Alternate title for War Horse: Cursed Horse. Because nearly everyone who climbs on that animal’s back, gets dead.
War Horse, the movie, is epic. As in epic disappointment.
In a picturesque Devon, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches a horse grow from colt to horse in a neighbor’s field, wishing the horse could be his. He gets his shot at horse ownership when his drunken father, Ted (Peter Mullan), purchases that horse at an auction. As with most decisions made under the influence, it’s a poor choice, since the family needs a sturdy draft horse, not a Thoroughbred, to plow their rocky field. Albert’s mother, Rose (Emily Watson), is appalled, but Albert insists he’ll train Joey to do the necessary landscaping work. Looming in the background is the menacing landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), who is eager to take the family farm if rent isn’t made. Albert, who knows nothing about horses, trains Joey to come when he’s called, while Dad gets drunk and Mom makes excuses for his alcoholism.
The story moves to a predictable mini-climax where, against the odds, Joey plows the rocky field like an equine Hercules. The family plants turnips; all is well until it rains and the crop is ruined. None of this makes any sense. First, Joey and Albert finally overcome the field when it rains and the hard ground is “miraculously” softened by the moisture. Right. Because it never rains in England. Ever. Second, if turnips are such a rain-soluble crop, perhaps they shouldn’t be planted in….rainy England. Third, plowing a field with a Thoroughbred is like going off-road in a Ferrari. (Then there’s the pesky little problem that Joey isn’t a Thoroughbred, but an Andalusian, just one of a zillion equine inaccuracies in a movie about a horse.)
With the family’s dreams of turnip-based wealth melting away, and WWI about to begin, Dad decides to sell Joey to Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who is about to join the good fight, as it were. Albert is heartbroken. Captain Nicholls is doomed. Joey…is still a horse.
Captain Nicholls is the first in a succession of not-forever-homes for Joey. Next up are a couple of young brothers in the German army. Then a young girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), then the German army again, where he and his equine buddy pull heavy artillery, the kind of duty that is the end of most horses.
Albert, meanwhile, joins the army and is soon in the midst of the war, tromping around trenches and charging heroically across the field of battle.
I get what Spielberg was trying to do: illustrate the vast scope of the war through a collection of smaller stories, from the soldiers on the field, to the civilians whose lands were invaded in the course of the action. In theory, it’s a great idea; in practice, flat as a pancake because the people involved are never more than the barest character sketch.
Though some of the cast are rather bland–notably Jeremy Irvine who is just blah–there’s a lot of talent present. Unfortunately, they’re underserved by a feeble script.
Take for example, Tom Hiddleston: Hiddleston’s portrayal of big bad Loki, both in Thor and the Avengers, was charismatic enough to earn the supervillain a bigger fan base than the Avengers themselves. By all accounts, Hiddleston is devouring scenery in the BBC’s production of Henry V. But, though he makes a game attempt, the actor can’t flesh out a character from the scant dozen lines he is given in War Horse. A fabulous smile and big blue eyes can only do so much.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Major Jaime Stewart, is similarly underused, his role consisting of looking like he’s caught a wiff of dog shit. David Thewlis seems to have been cast largely because of his gift for sneering; Emma Watson, for her ability to look pretty and downtrodden simultaneously. Spielberg appears to have hired the actors for their trademark characteristics and little else.
Then there’s the ongoing ludicrous nature of the story itself, starting with the aforementioned adventures in incompetent farming and getting progressively worse. For example, in one scene the two young German brothers desert, fleeing into the countryside and taking shelter in a presumably abandoned windmill, along with Joey and another horse. There the boys are soon captured by the German army, who arrive noisily in trucks and summarily execute the deserters in a field. The next morning, young Emilie finds the horses and wonders where they came from…even though the mill is smack dab on her grandfather’s land. Do Emilie and her grandfather go deaf and blind at night? How could they miss the convoy of German trucks who showed up, headlights blazing, in the middle of the night? And so it goes….
But the worst aspect of War Horse is that despite being a movie about a horse, it is riddled with equine inaccuracies. For people who know nothing about horses it may be tolerable; for a horsey person like myself, it’s nigh unwatchable.
For example there’s the overly-anthropomorphized equine behavior. To train Joey, Albert only has to have deep, heart-to-heart conversations with the animal, because Joey somehow understands English. Then there’s the scene where Joey’s equine pal is about to be harnessed up to pull a heavy gun, and Joey rushes over to volunteer for the arduous task, desperate to save his friend. I remind you, Joey is a horse.
Horses are incredibly intelligent animals; smarter than dogs (yes, they are), but they don’t speak English or any human language; they don’t perceive complex moral scenarios. They do have an uncanny knack for reading body language and emotion, and if Spielberg knew anything about horses, he would have explored the real complexities of equine behavior. Instead, he went for cheap emotional tricks, making Joey into a cartoon, like the horses in Mulan or Brave.
Next, there’s the amazing non-pooping/non-peeing horse. Here, Emilie and her grandfather are hiding Joey and the black horse from the Germans. When the Germans notice fresh hay in the barn, they ask where the horses are, but Gramps and Emilie make up a lie and the Germans believe them. Were Germans really this stupid? Because if they were, the war should have ended five minutes after it started. Horses poop and pee in vast quantities. Even if Emilie mucked the barn out every day, it would still reek of shit and piss.
The movie goes on to insult anyone who’s ever learned to ride by introducing the most annoying of all archetypes: the rider who has never-ever been on a horse but nevertheless, hops on board and gallops away with ease. That would be Emilie, who is supposedly too sickly to ride in the first place, but her grandfather gives her a saddle anyway and lets her climb on Joey’s back. Emilie rides away at an effortless canter, never falling off, not even when she is attacked by German soldiers and Joey is darting around, trying to escape. At this point, I starting looking for a spork to scoop out my eyes.
But wait, it gets worse! The big climatic scene involves Joey galloping across no-man’s land between German and British lines, where he becomes hopelessly entangled in barbed wire. Anyone who’s grown up around horses has heard cautionary horror stories about horses and barbed wire: how a single strand of wire and a panicked horse meant the end of that horse. Horses can hurt themselves on any kind of fencing, but barbed wire is the stuff of nightmares. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s “No fucking way is that possible.” Joey ends up wrapped up in barbed wire from head to toe, after flipping upside down and crashing while tangled in the stuff. He emerges with nothing more than a couple of ugly, but harmless cuts on his legs. (Seriously, the injuries presented in the movie are average, run-of-the-mill, horsey boo-boos. Probably wouldn’t even require a call to the vet.) No horse is going to survive that. Just no. No way, no how.
Joey’s injuries illustrate the other huge problem with the movie. For a movie about the horrors of war, it’s quite bloodless, presenting an almost benign view of war. There’s a few wide shots of bodies littering a field, shot at an angle and with lighting designed to hide the fact that said corpses are made of felt. It’s a Muppetpocalypse! The only emotional scene in the movie–where Joey’s equine friend dies–is rushed, giving neither Joey nor the viewer the time to mourn for the loss.
If you know absolutely nothing about horses; if you have a high tolerance for schmaltz; if you love it when a plot makes no sense at all; if you are ten, then War Horse is the film for you. Otherwise, file this one under, “Not Recommended.”