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.