Based on the novel and incredibly successful international mega-hit stage production, War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s latest grab for Oscar glory. Sorry, I mean latest lavish epic guaranteed to have the critics and audiences swooning. Sorry, I mean latest grab for Oscar glory.
Anyway, I will start with an admission. I have never seen the play on which this film is based. However, I have numerous glowing reports from people whose opinion I trust, and I would like to one day go and eventually see it. So, with that out of the way, and my suitability as a reviewer of this in question (or not) let’s get on on with it.
The story is your typical coming of age tale. Boy meets horse. Boy wins horse round with clicking noises, carroty treats, and ploughing the fields of rural pre-war Devon. World War I then kicks off, and the horse is taken away by the army, and ends up fighting for both sides, and experiencing the harrowing nature of war. Boy swears he will find horse.
Before seeing War Horse, I was in two minds about it. On one hand, the trailer hadn’t really excited me in the way I thought it would, and a two and half hour film about a horse didn’t really seem like my cup of tea. On the other hand, the source material was by all accounts excellent, it was a Spielberg film (and Tintin had shown he was back on form), and more importantly, it was a Spielberg film dealing with World War I. This is the recent master of war on film, and to see him tackle a period not often shown in cinema – which has yet to receive its definitive cinematic treatment – was enough to get me if not hyped for the movie, then definitely excited.
Unfortunately, War Horse isn’t the film it should be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film, and I’m sure it will do well and impress many people, but I was left wanting a lot more, and in fact was left a little bored and unmoved by the entire thing. At the risk of stating the obvious, the entire production felt a little stagy, and that powerful connection I was hoping to form with the characters never materialised, as I’m sure it would if you were to see real live actors on-stage.
By opening up the world and the possibilities of what the audience can see, it seems that a little piece of humanity was left behind, and I was left watching an incredibly well shot and well acted film, but for me an ultimately hollow and stilted one. I think I was lost from the beginning, as the idyllic pre-war world of Devon is set-up.
The film opens with the birth of our titular horse Joey, witnessed by our boy Albert (Jeremy irvine). No detail is left out, from Joey’s purchase, to training, to financial problems on the farm he belongs to, to the dramatic ploughing of the stony top field. In fact, the whole first act feels like Farming: The Movie, and sadly, that’s not what grabs me as an audience member. I also didn’t quite believe the relationships between anyone (horse included), and the country bumpkin stereotypes left me a little bemused.
When war breaks out, I was expecting things to kick up a gear, and I liked how the film shifted focus, leaving behind Albert and his rural world and following Joey into the army, with his new owner, Captain Nicholls, played by Tom Hiddleston, who infuses his character with a refined sense of duty mixed with a genuine measure of dignity.
This was my favourite part, as Joey is first trained to be a cavalry horse, and then sent to the front. Capturing the early days of the war, when everyone thought it would be over by Christmas, and just another imperial adventure for boys to be excited over, there is a real feeling of ominous dread at what has been unleashed. The soldiers all look incredibly dashing, and charge into the enemy with their swords, only to be quickly mown down by machine gun. The German soldier shouting in disbelief at the foolishness of the cavalry charge sums it all up.
Spielberg then goes on to show the real nature of modern warfare, with the mud, the chaos, the brutality and the sheer waste of lives. However, once again, it never truly connects, and in fact feels like it is being shown to you at a distance. I couldn’t wait to see how Spielberg would deal with going over the top, but somehow it didn’t quite work. It all felt far too sanitised. I was never immersed totally in the film world and was always aware that I was watching something fake.
Finally, while the various vignettes of Joey’s owners is a clever storytelling device and shows all the various military and civilian woes, it’s all a little neat and occasionally slow, robbing the film of any urgency or the feel of a sweeping epic, which it surely deserves. I found myself checking my watch during the screening, and I know from the muttered comments afterwards that I wasn’t alone.
It felt far too much like Spielberg by numbers, and not something invested with passion and heart, which it seems like the play deserved. It’s incredibly good looking but sadly artificial, which robs the ending of the emotional pay-off it had been building towards.
I truly wanted to love War Horse, and be carried away by it, but I just found it too much hard work.