I don’t like pigeonholing films, and I’ve never been fond of the term “chick flick,” but I’d be less than candid if I didn’t tell you that several women I know and respect (including my wife) were moved to tears by War Horse, while I was lukewarm about it. Normally, I’m a sucker for this kind of picture, which has a great deal of sentiment built into it—but I found its execution too blatant and—if I’m not making a pun—on-the-nose. But then, subtlety has never been Steven Spielberg’s strong suit.
That tone is established in the movie’s earliest scenes, in which an irresponsible and impoverished farmer (played with an uncharacteristic heavy hand by Peter Mullan) purchases a horse he can ill afford at auction. His son (Jeremy Irvine) adopts the animal as his own, names it Joey, and vows to train it, against all odds, to plow their rock-laden land. He and the horse develop a real rapport. That makes it all the harder for him when Joey is conscripted by the British Army to serve his country when war breaks out in 1914. Joey endures more hardship than any horse ought to, but everyone who encounters him over the next four years is immediately impressed with his beauty and indomitable spirit.
War Horse started out as a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo in 1982, and that seems to be the way Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) have approached it. Every turn of the story and each new character we meet is introduced in obvious fashion, as if we might not understand anything that wasn’t spelled out and underscored (sometimes literally, in John Williams’ music).
Because the material itself is absorbing, and inherently emotional, and because it’s a handsome production, War Horse is a very watchable. Good actors like Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, fill the cast. But for the most part, they are called upon to approach their parts in the most transparent way possible. Nothing is left for us to discover on our own.
Near the end of the film, Spielberg unveils a Technicolor sky so reminiscent of the “I’ll never go hungry again” moment in Gone With The Wind, I let out a cackle. I don’t think that was the reaction he intended, but I couldn’t help it—just as he apparently couldn’t resist taking a moment already suffused with emotion and trying to drive it home with a splash. I wish he had resisted the urge.
As War Horse has all the makings of a crowd-pleaser, younger viewers may be particularly responsive to it. But as much as I admire Steven Spielberg’s enormous skills, I wish someone else had tackled this material.