At its core, War Horse is an anti-combat film about the cowardice of man in comparison to the bravery and unflinching determination of animals. It sounds like it were tailor-made for Werner Herzog. In actuality, it’s a Steven Spielberg picture, and one of the soggiest of his career. Although Spielberg has never been afraid of embracing cold, hard reality and human brutality, he often spends the final moments of his movies reminding us that everything will be all-right. In War Horse, he spends the entire runtime comforting the audience, and seeks only to recall the overly-romantic and consequence-free battle flicks of old, rather than his own, more recent exploits in the genre (Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Munich). In the process, he obfuscates the unique central theme, and delivers a stock-standard family flick instead. The final product is entertaining enough, but ultimately underwhelming.
Proceedings kick off in the early 1910s, with drunken Boar veteran Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) unwisely bidding his entire livelihood on a young horse at a Devon farmer’s auction. As his long-suffering wife Rose (Emily Watson) points out, the beast is too small and too weak to plough the field. However, their son Albert (the still-wet-behind-the-ears Jeremy Irvine) takes a fancy to the steed, christening him Joey and pledging to make him the best darn farming horse the south of England has ever seen. His resolve does indeed pay off, but not even Joey’s freakishly good ploughing skills can keep the Narracott’s out of debt at the onset of World War One. Ted is forced to sell the horse to foppish Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who promises to return it to the protesting Albert once the Gerries have surrendered. So begins Joey’s epic quest across Europe throughout the entirety of the Great War, during which time he will belong to frightened English soldiers, German deserters, and briefly to an old Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens) caught between two invading forces.
Although War Horse is schmaltzy to a fault, it’s not without movie-saving highlights. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan are wonderful as always; the sweetly tragic digression with the French family is time well spent; the clashes between the Allies and the Central Powers are fairly jaw-dropping; and Joey’s late dash through No-Man’s-Land is as stirring as cinema gets. Also, the 14 different horses used for Joey do some fine work (hey, equine actors deserve credit too). Even an on-the-nose moment in which soldiers from both sides bond over the impressive physicality of the War Horse is more than welcome. However, it’s hard to ignore the lack of stakes and sense of loss that should be apparent in a film that purports to decry warfare in all of its forms.
The blame belongs not just to Spielberg, but should be shared with screenwriters Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), who have adapted Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name for the screen, as well as composer John Williams. They’ve collectively watered down a rather intriguing tale into one where you have to strip away the soppy sentimentality and CGI pastoral landscapes to find the rather brutal themes at its core (and by that point, they’ve lost all effect). If it weren’t for the expertly-composed skirmishes and the numerous fine performances, War Horse would deserve a trip to the nearest abattoir.
War Horse opens in Australian cinemas December 26, 2011.