In Defense Of Steven Spielberg And War Horse

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?

Comments (1)

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    someone gets it!

    In an
    interview back in 1988, Spielberg said the following:
    “In my work, everything is melodrama. I
    don’t think I’ve ever not made a melodrama. E.T. is melodramatic, and so is The Sugarland Express. I mean, there’s melodrama in life and I love
    The term
    ‘melodrama’ has for so long been used pejoratively that I think people forget
    just what a key role it’s played in the history of film. They forget that
    there’s good melodrama just as much as there’s good tragedy or good comedy.
    Melodrama can have all the range and nuance of any other form of cinematic
    expression. Some of the greatest
    films ever made have been melodramas and some of the greatest directors who
    ever lived have worked primarily within the framework of melodrama (Hitchcock, Sirk,
    Capra, Ozu, Sturges, Curtiz, Powell, Chaplin, Fassbinder, Lean, Hawks, Ford,
    even Kurosawa and Orson Welles in many ways).
    One of the worst things about modern film criticism, I
    think, is the emphasis that is placed on ‘realism’ in cinema. It’s got
    to the point where utilising movie-logic or contrivance, being ‘like a movie’
    in other words, has become a genuine criticism that many people will draw
    against a particular film. But does anyone else see the problem with the notion
    that you can criticise a film for being
    like a film?

    I remember reading  a review of ‘No Country for Old Men’  in which the critic said that he’d always
    found the characters in the rest of the Coen Brothers oeuvre to be too
    unrealistic, and this soured his opinion of their previous work. Yet the fact
    that the characters in a Coen Brothers movie act and talk like characters in a
    Coen Brothers movie is one of the reasons why I love their films in the first
    place. What matters to me isn’t realism in real life terms but realism in reel life terms; do the story and
    characters make sense within the confines of their movie existence?
    Another example would be the film Once, which
    I found to be a charming, beautifully told tale that managed to feel both
    ‘real’ and ‘movie-like’. Looking on the Internet I noticed that some people
    seemed genuinely annoyed by the fact that the film sometimes made use of
    movie-logic or movie-cliché (eg, singing a love song to an image of an
    ex-girlfriend / the studio engineer whose cynicism is replaced by admiration as
    soon as he hears the music / the band playing Frisbee on the beach, etc.). They
    seemed to be suggesting that these sorts of things only happened in the movies –
    which I think is debatable in the first place – and the fact that it WAS a
    movie somehow shouldn’t matter.
    Here’s something that Hitchcock
    once said, and I think he makes an interesting point:
    ‘A woman may receive
    the news of her husband’s death by throwing up her arms and screaming, or she
    may sit quite still and say nothing. The first is melodramatic. But it may well
    happen in real life. In the cinema a melodramatic film is one based on a series
    of sensational incidents. So melodrama, you must admit, has been and is the
    backbone and lifeblood of the cinema.
    My own
    greatest desire is for realism. Therefore I employ what is called melodrama –
    but which might as well be called ultra-realism – for all my thinking has led
    me to the conclusion that there is the only road to screen realism that will
    still be entertainment.
    the strangest criticism I encounter is that I sometimes put wildly improbable
    things, grotesque unrealities, on the screen when actually the incident
    criticised is lifted bodily from real life. The reason is that the strange
    anomalies of real life, the inconsequences of human nature, appear unreal.’
    I understand that acting styles
    and directorial styles have put more and more emphasis on ‘realism’ over the
    years and moved away from the melodrama and big emotions of Hollywood’s early
    history, yet in doing so have we not lost something along the way? Have we not
    lost the ability to appreciate movies as
    I think it’s all part of this
    tendency of the AICN/IMDB generation to focus their criticism on plot-holes and
    failures of logic, on moments of cliché and convention, on elements of
    unreality within what is, by definition, unreal. I can’t help but wonder if
    they do this because it’s pretty much the limits of their critical faculties.
    For me this really misses the
    point. My favourite directors have always been those who recognise cinema as cinema; who impose cinema on reality,
    not reality on cinema. Spielberg is one such director and I salute him for it.

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