THE STORY – Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved horse, Joey, live on a farm in the British countryside. At the outbreak of World War I, Albert and Joey are forcibly parted when Albert’s father sells the horse to the British cavalry. Against the backdrop of the Great War, Joey begins an odyssey full of danger, joy and sorrow, and he transforms everyone he meets along the way. Meanwhile Albert, unable to forget his equine friend, searches the battlefields of France to find Joey and bring him home.
THE CAST – Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston & Benedict Cumberbatch
THE TEAM – Steven Spielberg (Director), Lee Hall & Richard Curtis (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 146 Minutes
Look, it’s “War Horse.” If you were to take a million polls as to what everybody’s favorite Steven Spielberg film was, “War Horse” would come up barely at all. It exists on the fringes of the most successful filmography of all time, destined to be debated by completists as to whether it was a dud or a forgotten masterpiece. When in reality, it’s neither. “War Horse” recalls several different Spielberg films, but its success is measured less by how it compares to those earlier films and more by its ability to distinguish itself as something new. In some ways, it’s staggeringly effective, and in others, it represents the nadir of Spielberg as a master prone to mawkish sentimentality.
The film is about Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a farm boy living in the British countryside during World War I. Albert is forced to part ways with his beloved horse, Joey, whose father sells it to the British cavalry. Unwilling to accept that Joey will die on the battlefield, Albert searches the battlefields of France in an effort to bring him home. The sentimentality is dripping from this premise, unavoidably so, and Spielberg squeezes every last drop he can from the film’s expansive 146-minute runtime.
The artistry of the film is immaculate. There have been lots of critics who refer to “War Horse” as Spielberg’s homage to John Ford, and given the prominent role that Ford played in Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” (2022), it holds weight. The final scene, with its orange sunset and silhouetted characters, is the sort of thing Ford would have killed to have shot himself. It remains devastatingly beautiful more than a decade later, a moment so encased in movie magic that it feels beamed from another era.
The kineticism of some of the director’s earlier war films, “Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), are evoked in combat scenes. Still, the depiction of war as a whole takes on an elegiac tone reminiscent of Ford’s westerns. It’s interesting to see Spielberg challenge himself with these seemingly incongruous tones, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is right in step with him, pulling every bit of serene imagery he can get out of trenches and muddy battlefields.
The ensemble is similarly impressive, packed with actors rarely associated with Spielberg yet manages to imbue his story with dramatic heft. David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, and Benedict Cumberbatch shine in parts that feel tremendously lived-in despite their limited screen time. Irvine is similarly affecting as Albert, and the scenes in which he is frantically interrogating soldiers in search of his horse are some of the strongest in the entire film.
It’s in the structure of the film that things falter. “War Horse” spends a great deal of time following the titular horse through a series of owners and military scraps. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis occasionally miss the mark when it comes to maintaining the viewer’s investment. There’s only so much emotional projection one can place on a horse, and the (arguably more compelling) stories that unfold around Joey generally take a backseat to him. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it does lead to moments like the climax, where combat stops and armies and hospitals are stilled so that Albert and his horse can reunite.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this moment. In fact, it’s very moving. The juxtaposition of an extremely realistic setting and an extremely fantastic, fable-like event leads it to feeling somewhat unearned. Hollow even. All the pieces are in place, and Spielberg’s technical ability is sharp as ever, but the effect is dulled when you take into account its improbability. Spielberg has frequently kept the grounded and the fantasy in separate camps: “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Munich” (2005), and “Lincoln” (2012) in the former; “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Hook” (1991) in the latter. “War Horse” attempts to fuse them together, and the results can be tonally awkward.
“War Horse” is a solid effort from an all-time filmmaker, so it will always be looked upon as lesser. If someone else had made it, its reputation might be better, but as it stands, it’s a solid effort with some remarkable flourishes and structural flaws.