War Horse

Movie Information

The Story: The story of a horse taken from rural England to be used in WWI -- his travails and the hopes of his young owner to be re-united with him. The Lowdown: Depending on your taste for Spielberg's old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle style, this will either thrill and move you, or slightly annoy you. Maybe a little of both.
Genre: Horse War Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch
Rated: PG-13

Yes, it’s got a war and it’s got a horse—in fact, a lot of them—and it even has a comic-relief goose. It’s big. It’s sprawling. It’s gorgeous to look at. It has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of a Steven Spielberg picture. It’s War Horse—all 146 minutes of it—and, whatever that says to you, its presence is impossible to ignore. I put off seeing it as long as I could because the trailer looked like everything I don’t like about Spielberg crammed into a very small space, and I suspected the film would be more of the same—only for a very long time.

Those suspicions—along with the feeling that War Horse would be the quintessence of the “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” mindset—were pretty much borne out by the film itself. But it’s one of those movies that resist simply being labeled “bad,” and from which you can simply move on, shaking your head. It’s too pushy to let you. For that matter, it’s not a bad movie. On a technical level, it’s a work of nearly breathtaking craftsmanship. The screenplay—or at least the dialogue—is also much better than it has any reason to be. My problem with the film is twofold. It’s so well-crafted that the craft was nearly all I could see—an observation that extends to the calculated moments of blatant emotional manipulation. My other problem is that Spielberg is just too Spielberg for me here.

The episodic story is almost Dickensian. Indeed, the film could begin with “Chapter One: I Am Foaled,” if it had a mind to, since it starts with the birth of the titular equine that comes to be named Joey by young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) when the animal is purchased in a fit of alcohol-fueled pride by his farmer father, Ted (Peter Mullan). Albert has been longing for this horse, but it’s a foolish purchase for his father, who needed a plow horse in the first place, and who, by this purchase, has just blown the money owed to mildly villainous—and clearly objectionable—landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) in the second. Of course, it falls to Albert to prove the beast’s worth by training it how to plow—and while this is accomplished against all odds, the story takes a leaf from The Yearling when the turnip crop is destroyed by rain. (It’s the kind of movie where hard luck comes in droves.)

At this point, WWI breaks out and Ted saves the farm by selling Joey to the army—over Albert’s protests—and we enter the period of Joey’s wanderings through the war from master to master, while Albert waits to become old enough to join up and possibly be reunited with his horse. From here, everything that happens is gauged for maximum manipulation and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work. Now, whether you’ll resent the brazen string-pulling or simply embrace it is up to you.

There are fine things in all this, and at least two fine performances—one from Emily Watson as the long-suffering wife of Ted Narracott, and one from Niels Arestrup (Sarah’s Key). The film’s big “war horse” scene in No Man’s Land, in which a Brit soldier and a German one cut Joey out of a tangle of barbed wire, is particularly fine—at least until it gets utterly Spielbergized by a cloying case of cute when the German calls to his comrades for another pair of wire cutters and a dozen of the things come flying out of the trenches as soon as he utters the words. (The goose would probably have done something cute here, too, but he’s wisely back in England—probably waiting for a call from his agent about a remake of Friendly Persuasion.)

If you’re in tune with the direcror, this is classic Spielberg. If you’re not, you may want to bang your head on the seat in front of you. He perhaps outdoes himself, though, in the film’s final moments, evoking classic Hollywood. The image of horse and rider against a sunset feels at first like something out of John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), but then—as the sky gets more and more deep orange red—Spielberg out-Menzies William Cameron Menzies’ Gone with the Wind (1939) production design. Yes, it’s striking in a wholly artificial manner, but I couldn’t help expecting Joey to think about it tomorrow at Tara. That, however, may have been the intention. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “War Horse

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    The screenplay — or at least the dialogue — is also much better than it has any reason to be.

    I wonder how much of that is from the play and how much Curtis brought to it.

    Did Benedict Cumberbatch make much of an impression on you in this? He’s having a big week, between this, TTSS and the new Sherlock movie.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I wonder how much of that is from the play and how much Curtis brought to it.

    I don’t think they bought the rights to the play — at least the credits don’t indicate it. But also bear in mind that Curtis did have a co-writer so it becomes hard to tell who did what.

    Did Benedict Cumberbatch make much of an impression on you in this?

    In this? No. He’s not in it very much really. In Tinker Tailor, yes.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    Actually, after consulting Webster’s, it should be “warhorse drama” as in we’ve seen it all before.

  4. Bob Voorhees

    The revbiew, while nodding to the emotional impact and visual beauty of the film, is Hanke at his worst — all the pseudo-worldly cynicism about affect, the focis on the director, movie history (Spielberg’s history), on movie-making craft etc., etc.
    Most people don’t care much about all this “inside stuff”; they go to movies to see plot, character, suspense, to be moved emotionally, to be entertained.
    This is one of the 4/5 most intersting movies I’ve seen in years. If Hanke could just table his pseudo-sophisticated snarling at what he sees as intellectually beneath him, he wouldn’t joke, for instance, about the pivotal scene in which the horse is freed from barbed wire by two adversaries working together, and he’d see the throwing of a half-dozen wire cutters as the comic relief (very Shakespearean) that it was intended to be instead of what he sees (ditto the role of the Aflack duck — charming stuff).
    The hero, of course, is the horse, and I was spellbound at his intelligence and performance.
    Please, an academy award nomination for this magnificent creature. I came out of the theatre vowing to read “Equus” again.

  5. Xanadon't

    I for one would’ve been psuedo-annoyed if I had opened the Mountain X up to find that I absolutely must see this film that I can’t muster up even a psuedo-interest in.

  6. Xanadon't

    Ha, er, pseudo-, that is. Apparently lack of sleep makes me feisty and a poor speller.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t gotten this much invective out of Mr. Voorhees since I failed to appreciate Mamma Mia.

  8. Justin Souther

    How much peanut butter would it take for the horse to give an entire acceptance speech?

  9. Edwin Arnaudin

    I was led to believe that the goose would have a more prominent role! Thanks a lot, man.

  10. Edwin Arnaudin

    Not enough good parts for geese these days. Gotta savor them when I can.

  11. Ken Hanke

    Get yourself a copy of Friendly Persuasion. That should settle you for all time.

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