War Horse is a sprawling war epic that’s so old-fashioned it belongs in a museum. Not only has director Steven Spielberg painstakingly recreated the look and feel of a classical picture of this scope, imbued with a heavy dose of mid-century British formalism, he’s essentially made a carbon copy of a David Lean movie.
Such a nostalgic enterprise would be welcome if it told a story worth telling, with the strong, determined characters and bold cinematic brushstrokes of a Lean picture. Spielberg’s film does nothing of the sort — it’s a stodgy, ridiculous movie with a horse that simultaneously serves as an allegory for the bond that unites all mankind and a symbol of profound, idealized purity.
The picture follows Joey the horse as he passes from owner to owner, experiencing World War I along the way. He’s bought by poor British farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), just before the Great War, and trained by Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who’s a clean-scrubbed bundle of boundless idealism.
Once combat begins, Joey is shipped across the English Channel, where he finds his way onto both sides of the conflict. Various soldiers take possession of the horse; he participates in an ill-fated charge, aides in an escape from duty, and performs other traumatic tasks. The horse’s only brief respite comes when he takes up residence with French teen Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her kindly grandfather (Niels Arestrup).
War Horse has been adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis from the Tony-winning play by Nick Stafford and the children’s book that inspired it, written by Michael Morpurgo. Despite the widespread acclaim for the material, it’s hard to get past the fundamentally flawed fact that the audience is meant to feel a strong emotional attachment to a horse. That would work if this were something like Black Beauty, with its equestrian protagonist, but War Horse assumes we’re predisposed to care about Joey because he’s a majestic creature, I guess, and he’s had such a transformative effect on so many one-dimensional characters.
Those characters couldn’t be a less stimulating bunch. They’re a depressing allotment of dull personalities that speak in an aggressively mannered style. They’re artificial archetypes — the determined farmer, the good-hearted soldier — produced with an eye for overwrought stagy dramatics. To be fair, the screenplay doesn’t allot any of them enough time to reveal any extra dimensions, as it’s quickly on to the next owner.
At the same time, the treatment of World War I is so manufactured and tame that it can’t be taken seriously. Of course Spielberg isn’t aiming for a grungy, realistic portrait of trench warfare. The Great War’s version of Saving Private Ryan this is not. But the movie offers such a refined, tasteful portrait of a gruesome experience that it almost makes it seem like a sort of grand noble adventure.
Spielberg never lets you forget that this is a movie about a horse bestowed with the magical ability to bring out the best in the people surrounding him. There are many noble qualities imbued in Joey, none more ridiculous than his remarkable ability to sap the tensions from war. The filmmaker embarks on a full-on assault on your tear ducts that culminates when Joey is stuck in no man’s land, and “silly” human conflicts are put aside for the equestrian Jesus.
Veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s widescreen work is predictably impressive. Soldiers mount horses in a sweeping, golden wheat field and low angles impart the massive scale of the conflict. The images have a subdued gritty quality throughout some of the combat scenes. At the same time, the movie too often opts for a pristine, painterly approach, with the characters framed just-so against the sprawling countryside, as John Williams’ score predictably rises and settles and Spielberg hammers away at the audience.
The grandiose touches fail to disguise the movie’s pedestrian qualities, particularly the deadening predictability with which it imparts its dated vision. At times War Horse is too precious in its family audience pandering — for example, it could easily have lost the frequent cutaways to a honking goose waddling around the frame. At other times it’s so impossibly broad and wooden that its heart is submerged beneath the over-calculated exterior.
No matter what direction things go, though, it’s consistently clear that Spielberg was the wrong director for this material. And that might be what’s most notable about the whole thing.
The Upside: The widescreen cinematography is evocative, there’s a strong supporting cast and the occasional nice, tasteful, old-fashioned touch.
The Downside: The movie is impossibly dated and often laughably ridiculous, imbuing a horse with an impossible array of saintly qualities.
On the Side: If you saw War Horse on stage, we’d love to hear what you thought. It had to be better, right? Right?