by Scott Mendelson
It would almost be lazy to say that War Horse is 'the kind of movie they just don't make anymore', but it would also be explicitly accurate. It is a grand, sweeping melodrama complete with wide vistas, long takes, and soaring music that is intended to stir the soul. It is a simple tale that happens to take place during complicated times, and it touches upon the tragedy of its era while remaining focused on its core narrative, which is the journey of its title character. More than any other movie since Peter Jackson's King Kong, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is arguably operates as a textbook example of what 'going to the movies' is supposed to mean. But unlike so many recent odes to cinema or genre homages in the last few years, War Horse is an 'original' story (albeit adapted from a novel and a play) that stands on its own four hoofs. It is a flawed film, and much of its emotional impact depends on the viewer's affinity for horses. But when it's cooking, it's a pure, unadulterated MOVIE in the best sense of the word.
At its simplest core, the story of War Horse concerns a boy and his horse. The film opens as Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen) overpays for an impressive stallion and now faces financial ruin unless he can train this horse to plow a seemingly impossible field. But when the task falls to his young son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the young man and his new horse form a seemingly unbreakable bond. Alas, through unfortunate circumstances, the horse finds himself embroiled in what became known as The Great War, as he ends up 'fighting' on both sides on the conflict and irrevocably touching the lives of everyone he comes in contact with. The second and third acts of the film take place in and around the bloody conflict, as a generation of young men find themselves in the hell of battle and the horse finds himself struggling to survive.
The first act is arguably the strongest, as it remains tightly focused on the Narracott family and their struggles to pay overdue rent to a relatively unsympathetic landlord (David Thewliss, doing his best to infuse a mustache-twirling villain with token depth). The remainder of the film inevitably feels episodic, as the horse finds himself in the care of several different characters over the course of the war. Some of these tales are more dramatically effective than others, and I will only say that Niels Arestrup shines brightest in a sea of what frankly amounts to a series of extended cameos (Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Eddie Marsan are among those who pop up just long enough to be noticed). How much you become engaged in these stories will partially depend on how much you like horses. If you're the sort who is in awe of 'these magnificent beasts' and is able to relate to the struggles on an animal, then you're frankly going to be welling up far more often than someone who doesn't have any special affinity for horses. I was personally more moved at how 'Joey' motivated those around him to occasionally commit acts of unexpected kindness during a time of astonishing cruelty.
Where Spielberg shines brightest is in the big bold strokes of this epic picture. He successfully details the horrors of World War I and the arbitrary carnage it wrought without blood or gore, although animal lovers should be warned that we do see dead horses when the narrative demands it. Spielberg focuses on the confusion and terror that this 'first modern war' brought about, and implicitly condemns the conflict by refusing to explain why it even occurred (we are only told via announcement that "England is at war with Germany!"). While the British side comes off just a touch better than the Germans, Spielberg plays no favorites and takes no sides in what is arguably one of history's stupidest wars. At the very least, this violent but mostly bloodless epic will serve as a history lesson for younger audiences about what is perhaps becoming another 'forgotten war'.
Alas, the film stumbles a bit by indulging in a bit of needless 'yellow-highlighting'. John Williams's appropriately epic score is used to highlight every minor emotional beat to the point where it almost becomes comical. It also stops dead in its tracks at several moments so that characters can look almost directly in the camera and intone just how awesome the stallion really is. Quite frankly, despite constant assurances that this particular horse is indeed special, we see little evidence that he is different from any other horse. We are supposed to believe that Joey and Albert share a special bond and are supposed to hope for their eventual reunion, but I'm frankly not sure what was so special about Albert's training the horse to do back-breaking manual labor. In short, despite his declarations of love, Albert treats his horse no better than several of its temporary owners along the way.
Despite these token misgivings, and the fact that I'm not 'into' horses, Steven Spielberg's War Horse works as a sweeping piece of melodrama that works best perhaps merely as an advertisement for actually seeing films in a theater. It is a huge and genuinely epic picture, full of fine character actors, gripping combat scenes, gorgeous European locations, and the sort of old-fashioned entertainment value that we should not take for granted. As a starting point for the third act of Steven Spielberg's incomparable career, it is a clear sign that he has no intention of fading into irrelevancy or resting on his laurels. Most filmmakers would distinguish themselves by making a movie this good. That it merely exists in the middle of Spielberg's filmography is a testament to his longevity. War Horse may miss out on being a great film. But it is unquestionably a great movie.