Starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross
Directed by Steven Spielberg
In 2011, Spielberg made two films which came out within a few days of each other. I chose to see the 3D animated one in the theaters, a genre I have little love for, so that should tell you my level of interest in War Horse. While I’d like to tell you that it won me over with its syrupy charms and its overbearing sentimentality, if I did it would be a lie. War Horse is not a bad film per se, but it’s one that just doesn’t resonate with me at all.
War Horse is something of a horse biopic, as Joey the horse is our main character. We open on his birth, and the first hour or so details his upbringing under the care of a teenager named Albert. They overcome adversity together as Albert coaxes Joey into plowing the field in front of the watchful eyes of the entire village. Did I miss something, or was watching a kid plow a field an early 1900s pastime in England? So strange, but in this movie it is the norm, as nearly every scene in the film is designed specifically to inspire and tug those aching heartstrings. Ugh.
This sort of “follow the horse around as he passes from one human to the next” story is not exactly the best fit for a lengthy movie like this, as the episodic nature absolutely kills the pacing. The first 45 minutes feel excruciatingly long, even when you realize that it’s all groundwork for the inevitable rousing finale. Maybe the problem is that Spielberg never attempts to mask this, as everything in War Horse is painfully obvious. It’s so transparently setup for a sentimental payoff that it becomes hard to care, instead of becoming involved we feel as if the gargantuan heart of the picture is being forcefully stuffed down our throats.
Now for all that talk of hearts and throats, I have to give credit where credit is due and this same section of the film is notable for its ability to evoke the visual style of the 1950s. Specifically the films of John Ford, and even more specifically The Quiet Man, the look of this section is impeccable and recalls the days of Hollywood when location shooting was a rarity and still quite novel. There’s also shots that bring Shane to mind, and the color palette feels exaggerated in just the right way to evoke the distinct, long-gone look of Technicolor. Say what you will about the film itself, but it is rather well-shot.
I also hate to be a clichéd macho man, but I was much more excited and engaged during the war sections of the film. They are far fewer than I expected in a film titled War Horse, but when they do come around they’re quite good. The first involves a cavalry charge that is easily the best sequence in the film. It’s beautifully shot, and it was the first time in the film that I sat up and really cared about anything occurring on-screen. A later battle scene felt like Paths of Glory by way of Saving Private Ryan, but isn’t nearly as memorable or iconic as anything in those two films. Oh, and let’s not forget the shot of the entire valley teeming with soldiers going about their business that I’m convinced is Spielberg’s homage to The Longest Day (which also echoes his earlier homages to the film in Saving Private Ryan). Maybe I’m reading too much into the film’s shots, but it seems as if War Horse is not just a story of a horse, but also a love letter to some of Spielberg’s favorite films. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t think a blind person could miss the intense Gone with the Wind homage during the film’s final shots. Again, it looks great, but it’s more interesting for its replication of something great than actually being great itself.
Besides the flat, plodding story, I think what bothered me the most were the accents. Some of the Germans sounded like they were German, but most of them seemed to speak with English accents. Others were somewhere between English and German accents, which was fairly amusing, but the majority sounded English. This led to some problems as the film started to crosscut between English and German groups and I got a little confused because everyone sounded the same. Is it that hard to hire English-speaking Germans? There’s a whole country of wonderful people who I’m sure would love to be in a Spielberg film! So frustrating, but I can’t fault Spielberg specifically, as nearly every American film set in Europe does the same thing. At least we’ll always have Inglourious Basterds.
War Horse isn’t a horrible movie, but it is kind of horrible to me. Really not my thing. It’s incredibly well-shot, but the sweeping, syrupy sentimentality is poured on way too thick for a film without a deep, relatable character. Unless you’re a horse, of course, of course. I’m sure big-time horse lovers will get more out of this than I did, but it’s a horse movie, so of course they will. Spielberg clearly still has the chops to make something great, but War Horse ain’t it.