For a film nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, War Horse is a surprisingly mixed bag. Admittedly the film has always been marketed simply as a good old fashioned tearjerker and war epic, but even in this regard, Steven Spielberg’s latest is hit and miss. Visually War Horse is a treat, and you get a handful of genuine sob moments, but otherwise the film is robbed of its full dramatic impact by its episodic format and relentless insistence in slapping on sentimentality with a shovel.
You pretty much know what you’re in store for with War Horse from the film’s opening shots, focusing on the rolling green hills of the English countryside. Immediately the audience witnesses the birth of a wilful young colt, Joey, a part-thoroughbred who wins the heart of heavily accented Devon farmboy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) – who even comes complete with a goofy Ron Weasley sidekick.
It’s all very Black Beauty to begin with, and in this quaint setting everyone speaks like they’re Hobbits from the Shire, for extra pastoral charm. The Wheel of Fortune spins a couple of times for Joey and Albie even before the outbreak of World War I. However, in 1914, as the war effort ramps up, and young men enlist, Joey is sold to a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) and soon he’s in France, charging Gatling guns, making new horsey friends and touching human lives. Meanwhile, Albie vows to be reunited with his beloved animal.
At its core, War Horse – based on the youth novel by Michael Morpurgo, as well as its stage play adaptation – is a tale of innocence and naiveté destroyed by war. The audience witnesses the transition from armies marching into battle in full dress uniform and worrying about the honour of sneak attacks, to mud-splattered soldiers cowering in rat-filled trenches, as concerned about mustard gas as the prospect of shooting their own deserters.
The problem is that in depicting this loss of innocence, Joey has to encounter different human characters. And given that we meet some of them for maybe 10 minutes of screen time max, you don’t have a chance to become emotionally invested in their fate. Secondly, the audience only really cares about Albie and Joey’s story, so these interludes become more of a time-wasting annoyance than anything else. And there’s always the interesting point to consider that evidently we’re more easily moved by the death of an animal than person.
Whereas War Horse is hobbled by its story structure, the film excels in other areas, particularly the technical – let’s not forget Spielberg is a grand master when it comes to depicting war onscreen. War Horse is the first movie in a while where I have really appreciated the potency of good sound editing, and there’s no denying the visual memorability of 2 scenes in particular – the cavalry in the wheat field and Joey’s desperate gallop through No Man’s Land. So kudos to Spielberg’s regular collaborating cinematographer, the award-winning Janusz Kamiński.
In terms of emotional memorability, meanwhile, one of the film’s strongest sequences is a meeting between an English and German soldier that, unlike so much else in the War Horse, actually trusts in understatement, simplicity and the subdued for effect, and rings more true as a result.
Performance-wise, Irvine is likeable enough but he’s more an embodiment of the quietly well-mannered but strong-willed England that Spielberg seems so enamoured with in this film. Emily Watson radiates a quiet intensity as Albie’s mother though, and Tom Hiddleston proves his effortless magneticism and grace in Thor wasn’t a once off.
At 146 minutes, War Horse isn’t a brisk film – particularly once it passes the 2 hour mark. And by the time the Gone With the Wind-style finale kicks off, complete with Technicolor sunset and characters in silhouette, the audience has been emotionally keyed by John Williams’s overpowering score just one too many times for it to still be effective.
The end result then is that War Horse feels like a Best Picture nominee that earned its accolades more for its technical polish and big name pedigree than its overall superiority to other movies released during 2011.
Last Updated: March 12, 2012