This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Near the end of Steven Spielberg’s epic World War I melodrama War Horse, a German soldier and a British soldier venture out into No Man’s Land, alone, to rescue a horse caught in the barbed wire. The British soldier waves a white flag. The German brings some wire cutters. The devastated landscape looks like hell on earth. The massive armies amassed on either side of the battle line hover in silence as the two enemies meet to work together to cut the horse out of its prison. The British soldier takes the wounded horse back to the British side, and the German soldier returns to his side, and then, after that breather, the war continues. Reminiscent of the famous “Christmas truce” in 1914, when freezing British and German soldiers called their unofficial truce in order to meet up in No Man’s Land to play an impromptu soccer game, the scene of a brief trembling “truce” in War Horse shows, even more than the scenes of mass slaughter, the horror and meaningless of war. It is one of the most effective scenes in the film, which unfortunately tips over into cornball sentimentality from almost the first frame.
When a messenger gallops into the small Devon village announcing at the top of his voice that war has been declared, and then points up at the church tower shouting, “Those bells will not ring until the war is over!”, what do you want to bet that the film’s closing moments will feature those bells ringing? Is it necessary to telegraph to the audience their eventual catharsis from moment one? John Williams’ overwrought score compounds the problem. War Horse demands too much. It is too insistent in its claim on the emotions. There is enough here, there is no need to push so hard, but Spielberg pushes.
Based on Michael Morpugo’s best-selling children’s book, first published in 1982 (the year Spielberg’s E.T. hit the theatres), it was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford. The hit play, featuring giant puppets, is still running at Lincoln Center.
Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is an adolescent living in the beautiful British countryside when the horse Joey first comes into his life. His parents (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) struggle to farm their small plot of land and are perpetually behind in the rent, causing much discord with the sleazy landlord (David Thewlis). The family needs a hearty plow horse to dig up the rocky field, but Mr. Narracott, a mainly useless drunk with a bad leg, buys the young thoroughbred at an auction. The skittish horse has to learn how to plow, and there are some sequences of the young Albert taking on the training and taming of the horse. When World War I is declared, Mr. Narracott sells the horse to the British army, and Albert, too young to go to war, watches with tears in his eyes as the horse trots off to the front.
From that point on, we follow the horse.
The horse is first used by a kindly British officer (Tom Hiddleston, he who was so charming as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), who promises Albert that he will take good care of Joey, and, if possible, return the horse to him after the war. After a surprise attack on a German camp, the horse is captured by the Kaiser’s army. Two young German soldiers go AWOL, taking the horse with them. The horse is hidden in a windmill on a French farm, and is discovered there by a little French girl (Celine Buckens) who lives with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). After a pastoral respite, the horse is once again re-captured by the Germans, and then follows an absolutely brutal sequence showing the horse enduring its backbreaking (literally) work.
The war rages on for years, and finally Albert is old enough to enlist. He has never forgotten Joey. He hopes to meet up with him again.
By that point in the film, there has been so much slaughter it was difficult to re-invest in the boy’s love for his horse. 35 million people died in World War I. The Spanish flu epidemic broke out in 1918, a direct result of the worldwide conflict, and wiped out 3% of the world’s population. World War I was a disaster for the human race, whichever way you look at it, and while a boy’s love for his horse is sweet, Spielberg’s mastery at portraying the terror of war works at cross purposes with the underlying sentimental theme. There’s been too much realistic carnage. It’s exhausting to even contemplate the enormity of the human death toll. The final uplifting scene in the army hospital, played to drawn-out and almost shameless length, is too little too late.
It is obvious why Spielberg would be drawn to this material. It’s about war, and the men who fight it. It’s about hope found in the middle of catastrophe. It’s about a boy becoming a man. Albert has a mystical connection to his horse.
Some of the greatest movies made by the studio masters in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, walked the line between sentiment and sentimentality, and Spielberg’s own career is full of examples of both, sometimes in the same film. He is a personal and emotional filmmaker, in a continuum with John Ford, whose The Quiet Man Spielberg references often in War Horse. Spielberg chases after what pleases him because he has learned that it will please the audience, too. With War Horse, he wanted to make a film that looked like a film from 50 years ago, and it is shot by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to brilliant effect, using wide-angle lenses, a lush unembarrassed color scheme, and a blatant use of artificial light even in the exterior shots. This is not realism. It’s Hollywood, baby, and it is one of the movie’s strengths. Its look is a sweeping tribute to the great cinematographers of the past and there are moments that call to mind Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind declaring in the dramatic war-ravaged field against a violent fake sunset that she will “never go hungry again”. The look of War Horse is perfect for the material, and there are some standout scenes: the surprise attack on the Germans through the wheatfields, the horse galloping through No Man’s Land to the accompaniment of gunfire and grenade blasts, and the aforementioned private two-man truce to free the horse.
Trench warfare was a particularly brutal phenomenon, and War Horse depicts it with unflinching reality. There is a poignant moment, a truly Spielbergian touch of humanity, when all of the British soldiers, one by one, drop their valuables and unsent letters into a bucket before charging up out of the trench to meet the enemy. These objects will be sent home to their families should they die, which they all know they probably will.
It is in such moments that War Horse works, in spite of its sentimental self.