Sometimes it’s obvious when a big name director is actively trying to win ALL THE OSCARS. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is one of those painfully obvious movies, but that’s not to say that the film is at all bad or unwatchable. This tale of a young man and the horse that touched the lives of everyone who came in contact with it is a splendid World War I yarn made with the skill and craft one would expect from a Spielberg production, but one can’t seem to shake the feeling that it’s all a bit overbearing.
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel that inspired the beloved stage play, War Horse begins by telling the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his bond with a seemingly useless wild horse that his father (Peter Mullan) purchased simply to spite his landlord (David Thewlis) in a drunken bit of braggadocio. The horse, named Joey, is barely able to perform simple farm tasks, but can move faster than any other horse that outwardly seems bigger or stronger. When his father’s farming plans take a turn for the worse, the already financially desperate family sells Joey to the mounting war effort.
The set up for the film is top notch stuff despite Spielberg and composer John Williams laying the sentiment on as forcefully and unsubtly as possible. Neither of them are really doing anything that they haven’t done in the past and better, but the film finds great strength here in the camerawork from Spielberg’s frequent ace in the hole, Janusz Kaminski, and from a great cast that sadly drops out of sight after the first 45 minutes of the film.
Irvine is a fine, if bland, choice for what’s ostensibly the leading human role, but Mullan, Thewlis, and Emily Watson (as Albert’s mother) are all so good that one wishes the entire movie was simply about their interactions with the horse. Once the actual war hits, the film remains watchable, but it stumbles greatly.
Once Joey is brought into battle, the film becomes an exploration of how war changes people on an emotional level. After being handed off to a soldier (Tom Hiddleston) who vows to take great care of him, war gets in the way and the ownership of the horse constantly changes though cycles of death, robbery, and chaos. The horse finds its way into the lives of a pair of German brothers determined not to split up, a Frenchman and his ailing daughter, and a German horse herder who has the animal’s best interests constantly in mind to the chagrin of his superiors. Meanwhile, after losing contact with the man who knows his horse’s whereabouts, Albert has joined the infantry with the sole purpose of finding the animal he spent so much time and love on training.
Again, everything that shows up on screen looks immaculate, and the impressive horse training and animatronics take over this section of the film beautifully, but it’s also painfully obvious during this section of the film that one of the co-writers is Love Actually scribe Richard Curtis. This film has all the hallmarks of one of his overstuffed, but entertaining comic epics. Across the two hour and twenty six minute running time of War Horse, the number of lives Joey the horse touches starts to get a bit ridiculous. These vignettes are also barely given enough screen time to register with the audience, giving the whole affair a feeling like an anthology film has broken out in the middle of a much better and more tightly constructed one.
War Horse might work better on the page or on stage. I can’t really say because I haven’t read the book or seen the play. It’s hard to say if War Horse should be pruned down to get to the real meat of the story or if it would work better as a BBC miniseries. General audiences should have little trouble gravitating to the story and the emotion behind it. The film comes together very neatly at the end, but the length and the middle third of the film act like an oversized plow on the back of a noble beast. It’s slowed down and held back from ever achieving its full potential.