War Horse (2011)

Film #21: War Horse (2011)

For the past half-decade, Steven Spielberg has been much busier producing films than directing them. Since 2005’s Munich, the only film he directed before 2011 was the regrettable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Perhaps to make up for that dearth of direction, last year saw the release of two Spielberg-directed films: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. While the former was released to much acclaim – even taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – the latter had more of Spielberg’s ‘epic blockbuster’ feel to it. War Horse received plenty of accolades itself, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, but its sentimental tale set during World War I didn’t quite win over everyone. After watching it myself, I’m not surprised.

War Horse is about, as its title would suggest, a horse. The thoroughbred is purchased by a lower-class Englishman named Ted Narracott in a senseless act of ego-stroking in an attempt to one-up his antagonistic landlord Lyons (David Thewlis, best known to this reviewer as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films). Well, turns out that thoroughbreds aren’t best for plowing fields, and since Lyons drove the price of the horse sky high, Ted and his family are suddenly in some serious financial straits. Luckily, he has a plucky young son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who takes it upon himself to train the horse. He names it Joey, and together they forge a deep and meaningful man/stallion friendship.

What? They love each other.

The first hour of War Horse plays like your standard underdog story. Everything is seriously cookie-cutter. From the unlikely way that the horse is obtained in the first place, to the rain-drenched scene where Joey finally pulls through and starts to plow properly, the beats of this story have been copied and pasted a thousand times over before. It’s not to say that these moments are done poorly – indeed, the acting is as flawless as one would expect from a Spielberg film, and even the cliche instance where Ted nearly shoots the horse out of frustration is done in a way that will make your heart skip a beat – but there’s just no originality anywhere in sight. That might not bother you as a film viewer; it was enough to bore and ultimately repel me.

After a rainstorm floods the field, Joey is sold into the service as a war horse, and the story takes a Call of the Wild-esque path as he passes through owners in a long series of wartime episodes. First a British officer, then two young German soldier brothers, then a French man and his granddaughter, then back into the German army. Joey affects all of the characters who encounter him in a certain way, but I was disappointed that these vignettes never amounted to any greater whole. Yeah, everyone is moved by this “remarkable horse”, but nobody, including Joey himself, seems to fundamentally grow from their experience with him – indeed, for the most part, it just seems like everyone who takes a liking to the horse is condemned to a violent death.

Joey being discovered by his fourth owner / curse victim, a young French girl played by Celine Buckens.

The last hour of the film is filled with intense war scenes. The cinematography in these epic battles is downright spectacular, and the excitement is leaps and bounds above that of the plodding first act. It’s this part of the film that finally starts to form some semblance of a message. World War I is usually passed over by cinematic treatments for its bigger brother. That second world war is full of things that are forever ingrained in the global human psyche – Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, the towering world leader figures of FDR, Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill, and the first and only wartime use of nuclear weapons. These are all things that are easy to draw stories and drama from. World War I, in contrast, is a forgotten war. Most Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what it was about. A conflict in the Balkans that rapidly escalated because of alliances and nationalism isn’t as consumable a narrative as Hitler and his terrifying domination of Europe.

But War Horse shows us why we can’t forget “The Great War” (as if a violent and destructive global conflict could be ‘great’). We can’t forget it because it is the quintessential example of pointless war and needless loss of life. It took place while the world was in transition, with old modes of warfare finding their futility in the face of advanced weaponry. The first indication of this in War Horse is when Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) and his cavalry are killed charging a camp lined with machine guns. The Germans berate the British officer for his arrogance, pitting horses and bayonets against fast-speed killing machines. These sentiments are echoed in later scenes where a victory is cut short by an explosion of mustard gas, and Joey is backed into a corner by an armored tank.

Joey don't give a damn, though.

The most glaring example of World War I’s unparalleled inanity, though, is the trench warfare that defined the conflict. War Horse shows how ridiculous it all was: Officers demanding that young men charge to their deaths in order to win inches of ground, to nudge the front immeasurably in the direction of the opponent. The most exemplary scene is one where Joey gets caught up in no-man’s land, wrapped in barbed wire, writhing in pain. An Allied soldier waves a white flag and goes to rescue the animal; when his efforts are unsuccessful, he’s joined by a German opponent, who helps him free Joey with a pair of bolt cutters. The two soldiers strike up a tenuous friendship during their rescue; they have no personal grievances, and indeed, no real differences without commanders ordering them to kill each other. The scene is similar to the film’s early sequences – simple and sentimental – but it’s well-earned after the film delves so long in the horrible atrocities of the war.

It’s not a criticism that I like to use generally (of anything artistic, not just film), but I simply didn’t “get the point” of War Horse – unless the point is to show that you can’t make an epic movie out of anything you want, like the personal journey of a thoroughbred. Although it’s grand from a technical standpoint and paints a well-needed picture of how World War I was, War Horse ends up feeling as pointless as the war it depicts.

Final rating: 6.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Full disclosure: I watched this movie under the crushing weight of sleep deprivation after pulling an all-nighter. That very likely affected how I felt about a two-and-a-half hour long film about a horse. Your experience may vary.
  • Oh, hey: Best horse acting ever. No joke. Good on those trainers and those horses.
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