Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Niels Arestrup
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 13 Jan 2012 (General release)
When Steven Spielberg releases two films in a single year, they’re typically divided between fantasy/science-fiction adventures (Jurassic Park, The Lost World, War of the Worlds) and historically rooted dramas (Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich). Given the rollercoaster lightness of The Adventures of Tintin, it might follow that Spielberg’s other 2011 feature, War Horse, would strike darker, more melancholic notes.
It does, to a point. But War Horse is also as fantastic and old-fashioned as the Tintin adventure, an effect achieved with the same sorts of super-new high-tech digital production. It begins as a simple boy-and-animal bonding between Albert (Jeremy Irvine), of a poor Irish family on the English countryside, and Joey, the horse Albert’s shambling semi-drunk father Ted (Peter Mullan) brings home to plow the land.
Albert takes to Joey with almost aggressive devotion and innocence. For the first half-hour, their story proceeds with disarming simplicity: the homestead faces foreclosure; Albert trains the willful horse; Emily Watson shows pluck as his mother Rose; a goose provides reaction shots. But the film, adapted from a young-adult novel and subsequent stage play, enters into another kind of drama when World War I breaks out, and Joey must be sold to the British army.
From this point, the movie follows Joey rather than Albert, before picking up the boy’s experiences later on, once he also joins the war effort and finds himself in the trenches. War Horse becomes an anthology of sorts, seeing the First World War not from a horse’s point of view, exactly, but different vantage points he encounters, mostly by accident. Joey does time as a British officer’s horse, a means of escape for a pair of young deserters, a pet for a little girl in France, and as an abused work animal for the Germans.
Throughout these vignettes, Spielberg riffs on the horrors of World War I, so often supplanted by World War II epics in our collective psyche. As expected, he represents all corners of the war, from the countryside to the trenches to the no man’s land in between, underlining his skills in arresting visuals and (horse-appropriate) nonverbal storytelling.
These skills are enhanced by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. His work here recalls many of his other achievements in Spielberg’s filmography over the past 20 years, alternating between haunting and spectacular, in images imbued with his signature washed-out, milky light, as well as other shots using a range of lighting schemes and textures. In the early farm-based section of the film, we see the sky change from overcast whiteness to rich blues; on the battlefield, the colors shift from misty gray to shining blacks at night.
Those battlefield sequences, while often vivid and upsetting, are yet relatively bloodless. Spielberg’s avoidance of more graphic horrors may seem soft and calculated, especially in the wake of his brilliant combat sequences in Saving Private Ryan. But his dead aim at a PG-13 rating results in some evocative imagery, eschewing the one-upmanship of extreme war violence. He observes one death from behind a windmill, the blades providing an in-camera cutaway from the violence. In another sequence, streams of riderless horses zipping past German machine-gun turrets signal mass casualties, chased by a Gone with the Wind-style dolly up to reveal the battle’s results. It may be technically suitable for younger audiences per the MPAA, but the impact is perhaps more powerful because the depiction is inexplicit.
Other aspects of the film, though, rely too heavily on the boys’ adventure formula. Like Tintin, Albert is a young man too single-minded to develop much of a personality. For all of his keen understanding of boys and boyish men, Spielberg doesn’t attend much to the transition from child to man. Albert ages from idealistic teenager to young war veteran over the course of the film, but he could be about 12 throughout. Joey’s initial separation from Albert is almost a relief for the audience as it releases us from his limited view. And even after Albert himself enters the war, the events of his life are more interesting than his reactions to them, which remain rooted in an unchanging goodness and a love for his horse.
Some other characters—Albert’s father and mother, especially, but also the captain (Tom Hiddleston) who buys Joey and the little girl’s grandfather (Niels Arestrup)—make better impressions, but are fleeting by design. And without compelling human protagonists or an arresting central idea, War Horse lacks the build and pull of Spielberg’s best movies. It doesn’t hurtle headlong like Minority Report or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it’s not as reflective as Schindler’s List. It’s also more of a fable than Private Ryan or Amistad, an imbalanced cross between his historical films and his fabulism.
Even if it doesn’t hold together as a whole, scene by scene, War Horse is masterful. One sequence deserves special attention: spooked by the sound and fury of trench warfare, Joey makes a break for it, galloping along the trenches, avoiding tanks, and busting through barbed wire. Spielberg doesn’t forego cuts entirely, but uses sustained tracking shots to follow the horse’s movements, and the effect is astonishing. Of course, Joey can’t escape on his own, but his flight impulse is recognizable. The horse’s fear and his great power, so incredibly displayed here, help us to see our own human instincts.