This article contains spoilers for War Horse. Do not read on if you haven’t seen the film…
Ssssss. It’s cinema’s insidious syllable, the sizzling sound of all things salacious and scuzzy. Even the noise itself has something seedy and scornful about it. Sex. Sin. Scandal. You can’t say those words without spitting that ‘s’ syllable out with delicious spite. There is, however, no word as scalding as the worst ‘S’ word of all – a word so simply sinful it’s one of the most searing tools in a film critic’s toolbox. The word is ‘sentimentality’ and the worst offender of this most sickening of sins is another significant ‘s’: Steven Spielberg.
The director is back on cinema screens this week with his latest release, War Horse, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s World War I childrens’ book and the stage play that came from it. It tells the story of a young man called Albert, who raises a farmhorse named Joey in the years running up to the outbreak of war. When fighting commences, Joey is taken by the British military to pull heavy artillery, and the story focuses on his struggles through the war and Albert’s attempts to be reunited with him. Hope and courage – it’s typical Spielberg stuff and I think it’s his most crowdpleasing drama since 2003′s Catch Me If You Can.
Not all critics agree though, and it’s no surprise that the ‘S’ word has been out in force. Run a search for the term ‘War Horse sentimental’ and you’ll get 2,500,000 results. Of course, not all those results are using the term ‘sentimental’ negatively, but many are. The Metro praises the film as “sweeping” before adding pointedly “but sentimental”, Andrew Pulver of The Guardian says it displays “toxic levels of sentimentality” and Nigel Andrews of The Financial Times dismisses it as a “sentimental, fulsome, platitudinous yahooing of Michael Morpurgo’s equine odyssey”.
The film is undoubtedly sentimental, but that should be expected. Despite what Andrews’ review would have you believe, Morpurgo’s story is inherently sentimental, softening some of the grimmer realities of war to use the fighting as a metaphor for life’s struggles and trials. Joey, and Albert’s relationship with him, is also representative, the horse symbolising home, hope and peace, and the need to hold on to those things even in the darkest of hours. War Horse is a childrens’ story – a brilliant and vital one – and sentiment is used smartly by Morpurgo to deliver a message about the futility of war.
In one of his most dramatic divergences from the book, Spielberg presents this point visually by having Albert attach his father’s war pennant to Joey. This slice of home, which we’re told at the film’s start is a source of shame for Albert’s father, who “takes no pride” from the killing he did while in the army, passes from person to person as Joey struggles through the war. In one scene, a young German soldier gives it to his brother as the two are separated; in another a young French girl wears it as a ribbon in her hair. Regardless of who Joey finds himself surrounded by, this pennant unifies everyone in hope, reminding the audience of Morpurgo’s central theme: that we’re all the same, regardless of national borders. Sentimental? Perhaps. Powerful? Undoubtedly.
Spielberg is the master of such visual flourishes and it’s worth remembering exactly what cinema is before condemning War Horse for its “sentimentality”. Strip the medium down to its barest form and it is, literally, a series of visuals – still photographs passing across a beam of light which projects them onto a massive screen. Now, time for a little experiment. Look at your walls, look at your mantlepiece, look at your bookcase. Chances are, you’re looking at photographs – in a frame, on a canvas or within a photo album. Wherever they are and in whatever form they’re in, photographs dominate our lives, they help us relive happy memories and remember loved ones. Images are inherently emotional and our keeping of them inherently sentimental. Cinema, by projecting those images so dramatically in such a humongous way, automatically becomes an act of sentimentality – indeed due to its size and scope, perhaps the ultimate act of sentimentality.
Beyond the simple mechanics of viewing a film, our consumption of films is also deeply sentimental. Think for a moment about your favourite films. Then think about why you like them. Some of my favourite films are The Apartment, Magnolia, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park and Star Wars. Why are these my favourite films? For a start, of course, they’re well-made films. But why do I love them, rather than admire or respect them as great pieces of art? Because they remind me of moments in my life. Jurassic Park was the first film to really make a big impact on me when I saw it at the cinema and Close Encounters and Star Wars were similarly significant moments when I viewed them on home video. The Apartment and Magnolia, meanwhile, mark happy times in my life and I’m reminded of those moments whenever I watch the films.
These are sentimental reasons, because cinema is sentimental. Those DVDs on your shelf are no different to the frames on your wall or the photos on your Facebook page and this is something to be celebrated. The very point of cinema is to make people feel something, to evoke an emotion and elicit a response. In other words, to create sentiment. If that’s wrong, then perhaps film critics need to reassess the identity of The Greatest Film Ever, Citizen Kane. For, when the film draws to a close and the audience finally learns the meaning of Kane’s dying word – Rosebud – Orson Welles creates a moment of pure sentiment. Beneath the corrupted exterior of this newspaper tycoon, we are told there lies the heart of a vulnerable little boy. Rosebud is another ‘S’ word. Rosebud is Kane’s childhood sledge.