DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
May Contain Spoilers!
This is the story of Joey: The Wonder Horse. Or was it something more like the meeting of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Black Beauty? Well, War Horse, adapted from the hit stage show, follows Joey from a foal to a stallion and through a series of vignettes, shows us both the evolution of the First World War and the devolution of the role of horses and the old school thinking of what war was, at that point.
We begin on a Dartmoor farm in 1914 with Albert (Jeremy Irvine), where for the first 44 minutes, Joey is trying to do the job of a working horse and plow the unplowable family field in order to save them from eviction. This is until Joey is sold to the army at the outbreak of the World War 1 and is now in the care of Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston), the nicest of the nice British cavalry officers, who vows to return to the horse to the boy after the war. Has this man just signed his death warrant? What do yo think?
From there we see the mentality of the British cavalry who still think that cavalry charges are the way to go in 1914, a lesson which is learned in brutal and tragic fashion. Needless to say that Joey ends up in German hands and after being stolen by two deserters, the horse the ends up in the care of a teenage French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather, following the capture of the two men.
The horses are then drafted into service to pull heavy artillery in order to shell the Somme, with piles of dead horse on their wake. It is here that the story comes almost full circle as guess who’s gone looking for his horse in WW1? You guessed it, Albert. It’s about this point that the film, which had so far, besides a few moments of anthropomorphism with the horse acting like a human, been a somewhat realistic portrayal of the First World War.
By the end, we had entered a world of Spielberg which I cannot stand, even though I feel that he is one of the best directors ever to pick up a camera. Shmaltzy and overly emotional, with a series of events which lead to the pair being reunited which I just found to be too difficult to accept. The problem here is that it is not clear how to take it. This is not Saving Private Ryan (1998), it is not a gritty and brutal portrayal of World War 1 but it does have it moments, particularly the cavalry charge which successfully demonstrates that the English were just as capable of the same brutality as their foe.
Then there’s the scene at the windmill, in which the two German deserters are executed by a make shift firing squad, yet we do not see them actually get shot as the windmill blades obscure the actual moment. This is Spielberg all over, a master of the art of film making. He makes, as he has here, beautiful films, and this artistry is constant throughout his career but he yo-yo’s between a balanced approach to emotion, details and the facts, details or plausibility becoming mired in the shmaltz.
Here, he begins reasonably well, though the tone is established at the beginning, but by the final half hour, the film became a ludicrous farce, with any truth or plausibility of the narrative being scoured away. The boy going to war to find his horse? Seriously? Finding his horse? Seriously? The entire British army caring about this? Seriously?
There was a context to Albert joining up and nice note at the end about the son following in his father’s footsteps and finally, though his horrendous wartime experiences, understanding the flawed man who was his father (Peter Mullan). But when all is said and done, the parts which drew me out of the movie more than anything were the overly anthropomorphised horses. There were just too many moments in which it was hard to tell whether this was an animated tale of two horses or a live action epic revolving around the beasts.
Basically, if you like E.T. then this is more than likely going to work for you but if, like me, you prefer Spielberg’s less sentimental and more realistic fair, then War Horse should be good enough, but not a classic.