At its core, War Horse is a heartfelt story about a young man and the bond he creates with a horse who reciprocates that bond. The film is beautifully shot and looks stunning on the big screen, as Steven Spielberg reminds us just how the art of making motion pictures comes incredibly easy to him. When you look at War Horse, all the key components are in place – the sweeping score, the breathtaking and picturesque look of the film, the dramatic arc of a horse impacting lives in and around the time period of World War I. In fact, War Horse feels like a film from an era just passed, a sweeping and grand epic which in years previously might have been heralded as something akin to a masterpiece. War Horse dresses up nice, looks the part, and can even move you into thinking that it is a film of extraordinary accomplishment.
But in all honesty, War Horse is a film which is distressingly ordinary and completely predictable. At its conclusion, War Horse was exactly everything I ultimately thought it would be. I admire the craft and I appreciate the care and detail Spielberg has taken in making this film look and feel big and important. And coupled with that beauty is a film which also delivers a screenplay that is somewhat manipulative, heavy-handed, and shameless in its desire to move you emotionally. Then again, maybe I just watch too many movies nowadays.
War Horse the film is adapted from an award-winning children’s novel, which has been adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway play. Previously, War Horse was a hit on the London stage and many have praised the story of a London born thoroughbred who changes the lives of numerous individuals he comes into contact with. Initially, the Narracott family are the first to encounter the horse.
The Narracotts own a farm and struggle to make their rent and obligations, partly because the patriarch of the family, Ted (Peter Mullan), is in poor health and likes his alcohol a bit too much. His wife, Rose (Emily Watson), tries to be the voice of reason but often fails in getting Ted to listen to her. At an auction, Ted outbids a rival and pays an exorbitant amount of money for the horse, despite being dangerously behind on rent. Their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), works on the farm and develops an immediate connection to the horse, gives him the name of Joey, and vows to train him to assist efforts on the farm.
Despite Albert’s successes with Joey, financial troubles force Ted to secretly take Joey to market and sell him to the highest bidder. Albert learns of this too late and cannot stop the sale from transpiring between his father and Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Nicholls vows that he will do everything he can to take care of Joey and pledges to take every measure in returning him back to the Narracotts safe and sound. At this point, War Horse turns into a series of vignettes, where we follow Joey from one situation to the next, watching and understanding how one majestic horse can impact the lives of a great many people from all walks of life.
War Horse is an aggravating film to have reservations about because the film is painstakingly made and a joy to get lost in. Spielberg receives stellar work, as always, from his below-the-line team, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who frames the film in a picturesque, grand, and sweeping 1950s epic style. Shot in and around England, the backdrops, backgrounds, and settings for War Horse are nothing short of remarkable, with Kaminski capturing some arresting images in the film. Spielberg has also turned out a 146 minute film that does not feel overly long. Cleverly, each new experience for Joey feels like the start of something special and terrific and the film has a good pace with moving from moment to moment and scene to scene; Spielberg allowing everything to breathe in an appropriate manner.
So if we establish that War Horse is masterfully created, shot, and rendered from a technical standpoint, then we must next turn to the screenplay from Oscar-nominated screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall. Perhaps the problem comes from the fact that a film about a horse touching lives in a war-torn England was originally a children’s novel. I have no qualms with that, except that it is quite obvious that Steven Spielberg’s grand vision and scope for this production is a vision that this source material simply cannot match. Spielberg is trying to bring back a cinematic style of decades gone by and positions War Horse as a modern-day Hollywood epic of yesteryear. But War Horse, in its totality, simply does not measure up to the heightened bar Spielberg has attempted to reach.
The film is acted quite well, with nary a bad performance to be found. And yet, problems abound in how predictable all of this becomes. If you are unfamiliar with the story, then you likely will be unaware of all of the encounters Joey has, but key emotional elements are telegraphed so obviously that, for me, the emotional pull was vacant and lacking. We are constantly reminded how amazing this horse is and see scene after scene which show us the incredible level of understanding and intelligence Joey has. Everyone that encounters Joey is moved by him and changed forever and for the better simply from meeting him.
But of course they are, right? And therein lies the problem. War Horse becomes stunted in its impact by simply replicating a verse-chorus-verse framework. At 146 minutes, I may never have been bored but it was a disappointment to see every new narrative angle replicate itself time and time again.
Much will be made of a sequence near the end of the film where Joey faces true adversity and I will acknowledge that Spielberg is at his absolute finest in these kinds of tense and humanizing moments moments. However, the old predictability demon renders his head yet again in a scene that left some in my screening weeping and me simply making a note about how sappy the whole thing ultimately turned out to be.
I noted above that perhaps I see too many movies nowadays and that statement emanates from the situation I found myself in when War Horse goes for the big emotional grab in its final minutes. As people started to sniffle, dab their eyes and noses, and start to audibly cry, I surprisingly felt nothing. I never bought in to the emotion of War Horse because I was struck by how blatantly obvious the film was. I sat and marveled at the idea, the amazing technical successes, and then when the tears started flowing around me, I thought about the fine acting I had witnessed. I considered the notion that Steven Spielberg remains one compelling and extraordinary filmmaker, but my mind was elsewhere; thinking positive thoughts overall but not at all engaged in what was transpiring before me.
Most people in attendance loved War Horse and praised it in the lobby after the screening was over. One woman remarked to a friend, “That was so, so beautiful…”, while another uttered, “I so needed that…” Even a third individual proclaimed behind me, “…that is the best movie I have seen in years…” I beat myself up a bit in the days after watching War Horse, wondering why I was not saying those same things to myself. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that War Horse is a film that I know a lot of people will watch and enjoy and while I admire it and appreciated seeing it, I can only provide the slightest of recommendations for it. A likable disappointment if there ever was one.