“War Horse” reeks of Steven Spielberg. It has the kind of human-creature connections and wonder that we saw in “E.T,” the battlefield grittiness in “Saving Private Ryan”(“War Horse” takes place during World War 1) and finally a touch of the darkness we saw in “Schindler’s List.” The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is bright and joyful. John Williams’ instrumental score is whimsical and fluttery. Typical of any Spielberg movie.
It’s also, as near as I can tell, the first sweeping epic to come out this year. The very first scene is an overhead sweeping shot of the rolling, green, wide-open hills of England, and that shot is repeated a few times throughout. There’s a scene where the characters are silhouetted against a beautiful sunrise, like in a John Ford western. The script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (taken from the book by Michael Morpurgo) is vast, full of lots of characters from different perspectives.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with all that. Spielberg is very good at handling this material. The human-animal connections are strong and the few battle scenes are thrilling. A scene toward the end in which soldiers charge out of the muddy trenches will bring the D Day sequence in “Private Ryan” to mind. But, I dunno, there’s something mechanical about all of it. With the emotional stuff you feel more obligated to react to it instead of genuinely feeling for it and Spielberg has it down to a formula. Sometimes it’s happy and playful, then it’s sad and dark, then it’s upbeat again and then it’s sad and dark again. The movie feels specially designed to win awards.
Speaking of melodrama, the central story is about a horse, which is an emotional rollercoaster all by itself. We know there will be scenes of humans touching the horse’s snout and staring into its eyes. There are a couple majestic sequences of the horse galloping through those same rolling hills, as well as battle-torn France. On the other hand, there will be sadness. The horse gets stuck in barbed wire, it gets treated badly by other humans. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from horse movies.
Anyhow, the horse is named Joey, a Caramel brown thoroughbred. Young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) can’t keep his eyes off him from the very first time he sees him grazing in the field. When his farmer father purchases the horse, Albert trains Joey and bonds with him. The horse is stubborn at first and no one believes in him but Albert does. Everyone loves a good underdog story.
So, OK, some of this stuff teeters on “Horse Whisperer” but Spielberg is justified in doing it. Since the Albert-Joey relationship is the core relationship in the movie, Spielberg needs to establish it…by showing all the horse touching and sharing, so that we have a reason to care about them.
Now, this is where the vastness of the screenplay comes in. Due to money issues Joey is sold to British soldiers, where he is used in battle by Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddletson). But after a failed raid on a German camp Joey is sent over to the German side, where two sympathetic young German brothers look after him. Then he comes to another farm inhabited by a teenage girl and her grandfather, and then he goes back with the Germans where he’s forced to pull heavy armory but luckily he’s looked after by another kind hearted German armor man. Clearly Spielberg has had enough of portraying the Germans as cruel.
I get it; the movie’s supposed to be about the horse’s journey. How he goes around to all these places and meets different people and gets a lot of experience. And the horse is not your typical Hollywood trick pony, that’s for sure but frankly it’s all a bit much. There are more characters and stories than needed. A few moments stand out, like when the horse is caught in barbed wire and a German and English solider come out of the trenches and cut the horse out while bonding, because that kind of stuff actually happened in the real war. But others (like the girl and her grandfather) feel repetitive, or (like the German armor men) are underdeveloped.
Look, I know how Spielberg is drawn to these kinds of stories. I admire his ambition to do such a large-scale picture and I have no complaints about the acting except that no one is sensational. However, the movie is so melodramatic and there are instances (such as the very last scene) where Spielberg is trying too hard to pull at your heart strings that it’s overkill. Every bit of the emotion is calculated. But hey, there’s one thing you can say about a Spielberg epic: you get your money’s worth.