WAR HORSE - (146 min.)
Throughout his long and successful career as an American filmmaking icon, Steven Spielberg has always saved room for those who came before him. In 2001, AI, his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick became a visual homage to the late great auteur after Kubrick’s unexpected passing. Spielberg’s finest suspense films, no matter how big the scale, all save room for the inspiration of Hitchcock. War Horse, Spielberg’s latest war film, is a full-blown return to the grand epics of John Ford and Victor Fleming littered with tints of Frank Capra. In this wildly uneven picture, Spielberg comes full force with the sap and the sweeping musical score, overreaching for every tear he can find from the audience. But in between the moments meant to invoke sentiment, it is clear there is no better filmmaker out there when it comes to shooting a battle sequence. I may sound a little hard on War Horse, and even doing this makes me feel like a grumpy jerk; that’s how sweet and good-hearted this film is.
The film stars any number of human actors, but this is directly a story about Joey, the horse who is adopted at first by a poor farmer and raised by the farmer’s son. Ted, the father (Peter Mullan), is a decent man who drinks too much to hide scars of war, and when he sees Joey at a town auction he spends entirely too much to boy him when what he needed was a plow horse. Ted’s wife, Rose (Emily Watson) scolds him and fears losing everything. Their son, Albert (solid newcomer Jeremy Irvine), an overly-earnest young man, promises to break in Joey and train him to plow the fields. And thus an unbreakable bond between man and beast is formed and will carry the rest of the film, thank you montage sequences.
It isn’t long before World War I erupts across Europe and Joey is reluctantly sold to passing military troops. The soldier who is to ride Joey into battle promises to watch him; Albert promises he will see his horse again. This is one of many moments where I began to wonder the extent of horse-human relationships, and whether or not Joey even remembers Albert ten minutes later. But I allowed myself to suspend these curiosities because this is a movie, ad a deliberate type of movie looking to stir certain emotions. I opened my heart, so to speak.
And so Joey goes into battle and comes out of his first tour with a new horse friend. He and his new friend, a black stallion, are found by a young farm girl living with her grandfather (the wonderful European actor Niels Arestrup) and they live for a while until the next troop of soldiers come through and take what they need. This time, it is the wicked German army, and Joey is forced into grueling labor for the enemies. This is where I was once again distracted, this time by the lack of German spken by these German soldiers. They all seem to speak fluent English, without even a mix of German words. I found this very hard to believe. Was this all to avoid subtitles? Because if so, shame on you Mr. Spielberg.
And so the story of Joey goes until the final grand battle, where things greatly improve for the film. Spielberg, and his longtime cinematographer Janus Kaminski, are marvels when it comes to introducing audiences to the disorienting fog of war. While the scenes here are decidedly less graphic than Saving Private Ryan for the sake of a holiday audience, there is still the feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the horrors and brutality of being stuck in the trenches . In between the two lines is where joey find himself, alone, dirty, and tangled up in barbed wire. The best scene in the film involves two opposing soldiers working together to free this “miracle horse.”
War Horse is a collection of inspirational moments as predictable as night and day, but I suppose that is part of the plan here. Which maybe makes a critique of the film’s predictability unfair. Spielberg is channeling those films of John Ford, the great Westerns with the sweeping landscapes and painterly skies. And you cannot tell me that final scene is not a direct nod to Gone With the Wind. But the exercise feels forced most of the time. And outside of a few solid performances, none of the human actors feel all that genuine or seem too interesting. Those battle scenes are thrilling, yet those sappy scenes in between which take up the majority of the picture are full of characters less interesting than the one with the long face.