Article By: Dan Clark
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse works as a culmination of everything that is right with his directorial style…and everything that is wrong with it as well. On a technical side alone it is a marvel of the power of superior cinema. Spielberg brings an unapologetic old-fashioned filmmaking style that is completely absent into today’s market. Earnestness is so ripe its odor saturates you in a stench of childhood glee. However, that nostalgia sensation the film evokes comes off as a defense mechanism designed to cover up some major issues with its inner workings. Obviously War Horse is intended to exist is this fairy tale setting where a magical sentient horse has the uncanny ability to ease the wounds of all those he comes in contact with, but even that stylistic objective cannot excuse some of the overbearing sentimentality. Those who are a fan of Spielberg’s candid sensibilities will appreciate War Horse’s genuine approach. Those tired of Spielberg reverting to the emotional well is has long left dry may tire of sheer grandness of this venture.
Film is actually the third medium that has told the story of War Horse. It began as a children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo and then was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. You can see the influence these adaptations had on Spielberg. He taps into the grandeur of the novel, and stages many scenes as if he is placing you inside a makeshift theater. His camerawork works as improvised curtain—pulling back just at the right time to reveal a shocking element like a war-torn wasteland that shortly awaits these characters. The story works as a series of vignettes with a horse named Joey playing the galloping line connecting all the narratives. Right from the beginning Spielberg lets you know what you are in for as a wide-eyed Jeremy Irvine looks upon the birth of Joey with infectious astonishment. How he instantly falls in love with this horse comes off as a ploy to substantiate Joey as this transcendent animal of majesty. Luckily we are spared Spielberg giving us a talking horse who passes along life advice to an awkward teen, but what we do get is not far off at times. Seeing Irvine longingly look upon Joey with this yearning stare comes off as creepy and self-indulgent. It is a major issue as this relationship is the main crux the film is built upon.
Irvine plays Albert Narracott a farm boy growing up in Devon, England right before the start of World War I. Due to his father’s stubbornness at a local auction his family ends up purchasing Joey to plow their fields. Albert is slated to train Joey and during this training his bond with the horse only continues to grow. Unfortunately for Albert this bond is short-lived as they are forced to give Joey to army in order to save their home after their crop fails. This begins an adventure for Joey that sees him travel across Europe during the Great War. Throughout his travels he becomes a member of the British cavalry, a pet of a sickly young French Girl, and a work horse used to pull German artillery. Through these travels you see the entire impact of war. To the horrible conditions soldiers are put through to the effect it has on normal everyday citizen. Along each stop this little horse named Joey serves as a reminder of the innocence that is forever lost in the terrible tragedy we call war.
Spielberg is king at creating strong characters out of objects or animals that never say a word. He has done it famously in Duel , Jaws, and now War Horse. Out of all the characters on-screen Joey comes off as the most human. Spielberg really gets you to care about this character, even beyond the inherit feelings people have for animals in peril. When it came to the actual human characters caring for them provided more of a challenge. Jeremy Irvine’s performance as Albert was one of the worst culprits. At times he appears like a parody of a classic Spielberg character. His childlike wonderment was always on an unadulterated high. Unlike characters like Elliot in E.T. or Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun he was never given the opportunity to show an ounce of realism. Tom Hiddleston was the lone person who was able to thrive in this environment. He played Captain Nicholas the cavalry solider who bought Joey from Albert’s parents. Hiddleston’s storyline is a short breath of fresh air that I wished went on for longer. His line delivery is impeccable, and he has this classic charm about him that has not really existed since Cary Grant ruled the screen.
On a technical side War Horse has a lot to be proud of. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is classically beautiful. There is a mosaic ambience he creates with his use of lighting that enhances the fairytale atmosphere the story lives in. Sound and stage design also really hammer home some of the more climatic moments. Seeing Joey rushing through the No Man’s Land of a World War I battlefield was breathtaking in every measure. Of course everything is topped off with another John Williams score, although at times it tends to highlight what is not working more than augmenting what is working. When Spielberg is going for an emotional moment that lacks substance his score comes off as a ringing reminder of how hallow those moments are. It is simply Spielberg trying too hard to showcase his talents, and not enough time to showcase what makes these characters work.
War Horse does serve as a critical conundrum. When I look at how effective a film is I tend to see what a film is attempting to accomplish, and how successful it is at accomplishing those goals. If you were to create a checklist of what War Horse wanted to achieve more boxes would be checked then not. However, the failures that do exist are so large they overtake the triumphs. Many audiences will appreciate what War Horse has to offer—I just did not find myself in that group.