Steven Spielberg makes a lunge for your heartstrings with War Horse. Or, as it might have been titled, One Bloody Thing After Another. In most such films the process of overcoming misfortune is incredibly inspiring, but in this one the sheer number of misfortunes is pretty incredible on its own.
A young man, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), watches a thoroughbred horse being born and is immediately taken with it. At auction, his father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse as much to spite his landlord as anything else, despite the fact that what he needs is a plow horse; Albert names his new horse Joey. His mother (Emily Watson) is right to worry, as their farm may go under for this unwise expense, and Joey isn’t made for plowing a stony field. But Joey — every bit as stubborn as Albert and his father — gets it done.
When the Great War breaks out, Joey is sold — the only way to save the farm’s — to an officer (Tom Hiddleston), who promises to return Joey to Albert. The first charge on the continent is a disaster, and Joey is captured by the Germans. He ends up with a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) for a bit before being conscripted again and pressed into service hauling German guns until the end of the war. Meanwhile, though originally too young to enlist, Albert enters the army himself in search of Joey.
Spielberg makes much of the slow transformation from the pastoral country sides of 1914 Devon to the blasted hell of the Somme in late 1918, but much of the war is not just glossed, but skipped entirely. If you didn’t pay close attention in history class and didn’t pay attention to the two establishing captions, you could easily believe the war lasted a matter of months or less.
And how can you portray the absolute horror that was trench warfare — including a major charge over the top — without seeing a single drop of blood? Whether shot, stabbed, or struck by shrapnel, soldiers collapse in a heap to die. Survivors are left with neatly cauterized scrapes or a rash from exposure to mustard gas. Blood, I suppose, would make people too sad for cheap sentimentality to buoy.
There isn’t much point in mentioning the acting; there isn’t much to speak of. We barely stay in one place long enough to develop any character beyond the point of caricature. Albert is stubborn and loyal; his mother is practical but defensive of her family; the landlord is as much of a jerk as any German commander; the French grandfather is world-weary. The only fleshed-out character is Joey, who is anthropomorphized more than any of the people around him.
As if it’s not already sweet enough: add strings. John Williams score is more than a match for the rest of the movie’s syrupy sweetness. I’m sure some people love this sort of diabetes-inducing glurge, but I need a bit of an edge to keep a film grounded. That’s where — despite popular opinion — We Bought A Zoo goes so right, and War Horse goes so wrong.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail