By Jeff Galasso
Ever wonder what Sam and Frodo’s relationship in The Lord of the Rings would be like if Frodo had been a horse? Steven Spielberg must have and War Horse is his answer. It is also his entry into the 2011 Academy Awards race; a move that can be charitably described as “misguided”. This epic take on the First World War lacks soul, sensibility and sincerity. If ever a film felt manufactured, devised to draw out manufactured tears, Snore Horse is it.
In the country side of Devon in 1914, a colt, given the name Joey, is born and raised by the son of a war vet with a drink problem. With the fate of their farm in hanging in the balance, young and determined Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey continuously and the powerful thoroughbred miraculously manages to plough the rocky farmland. Spielberg intends this to be a dramatic, thrilling turn of events, yet unfortunately it remains no more than a horse ploughing a field, regardless of how low the camera angles plunge. Before long, Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) has little choice but to sell Joey to the English cavalry in order to save the penniless farm. Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls promises to return Joey to Albert when and if that becomes possible. The film then focuses on the journey of Joey through the war and his possession by the Germans, eventually jumping ahead four years to 1918 as the end of the war approaches.
Anyone considering seeing War Horse due to the inclusion of Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch would be advised to think twice. While both (and Hiddleston especially) raise the bar, their presence is fleeting, much like War Horse’s best moments. While the acting, including Irvine’s in a pseudo-sentimental role, is serviceable, War Horse’s greatest flaw is that it feels staged. The lighting is noticeably and distractingly unnatural throughout, especially for scenes set at the farm. This issue becomes less irritating as the film progresses, but prevents the film from ever feeling authentic, even during the otherwise exceptional front-line battles of the war. The war scenes are undoubtedly where the film excels and Spielberg does a commendable job of depicting the horrors of the First World War. Unfortunately, War Horse’s best scene is undercut by an attempted comedic touch that borders parody too closely.
Disappointingly, there seems to be little at the heart of War Horse beyond a saccharine tale about the love of a boy for his horse. By portraying the young men of War Horse as eager to go to war, the opportunity to present the horses’ innocence as a metaphor for those naïve young men is lost. While the war imagery evokes an emotional response from the viewer, beyond the physical effects, there is little impact displayed on behalf of the soldiers. These misfires result in a plodding, ineffective story that fails to engage on any genuine level.
War Horse is not a total failure but there is too little that satisfies over the course of 150 minutes. There’s no doubt it will strike an emotional chord with some audience members, but on the whole it amounts to little more than Spielberg dangling a rotten carrot in front of the Academy Awards mare. One can only hope the academy doesn’t take the bait.