‘War Horse,’ Steven Spielberg, the Golden Globes and John Ford

Spielberg channeled ‘Ford at War’ with his WWI tale, but given the historical possibilities, this is a missed opportunity

Now, don’t get me wrong—I loved Steven Spielberg.

I could argue that “Jaws” figures as one of the great “programmers” (or genre movies) of all time, up with, say, Paul Muni’s original “Scarface,” from 1932, 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” or the ‘80s “Top Gun”,entertainment so pure that it transcends its genre.

Similarly, in the ‘80s when I was writing about movies for a living, I put “Raiders of the Lost Ark” up with John Huston’s “Treasure of Sierra Madre” as the best action films of all time: “Badges, we don’t need no stinking badges….”

And, of course, who could refute such obvious labor’s of love as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (starring Spielberg fave director, Francois Truffaut)or “Schindler’s List”? Then again, like any director, we have to deal with such fiasco’s as “The Color Purple” or, as it was described at the time (I think by me): “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the Yuppie Generation,” A sanitized version of history that attracted audiences but informed none.

Or “Amistad” which, while dealing with one of the most horrific periods of human history, drew nary a tear? Or “Minority Report,” perhaps the least insightful of all recent sci-fi movies….it made “Total Recall” seem as deep as Sharon Stone’s cleavage!. None of the above having prepared me for the absurd “Boy’s Life” fantasy that is “War Horse.”

Again, I like Steven—and have said so in print many times.

But what overtook him when he tackled this bit of Brit treacle I have no idea. I know I’m getting older and not quite as sharp as I was in my 20s (just last year!), and Steven is still as facile with the camera as he ever was…but there’s more to directing than just shooting a good scene.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had in 1984 with then-producer ( now “Lord”) David Puttnam, who was on his way to a sweep of Academy nominations with “The Killing Fields.” I asked him, having just discovered such young British talents as Alan Parker (“Midnight Express,” “Fame”) and Adrian Lyne (“Flashdance”), what he thought of the crop of American directors then emerging including Spielberg, Lucas (who had already quit directing following “Star Wars”), Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, William Friedkin and the like.

While he admired them, he mentioned over tea at the Bel-Air Hotel, he hoped they all wouldn’t like, so many American directors before them, “think they have to remake (John Ford’s) ‘The Searchers’” to prove themselves. Unfortunately, most of them have and foundered on the shoals of trying. This time it’s Spielberg’s turn.

To begin, it’s hard to fathom why he chose such an ethnocentric Brit fantasy—WWI as seen through the eyes of a horse—to make his John Ford-like stand.

Second, as Puttnam would have bemoaned, it’s not only an homage to ‘The Searchers”… with in some weird way the horse substituting for Natalie Wood as the girl captured by Indians! (In “War Horse,” the horse becomes a lead stallion for German artillary slaughtering Brits before being saved by the Englishman that raised him (John Wayne in “The Searchers,”) It virtually channels John Ford visually.

Don’t believe me?

Take one of those computers where you can put visuals up side-by-side and run Ford’s classic “How Green Was My Valley” frame by frame with “War Horse” and you’ll get chills up your spine.

Similarly, pan the middle of Ford’s classic “They Were Expendable” with the battles from WWI in “Horse” or, finally, put up the climatic scenes of “The Searchers” as Wayne brings Wood home next to the moment when “Joey” (duh!), the horse, comes back from war in “War Horse.”

The problem isn’t that, despite all Spielberg tries, Wood is more beautiful than this gorgeously lit horse, but rather that the sky itself behind them is almost too perfect. And while Ford had to wait days to get that shot, all a modern-day director like Spielberg has to do is program it into the computer.

In short, it’s creepily, scarily sad that we have to watch maybe our finest modern director (forgive me, Marty Scorcese) descend to such depths to win nominations from third-rate organizations as The Golden Globes. Sort of like watching a brilliant modern scientist having to debase himself on a TV gameshow to pay the rent.

Worse, Spielberg knows better. While his Tom Hanks-starrer “Saving Private Ryan” may have been pablum, it begat perhaps the best rendition of men at war in it’s Spielberg-produced spinoff, HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”

And if Steven really wants to channel “Ford at war,” he might look a little further than the classic oeuvre—try reaching back, for instance, into Ford’s work as a documentarian for the Navy with “Torpedo Squadron 6.”

That was Ford’s homage to the Navy torpedo squadron that took the Japanese fleet head on (literally) at the battle of Midway, a bare six months after Pearl Harbor. With the Japanese seemingly invincible, these two dozen young flyers flew into death’s door — not one of them survived — attracting the Japanese fighter plane attention while the dive bombers snuck in overhead and sank the four Japanese carriers, thereby changing the course of the War in the Pacific.

That these young men, with whom Ford was (to use the modern word) “embedded” all died made it the saddest of all war movies – so sad that the U.S. government chose to suppress it, lest it hurt the war effort.

Were Steven to want to tell as story like that — one that could put him in the pantheon of great filmmakers he so clearly wants to join — he might tell the story of Lt. Col. Charles Rodgers, the highest ranking African-American ever to win the Medal of Honor for saving Saigon during the Tet Offensive. But since it’s not in the approved canon, I doubt he ever would, Should he, of course, choose to one day, I know where— forgive the expression–the bodies lie.