to make you cry.
Is that such a bad thing?