War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, and Tom Hiddleston, arrived on Blu-ray this week. This film will either pull you under Spielberg’s spell leaving you scrambling for the nearest box of Kleenex or it will leave you rolling your eyes. Regardless, War Horse is worth seeing at least once.
The film follows the journey of a thoroughbred horse from the English countryside through war torn Europe and back. Initially purchased by an alcoholic farmer, the titular horse is raised by the man’s son. Then World War I breaks out and the animal is impressed into the British military. From that point on, a variety of characters come and go, each being impacted in some way by the noble animal.
The trailers for War Horse make the film look like a young man’s epic journey through World War I era Europe to recover his beloved pet. That’s a little misleading as the primary protagonist of the story is the titular horse. This approach poses a few problems: namely, the star of the film is an animal that can’t speak or express emotion. Now don’t get me wrong, Steven Spielberg labors to turn the animal into a full fledged character. He just isn’t entirely successful.
The horse receives the same well-timed reaction shots that a human actor would receive in crucial moments, and John Williams’ epic, heart-string tugging score fills all of the necessary scenes with emotion. This horse certainly has more personality than anything you’ll see in a typical Michael Bay movie. But there’s no substitute for strong human characters and this movie is a little light in that department.
As a result, War Horse feels less like a structured, cohesive movie and more like a loose series of vignettes which only have the horse tying them all together. Characters drift in and out of the story like visions in a dream. Some die. Some disappear. Some return. Aside from the family we initially encounter, few of the characters get more than ten minutes of screen time, leaving most of the characters woefully underdeveloped. Most of the humans in the movie are given one or two strong traits and left at that.
Spielberg, however, is almost constitutionally incapable of making bad movies. This movie may lack a strong central protagonist, and at times, it may be infuriatingly sentimental, but War Horse exhibits all the fundamentals of solid, traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Spielberg has crafted an absolutely gorgeous film. Early scenes in the English countryside have the vibrant green look of Toilken’s Shire. The scenes depicting the horror of mechanized trench warfare are suitably murky and foreboding.
The film even contains a few scenes that are fairly breathtaking. A disastrous British cavalry charge on a German camp has the sweeping scope and clear cut editing of a vintage John Ford movie. Another scene depicting British soldiers crawling through no man’s land to capture a German position shares all of the carefully organized chaos of similar battle sequences in Paths of Glory (1957) or All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The ever present soundtrack contains arguably the most effective work John Williams has done in over a decade.
But while Spielberg never seems to make an outright bad movie (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull excluded) there seem to two distinct Steven Spielbergs: there’s the one that makes globe-trotting action-packed adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park and then there’s the reflective, maudlin one who makes movies like E.T. Interestingly enough, each half of the man directed a movie last year. The Adventures of Tin Tin represents Spielberg at his most adventurous and War Horse shows him at his most sentimental and manipulative.
Still, this isn’t a bad film by any means. I personally tend to favor the more adventurous flicks in Spielberg’s oeuvre, and I imagine that if he was more in that frame of mind during the production of this film, it probably would have more war and less horse. Then I might have enjoyed it a little more. Yet for all of the film’s flaws, War Horse is an enjoyable experience.