Fair enough. I interpret Scott’s plea as a call to check my cynicism at the door, and try as I might, I couldn’t do it. To be sure, the film, which can only have been the work of Steven Spielberg, is an impressive production, but I just felt too manipulated to soak in what others may enjoy. This film may be the litmus test of the year. I don’t begrudge others who may find themselves weeping at the end, but my tear ducts remained dry.
As one of its stars, Emily Watson, termed it, the film is “Black Beauty goes to war.” For those who somehow made it through childhood without reading Black Beauty, that’s the story that is told from the point of view of a horse, who moves from owner to owner, good and bad. War Horse adds the element of World War I, as our horse in question, Joey, moves from English to French to German owners, emotionally touching everyone he comes in contact with. Horse lovers will respond to this more than others, I suspect, but it’s a tricky move, because the central character–the horse–isn’t really a character, he’s a creature that others respond to. It’s hard to feel like one is in the shoes of a horse, not only because they are nailed on. We get used to one of his owners, then we move on, and the film becomes a series of herks and jerks that is inevitably leading to a reunion with his original owner.
That original owner is Albie Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). His father (Peter Mullan), in a fit of exaggerated pride, spends much too much on the horse while at an auction looking for a plough horse. Joey, as Irvine names him, is a thoroughbred, not made for farm work. Watson, as Irvine’s mother, is outraged, as Mullan has spent the rent in a foolish gesture. Irvine must train the horse to plough the field to get the necessary crops for the rent, so the first half hour of the film is all about whether a horse can plough.
Things pick up when war is declared, and Mullan sells Joey to the army. Irvine is aghast, but his new owner (Tom Hiddleston), a captain, assures him he will take care of him. But in an ill-thought cavalry charge, Joey ends up in German hands. He is tended to by a soulful young German soldier (David Kross), and then ends up at a French farm, beloved by a little girl and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). I last saw Arestrup as a vicious criminal in A Prophet, so to see him as kindly grandfather was jarring.
And so it goes for Joey, until he ends up tangled in barbed wire in the no-man’s land between British and German lines. In the best scene of the film, a British and German soldier call off the hostilities long enough to free him, Spielberg’s admittedly unsubtle way of telling us that war is bad and we’re all horse-loving brothers under the skin. While the message is trite, the filmmaking is superb.
And there are times when the genius of Spielberg, despite his over-reliance on sentimentality, shines through. I’m thinking specifically of an execution that is shot through the slowly revolving blades of a windmill, or a pulse-pounding tracking shot that follows Joey racing through the war trenches. And the final shot, photographed by Janusz Kaminski against a setting sun that recalls the end of the first act of Gone With the Wind, is over the top in emotional manipulation, but is beautiful to behold.
At this stage of his career Spielberg may be in an impossible situation with jaded viewers like me. He’s proved everything he could ever possibly prove, so to expect him to continually re-invent himself is probably futile. This is the stuff he does best, and as far as that goes War Horse is quintessential Spielberg. It doesn’t have the wonder of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the depiction of war is not as uncompromising as Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. But, as he has been quoted, he wanted to make a movie that could have been made 50 years ago, and he and Kaminski studied the films of John Ford to try to achieve that. But, as Orson Welles said of Ford, whom he considered the great master of film, “Sentimentality was his vice.” The same can certainly be said of Spielberg. But for those lean toward the sentimental, War Horse will prove to be a richly rewarding experience.
My grade for War Horse: B-.