Before I begin this review it’s worth making a couple of admissions. First, I have neither read the book nor seen the stage play based on War Horse. Second, I previously had no further knowledge of the plot than I had gleaned from the trailer for the film I’m about to review (which turned out to be a lot of it.) And so, onwards…
It’s a little known fact that I was the original author of the Wikipedia article on the London ‘Animals in War Memorial’, found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_in_War_Memorial. Naturally (I’m sure you’ll agree), that grants me privileged access to the sentimental spirit at the heart of this film, which is to my knowledge the only movie in existence focused primarily on the plight of horses during World War I. With that in mind – War Horse left me with two major insights: firstly, that the British remain far and away better period drama producers than Americans; and secondly, that Americans (or American film makers anyway) really don’t get rural England.
If you know anything about Tolkien, you’ll be aware that he was a devotee of rural England, who despaired of the industrialisation that threatened to eliminate the quiet beauty of English countryside. The Shire – the home of the simple country-folk: the Hobbits, was Tolkien’s manifestation of this understated winsomeness in his own imagined universe. Anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting English countryside will recognise this unique quality, and identify with Tolkien’s awe at it and despair at its loss. They will, however, not recognise it at all in Peter Jackson’s representation of the Shire in his Lord of the Rings film adaptations. As fantastic as those films are in my view, they fail utterly to represent Tolkien’s intentions in this specific area.
Peter Jackson’s representation of The Shire in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and John Constable’s The Hay Wain. If you don’t know which is which then I can’t help you.
Why have I mentioned all this? Because Spielberg’s representation of Devon in War Horse could be mistaken for Jackson’s version of the Shire, as long as you were willing to ignore the slight height differences of the cast. Everything from the bright green grass, to the different folk characters, to the village country japes comes straight out of the ‘old country’ representation of England that the Shire espoused to and that (one assumes) Americans take as gospel for English country character (even in modern times perhaps). Even stranger than this was how similar the dynamic between the horse, Joey, and his boy carer, Arthur, seemed to be to the relationship of Sam and Frodo in Jackson’s films (with Arthur being Sam). Maybe it was just the accents, but all the “come on Joey, you can do it, you have to push harder!” (probably not a direct quote) talk seemed extremely reminiscent to my ears.
Anyway, having covered that ongoing niggle of mine; let me move on to the rest of the film. It’s not awful. It’s quite nice. And there are occasionally enjoyable scenes. To begin with those – the scene depicting a British charge on what appears to be an undefended German position is well produced; quite stirring; and on-target in its intentions. Likewise, a scene featuring a friendly exchange between a British and a German soldier (which I won’t ruin by going into detail, and which you’ll identify if you see the film) is amusing and manages to convey the unease at their initial contact followed by their discovery of shared humanity in their common goal that is so often referenced in relation to World War I. It would however be difficult to find any others worthy of specific mention. The rest of the movie isn’t god-awful, but it certainly lacks anything special. Moreover, mediocrity is not the only charge at Spielberg’s feet. Characters are introduced with specific narrative purpose blatant from the offset, with no depth beyond this superficial functionalism evident at all. They are present while they share some interaction with Joey (the horse), attempt to perform their function as far as pointing out the horror of war, or the sadness of loss, or the cruelty of men is concerned; and are then expunged from the rest of the feature. As a result of their shallow characterisation, they fail almost entirely in achieving the pathos for which they were intended, and as such leave an audience struggling to care at their loss or stated troubles – which is some feat in a movie depicting a real world historical tragedy. The only two characters that have any significant time spent on them are Joey and Arthur, and each of those it turns out are fairly one-dimensional too (the horse is the more interesting in case you wanted to know, but I don’t object to that).
Auxiliary issues exist too. I object to a modern film having foreign characters speak English in a foreign accent rather than speaking the language of their intended nationality. Who is Spielberg afraid of alienating in carrying out this small measure of authenticity? Idiots who refuse to read subtitles in a small proportion of a film that focuses mainly on suggestive horse head movements to get its message across anyway? I suppose it’s a small mercy that a ‘thought’ narrative wasn’t recorded over the scenes featuring horses too; however, generally speaking this failure instantly lowers the tone and quality of this, and indeed any, movie. In addition to that, wonderful as he no doubt is when suited to the film, I felt John Williams was a poor choice of composer for War Horse. Understandably Spielberg wishes to stick with his stock choices, however I feel a composer more able to capture understated power and sentiment, Max Richter for example, would have been preferable to one so gifted instead in grand fantasy and grandeur.
Ultimately, War Horse is mildly enjoyable – mediocre to the extreme, and littered with faults; none of which condemn it as terrible but which together render it strictly in the middling territory of animal companion films, and in the lower equivalent of moving and inspirational tales, which is a shame. I, Wikipedia’s leading academic on London’s devotional statues to war animals, would have loved to love this.