If John Ford made a movie about a horse, War Horse would be that film.
But he didn’t, so we’ll settle for a Ford homage by Stephen Spielberg instead. This isn’t a bad thing, since few filmmakers alive can recall Ford’s sweeping, grand style as can Spielberg.
Of course, Spielberg brings assets of his own to the project, including as a master manipulator of audience emotions. It’s been a criticism of the director for years, and certainly there will be no shortage of it again with War Horse. This story of love, death, friendship, and war with a horse at the center of it affords Spielberg plenty of opportunities to wring tears of joy and sorrow.
And the tears will come — if you’re an average three-hanky moviegoer you might want to bring a package of Kleenex.
The film opens in the English countryside, replete with stirring shots of rolling hills and green pastures, as a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and a special horse he names Joey bond on the father’s down-on-its-luck farm. Finances get so tough that Joey is sold to a young English military officer at the outbreak of World War I.
This opening act is lovely to behold, and also painfully dull. As critics, we bash movies for not taking the time to set up story and characters. And when a film does just that, we bash it anyway for not moving quickly enough to the good stuff. War Horse is like a cream-filled cupcake in that what you really want is in the middle; you just have to work your way through the edges to get to it.
It’s only once the horse earns the film’s title that the movie soars.
Like his masterful war film Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg jolts senses with the brutality and ferocity of World War I. A slaughter of British soldiers with bayonets charging full speed on horses to certain doom by a better-armed German army makes for gripping and powerful footage. Likewise, a battle sequence in the muddy trenches of British and German soldiers on opposite sides of a barbed-wire battlefield is as bleak and numbing as similar war scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. There is no blood in these battles, but the carnage is visceral. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from any of the violence, pushing the limits of PG-13. If this is your Christmas film pick today, consider that War Horse is not as family friendly as you might think.
Away from the battlefields there is considerable human drama as well: two teenage German soldiers gone AWOL; a sickly French girl who lives with her grandfather after her parents were murdered by German soldiers. Tying all these threads together is Joey, who has a profound impact on people where ever he goes. Far from a good omen, however, Joey seems to be accompanied by Death, as many of those the horse encounters have their lives tragically cut short.
But as the horse continues its journey, its first owner, Albert, now a solider in the British Army, holds out hope the two will be reunited after the war. And the film never loses focuses on either character, or their connection.
The film score by John Williams is haunting and sweeping — everything you want it to be in a film such as this — and effectively echoes War Horse’s mood, be it fear, anger, sadness, courage, or loss.
War Horse, which is based on a best-selling novel by Michael Morpurgo, is populated with intriguing characters, but the film is dominated by an equine — it should be noted that the performances by the horses are tremendous — and as such, the humans tend to take a backseat to Joey. While the war setting of War Horse may be novel, its framework is hardly new: a special animal pops in and out of the lives of strangers, helping a multitude of people along the way. This is Benji as a horse set during World War I.
War Horse is a good film that’s striking to look at it and offers the occasional riveting and intense action sequence. But Spielberg has bigger aspirations for this than to be merely good. He wants epic, and there are moments when he succeeds. But too often War Horsefails to overcome its limitations, and Spielberg can’t help himself by pouring on the melancholy when opportunity presents itself to puff up the emotional scale of the film.This is a nice story and a tragic story, but rarely does it click into epic story, the kind that sweeps you away in a bigger-than-life tale.
If the movie were in a horse race, War Horse would finish in third place: a good showing, but a disappointment nonetheless given its pedigree.
Critic's Rating: 3 Stars ***
Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo.
A DreamWorks release, opening Sunday at Rave Fallen Timbers, Franklin Park, and Levis Commons.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.
Running time: 146 minutes.
Albert Narracott .......... Jeremy Irvine
Ted Narracott .......... Peter mullan
Rose Narracott .......... Emily Watson
**** Very Good
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.