War Horse (United States, 2011)

December 23, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
War Horse Poster

Over the last 20 years of his career, Steven Spielberg has often coupled a crowd-pleasing would-be blockbuster with a more serious-minded project. Thus, in 1993, he released Jurassic Park in tandem with Schindler's List. In 1997, there were The Lost World and Amistad. 2005 brought War of the Worlds and Munich. Now we have The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse (released within weeks of each other, and possibly competing for the same audience). Of the dramatic films Spielberg has released over the years, it can be argued that War Horse is among the least successful. Call it "lesser Spielberg" and put it alongside Always and Hook. War Horse is by no means a bad movie, but it feels less like the epic it strives to be and more like a loosely connected series of World War I-era vignettes. Its emotional punch doesn't deliver much force; War Horse's primary attraction is not the story of how it makes us feel but its impressive re-creation of the Great War's battlefields and some stunningly beautiful camerawork by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.

War Horse follows the adventures of Joey, a horse born and bred in Devon, who is the lone equine owned by Albert (Jeremy Irvine); his father, Ted (Peter Mullan); and his mother, Rose (Emily Watson). When the landowner (David Thewlis) threatens to foreclose on the farm unless the rent is paid, Ted sells Joey to army captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who rides the horse into the early battles of World War I. After Nicholls is killed in action, Joey is taken by the Germans. Over the next few years, he ends up pulling ambulances and gun wagons, and being the pet of a lonely French peasant girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Once Albert becomes old enough to join the British army, he never ceases scouring the front lines for Joey, even though the odds of him finding his beloved horse are worse than those of finding a needle in a haystack.

The principle difficulty faced by Spielberg and screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall is related to structure. Michael Morpurgo's novel was written from the horse's perspective - something difficult to achieve on screen without resulting to Mr. Ed tactics, which would have cheapened the production, reducing it to self-parody. Only in animated movies can animals talk without appearing foolish. So, although the primary character in the movie is Joey, War Horse focuses on the human characters during scenes in which the horse is present. This results in a large number of supporting individuals with whom we develop little emotional attachment. To the extent that we have an investment in the movie, it's related to Joey, but developing deep feelings for a screen horse, even one that has been anthropomorphized, is difficult. Since many of War Horse's big emotional moments relate to animals, Spielberg's celebrated ability to manipulate audiences is not as effective here as in some of his past endeavors.

Compounding the problem is the performance by Jeremy Irvine, the actor with the most significant screen time. Irvine, making his film debut, presents a flat Albert who is difficult to identify or sympathize with. The performance is frequently either too broad or too subdued; maybe that's a drawback of being forced to co-star with a horse. The rest of the cast, which includes well-respected character actors Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, and Emily Watson, as well as the veteran French thespian Niels Arestrup, is solid in what is decidedly not an actors' production.

War Horse's strength is its depiction of World War I, cinematically the most underrepresented conflict of the 20th century. All Quiet on the Western Front remains the most compelling and best-known tale from the trenches, but there are few movies (especially recent ones) to stand alongside it. Although Spielberg does not apply the same degree of bloody realism he employed in Saving Private Ryan to War Horse (the latter being designed as a family film), the conflict is effectively presented, albeit in a sanitized fashion. World War I was an enigma, as modern methods of waging war clashed with archaic ones, and technological advances forced changes to the more restrained and "gentlemanly" prior rules of engagement. War Horses, by their nature, were things of the past, and millions were killed during the course of the conflict. Spielberg captures these elements as well as any previous filmmaker working in this theater. One scene in particular, with a trapped horse being stalked by a tank, illustrates the senselessness of using "old school" tools in a "new school" battle. It is indeed like bringing a knife to a gun fight. War Horse may not succeed as well as might be hoped in generating a powerful emotional response, but its historical depiction does an outstanding job of transporting the viewer to the Western Front.

Mention must be made of the beauty of the final scene, in which the sky burns with oranges, reds, and yellows. Whether due to natural serendipity or contrived methods, the richness and warmth of the colors, which suffuse the background, add an element of poetry to the moment. These are the kinds of visuals that painters strive to capture; rarely are they conveyed this well on film. John Williams' score is the perfect accompaniment to the images Spielberg and Kaminski have assembled.

Combined with The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse marks Spielberg's return to the director's chair after a brief hiatus to lick his wounds in the wake of the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Although neither film could be considered "triumphant," each shows flashes of the elements that have made Spielberg so respected. War Horse is a crowd-pleaser, and better than many that bear that name, but it is not representative of the filmmaker in peak form. It's a solid, respectable effort but not a great one.

War Horse (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:26
U.S. Release Date: 2011-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1