Review: War Horse

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I’m going to begin my review of War Horse by taking the unusual tack of quoting another critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “You may find yourself resisting this sentimental pageant of early-20th-century rural English life, replete with verdant fields, muddy tweeds and damp turnips, but my strong advice is to surrender. Allow your sped-up, modern, movie-going metabolism…to calm down a bit. Suppress your instinctive impatience, quiet the snarky voice in your head and allow yourself to recall, or perhaps to discover, the deep pleasures of sincerity.”

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-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. I saw this last weekend, and mostly I just thought it was long. I can’t even say I particularly liked or disliked it, just that it went on forever.

    But I also didn’t really get it. What was this movie really about? I still have no idea. It all seemed so pointless to me. It’s like the world’s first wartime dramatic shaggy dog story. Like I say, I didn’t really like or dislike it, so I don’t even mean that as a criticism all that much. I’m just honestly puzzled. What was the deal with this movie?

  2. I have a friend who saw the Broadway play, and was knocked out, but mostly for the puppetry of the horses. I suspect that that hid the essential problem that you point out, that this is simply a story about a boy and his horse–it’s just an update of Lassie, Come Home, with guns.

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