War Horse brings a whole new meaning to the term “old-fashioned filmmaking.” Though it carries a contemporary polish, it feels like the movie was written and meticulously storyboarded over half a century ago, intended to be directed by John Ford in the 1940s or ’50s, but was eventually made in 2011 without any alterations to the original blueprints. It’s a grand, sweeping 150-minute saga, infused with a level of schmaltz and corniness that no director has tried to get away with for a long time. Yet, it works under the careful control of veteran director Steven Spielberg, who brilliantly commits to the material, selling it with the right amount of conviction to render the enterprise sufficiently effective. Nevertheless, War Horse is not quite the masterpiece that many had anticipated, as it’s too long in the tooth and in need of a sharper pace.
At an auction, hard-drinking family man Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a spirited horse named Joey despite his poor financial situation. Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) instantly bonds with the animal, training his pal to plough fields and ride. However, Ted is forced to sell Joey to make ends meet, upsetting Albert as his equestrian companion is sent to the front lines of World War I. In the war, Joey changes hands on a constant basis, encountering the sympathetic Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a rural Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), as well as several members of the German military. Albert remains optimistic that he will someday reunite with Joey, enlisting in the army and enduring his own harsh wartime odyssey for the sake of his beloved horse.
Based on the young reader’s novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo (which was later made into a play for the London stage), War Horse is a charming story, steeped in pertinent themes and perfectly suited to Spielberg’s storytelling sensibilities. Joey is completely neutral in the war with no care for allegiances or politics, rendering him an ideal vehicle for crossing the lines in a WWI saga to explore both sides of the conflict. Even though the British and German soldiers battle one another, Spielberg casts both sides in a sympathetic light, using Joey as a device to highlight the human commonalities of the opposing forces. A number of powerful moments stem from this, including a beautiful scene in which a German and a British soldier leave their ranks to rescue Joey when he’s tangled in barbed wires. As they work together towards a shared goal, the soldiers treat each other as regular human beings, briefly breaking from the doom and gloom of the war and realising that they are could even be friends if it wasn’t for their governments. To be sure, however, there are a handful of saccharine-coated scenes in the film, and the story’s conclusion is overly optimistic and unsurprising. More problematic is the prolonged running time, leading to a somewhat sluggish pace. Sure, a lot of ground needed to be covered, but the film is often a bit distant, only successfully striking emotional chords on occasion.
From a technical perspective, War Horse is old-fashioned to extremes, stylistically similar to films like The Searchers and Gone with the Wind. It’s a gorgeous war epic, with Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski turning the picture into a masterclass of beautiful composition. The lighting is exquisite, and the framing is sturdy and patient, taking full advantage of the competent production values bursting with authentic period detail. When Spielberg’s camera heads to the battlefield, War Horse does go dark, depicting a substantial amount of wartime casualties. Nevertheless, the deaths are tastefully handled. This doesn’t feel like an R-rated film which was cut down to a PG-13, but rather a product of Hollywood’s golden age, creatively suggesting violence without showing a great deal, and the results are often harrowing. Spielberg’s sense of pacing is a bit off, but his contributions are otherwise admirable. Also effective is John William’s characteristically majestic score; not one of the seasoned composer’s finest works, but nevertheless a flavoursome accompaniment which enhances the film’s visual elements.
If the Academy Awards had a category for best animal performer, no doubt the eleven horses used to portray Joey would be collective shoo-ins. Even though Joey is just a horse, he has a remarkable sense of humanity and expressiveness to him, an extraordinary feat on the part of the filmmakers. As for the human actors, none of them appear for long, save for Irvine who receives a considerable amount of screen-time as Albert. Irvine is a fine performer despite his unknown status, ably handling the emotional requirements of the role and selling his love for Joey. A barely-present Emily Watson also makes a big impression as Albert’s mother, while recognisable actors like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch heighten the production’s sense of class and gravitas.
Sentimental motion pictures are incredibly divisive, as some people are driven to tears while others find themselves unaffected. War Horse is a polarising melodrama all the way through to its core – it is powerful at times, but for the most part it held this reviewer at arm’s length, and it’s far too long. Nevertheless, Spielberg has created a sweeping ode to Hollywood’s golden age, beautifully shot and assembled with proficiency, and although it’s not an instant classic or one of the bearded maestro’s best works, it is welcome to witness such a production in this day and age.