Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Glance at War Horse and wonder about Spielberg

As images reach us of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming War Horse, we might perhaps ponder the current status of this staggeringly successful director. Few other film-makers divide opinion as much as does our Steven. That sounds like an odd statement. After all, …

Sun, Mar 27, 2011, 19:26

   

As images reach us of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming War Horse, we might perhaps ponder the current status of this staggeringly successful director. Few other film-makers divide opinion as much as does our Steven. That sounds like an odd statement. After all, he is, by some measures, the most financially lucrative director in cinema’s history. Yet, a great many film fanatics regard him as something of a menace. Wasn’t the success of Jaws responsible for undermining the supposed renaissance in American film-making during the opening years of the 1970s? You know the story. A gang of bright sparks, fired by post-1960s enthusiasm, remade Hollywood in their own stoned image. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown and Taxi Driver resulted. Then, following the success of that shark film — and Lucas’s even bigger Star Wars — the studios rediscovered uncomplicated matinee entertainment. Since then, idiotic blockbusters have ruled the summer. QED. Spielberg and Lucas are destroyers.

Joey has distressing news concerning Gavrilo Princip.

The real story is, of course, more nuanced than that. Firstly, it is very easy to forget how many moviegoers felt utterly alienated by the movies of the early 1970s. A surprising number of people from my parents’ generation, appalled at the swearing and confused by the elliptical plotting, simply stopped going to the cinema in those years. Also, though always (even when making the heart-pulling Schindler List) a populist director, Spielberg himself, like so many movie brats, adored the great European film-makers and would not savour the advance of a mono-tonal mainstream. He can’t be blamed for his own success.

It must also, of course, be noted that only somebody with a heart of stone could resist the films of his high period. Jaws, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark all have that sticky quality: that’s to say, start watching one on TV and its very hard to stop.

The current Spielberg is, however, something of a puzzling figure. He seems slightly stranded between crowd-pleaser Steve and big serious Steve. Munich worked because it balanced those two instincts perfectly. War of the Worlds couldn’t decide if it was dumb or magnificent. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was weighed down by an overpowering desire to pack all 1950s pop culture into one (admittedly baggy) package.

This year, Spielberg is, consciously or not, revisiting an Annus mirabilis. In 1993, you may remember, the great man delivered a big noisy smash and a serious-minded, Oscar-flavoured smash: Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. This year, we get The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn and War Horse. The former project is somewhat worrying, not least because it leans toward the class of motion-capture that Robert Zemeckis used so creepily in A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express. The latter does, however, sound quite promising. Based on a genuinely moving book and play by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a nag shipped to the Western Front during the first World War. The horse is called Joey. Oh Lord. Nice animals and the Great War. I’m welling up already.

Don’t cry, little girl. I’m sure the horsey will be all right. Actually, I’m not (no spoiler implied or meant) all that certain. It was a pretty hairy business over there. Anyway, there is nobody quite so talented at wringing the tear ducts as Mr Spielberg. If you didn’t blub at the end of ET then you are an out-and-out monster. A monster!

After that, he moves on to a biopic of Abraham Lincoln. Hmm? Sounds a bit worthy. Daniel Day Lewis is bound to be good, but didn’t Liam Neeson — the original lead — look so much more like the great man. Anyway, we have probably a year and a half to wait for that film.

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