Steven Spielberg’s War Horse soaks in sentimentality and earnestness to such a degree it becomes difficult to determine what the film really wants to say. War is hell. The best of humanity is in all of us. Joey the horse representing the lone bright spot of love and hope amidst the blood and carnage of war. The film presents all of these tropes and much more as the titular War Horse (shockingly at one point, a character actualizes this phrase in actual dialogue) travels across war torn Europe during World War I.
Up front I must say, the first half hour or so of the film is almost unbearable. John Williams overbearing score begs to be heard and tries to claw its way into your tear ducts in some desperate hope of garnering a reaction from its audience. It’s almost assaultive in its manipulations. Joey, the titular horse, bonds with Albert (blandly played by Jeremy Irvine) a young English farm boy, for much of this first act and the film is almost nauseating and forceful in its manipulative handholding.
All film is essentially manipulative. Every element of every film is gathered together to stir whatever the filmmaker wishes to stir in his/her audience. The problem with War Horse and makes it a difficult film to sit through is how cloying and obvious it all is. Spielberg’s every decision with this film seems to be telling the audience exactly what they should be feeling at each and every moment in the most forceful way possible. The film never feels settled or comfortable with itself. Its manner is much like a birthday clown at a child’s party doing everything it can to be funny and coming out the complete opposite end to becoming sad. The film tries far too hard, which is a shame because Spielberg’s cinematic talents are on full display in several sequences in this film. If they were in a stronger film, they might be considered near classic.
Spielberg goes to great lengths to keep his PG-13 horse film family friendly which can be difficult when dealing with the horrors of war, especially for one as brutal as World War I. But Spielberg finds great, creative ways around those violent hurdles such as the first cavalry charge that starts off the war for Joey. Tom Hiddleston makes a brief appearance here as a soldier who takes the horse and leads a surprise charge against encamped German troops but the soldiers are mowed down by heavy machine gun fire. Just by cutting in between the riders going at full charge and the rider-less horses afterwards, Spielberg effortlessly gets across the violence of the battle without dwelling on the bloodshed that might keep away family audiences.
There are several sequences in the film where Spielberg finds graceful ways of keeping the violence at bay without sacrificing the effect of those particular scenes but, unfortunately, these are the only moments with even the slightest hint of restraint. As mentioned before, John Williams score overpowers the audience and drains the will of even the strongest of audience members. Spielberg evokes the work of great classic filmmakers such as John Ford with histrionic shots of red skies and beautiful vistas.
Spielberg has made this film to be shown alongside the classic films of John Ford and William Wyler but fails to capture the imagination and excitement of those movies. Spielberg’s films have always tended to lean on the sentimental side but his best works have always had a nice balance and restraint to those moments but here Spielberg lets it all hang out to the film’s detriment.
There are things to like in this film. Due to its episodic nature, there are small bits and pieces of the film I found quite enjoyable and there are strong performances throughout with the exception of the film’s lead. Niels Arestrup has a small role as a French farm hand whose granddaughter finds the horse and is absolutely marvelous. The scene where a British and German soldier take a moment out from the war to help Joey is also quite memorable. But these moments are few and far between as I always felt the hand of Spielberg nudging me on the shoulder making sure I was feeling in big bold capital letters.