A family on the edge of poverty and losing their farm invests everything they have in Joey, a spirited horse they’ve purchased to assist in farming. On the eve of World War I, Joey is sold to a soldier and we experience the war through the eyes of this long suffering and supernaturally strong horse.
This is director Steven Spielberg’s first film in four years and he hasn’t lost his touch as a force of nature behind the camera. Full of visual and story nods to The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind and All Quiet on the Western Front, the filmmaking is frequently awesome, with World War I battle scenes staged as fiercely as anything in Saving Private Ryan. John Williams’ dependably powerful score is as gorgeous as the crisp, picture-perfect cinematography. It’s a good thing Spielberg is still a wizard at shaping huge, difficult set pieces, since he’s dealing with a story that is episodic and hokey.
Based on a novel that has become the most popular non-musical drama currently playing on Broadway, War Horse is likely an unforgettable experience on stage or the written page. As a movie, it entertains, even as it never convinces.
The tale is meant to symbolically convey how war separates us from our families, with Joey the horse the film’s real star, as the focus shifts from one owner of the horse to another. Even with actors like David Thewlis and Emily Watson in the cast, Joey’s close-ups are the ones that will win audiences over the most. The first act is a tall stack of clichés, with every grand moment from The Black Stallion and Black Beauty polished off and reworked.
Not a family film, as it has a scene where a horse thrashes about in a tangled sea of barbed wire that will disturb many. Yet, it is indeed rare to see a film portraying World War I and the PG-13 is more for the emotional intensity of the film rather than explicit violence.
The best scene is a wonderfully written sequence where two soldiers, from opposing sides of the battle, share an unlikely collaboration when they encounter Joey. A few key scenes are supposed to work our tear ducts but don’t because the non-horses are such thinly shaped, barely defined stock characters.
It’s all very well done but, when it’s over, I had no lingering emotional response, found the whole thing predictable and admired some choice moments rather than the whole. Like Spielberg’s occasionally thrilling but uneven Empire of the Sun, it’s so impressively produced that it deserves to be seen, especially on the big screen, where you can bask in some truly jaw dropping imagery.
It may not be one of Spielberg’s best, but maybe we should rejoice that the 65-year old filmmaker, one of the most powerful and influential in Hollywood, is still making films this ambitious, epic-sized and sometimes truly stirring.
The big final scene, which I won’t reveal, sums up the experience of watching the film overall: the humans in the scene should have us drowning in tears but it’s the astounding sunset that bathes a horse in the closing moments that truly mesmerizes and wows us.
Spielberg puts on a solid equestrian drama but we’re asked to believe so many contrived coincidences, he’s given us a story that always feels like a movie and never something remotely plausible. Metaphor or not, the tale might win you over because of the horse, not the talking, two-legged animals fighting the war effort.
Rated PG13/146 min