Contrary to popular belief, not every Steven Spielberg movie is made equally. There are the undisputable masterpieces (Schindler’s List, E.T.), there are those teetering on greatness (Minority Report, Close Encounters), there are the rousing entertainers (Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can), and then there are the stinkers (1941, Always, Hook). War Horse, Spielberg’s new World War I epic, falls into a fifth group of films which also includes A.I., War of the Worlds and Amistad – those movies bear the mark of the master but are nevertheless flawed. An unabashedly grand and old-fashioned epic that wears its emotions proudly on its sleeves, War Horse is Spielberg’s ode to the films of John Ford (How Green is my Valley, The Searchers) and David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) – filmmakers who inspired him as a child.
Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the tale of a “remarkable” horse that is bought by a poor and alcoholic British farmer named Ted (Petter Mullan), who buys the animal even though it’s incapable of performing plowing work. Despite this, Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) painstakingly trains the creature, that he affectionately names Joey, into a farm horse. When the family hits hard times at the advent of World War 1 and Ted is forced to sell Joey to a British Army officer (Tom Hiddleston), Albert is understandably devastated. From then on, the film evolves into a sprawling portrait of World War 1 through the eyes of Joey as he switches owners on different sides of the war – among them a pair of young German soldiers, a French girl and her loving grandfather (Niels Arestrup), and a tyrannical German officer who dumps the horse on the frontlines. It’s in these later sequences set at the frontlines of the war that War Horse truly comes alive.
As he proved in his previous war films Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg is a master of portraying the horrors, confusion and futility of war, and the trench warfare scenes in War Horse are no exception. What makes these scenes even more impressive is that he depicts all of this without the blood and gore. An extended sequence set in no man’s land might be one of the year’s most remarkable scenes. Coupled with Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography, John Williams’ grandiose score and Michael Kahn’s sharp editing, War Horse is one of the most polished productions of 2011.
What prevents War Horse from joining the upper echelons of Spielberg’s filmography is its inability to create a strong and compelling lead character to invest in, and its over-reliance on schmaltz to elicit emotions from the audience. While Joey the horse is technically the lead character, he still is a horse – an animal not known for projecting emotions. Because of this, there is no emotional anchor in War Horse. Additionally, despite the strong performances from the entire ensemble cast – especially Neils Arestrup as the grandfather, Petter Mullan as the drunken Ted and Emily Watson as his wife – none of the human characters (including Albert) are in the film long enough to register an impact. This is especially disappointing considering Spielberg is a filmmaker renowned for his warm and well-defined characters. Nevertheless, the strengths of this sweeping film are strong enough to outweigh its flaws and make it worthy of a recommendation.