January 30, 2012

Film review: WAR HORSE

I initially had absolutely no intention of seeing Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the World War I set novel & play, War Horse. Almost nothing about it appealed to me; in fact the only things that did were the WWI setting and the Beard himself. However, after reading a number of positive reviews and reactions online, I decided to give the film a chance. This was Spielberg after all, and World War I is a war far less cinematically enshrined than it's sequel, WWII.

Unfortunately, after the two-and-a-half hours of runtime my reaction to the film was very under-whelmed "Meh".

Which is not to say there aren't moments of sheer beauty, horror and genius. Moments that use the full array of camera, editing, performance and music tools at Spielberg's disposal to brilliantly moving effect.

But those moments, as fantastic as they are, could not get me to connect with this film. Essentially World War I through the eyes of a horse, I found myself unable to connect emotionally. Spielberg does his utmost to invest the horse, Joey, with a surfeit of personality even going so far as anthropomorphising him at times. But, as great as these efforts were, I couldn't connect to the horse and, by extension, the story.

I certainly couldn't connect to Joey like lead human character Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) does. The love this young man has for this horse is... well, intense. He's there at his birth and, when his father (Peter Mullan) drunkenly outbids their landlord (David Thewlis having oodles of scheming bastard fun) for Joey young Albert is overjoyed. However, to keep the farm afloat Albert's pa ends up having to sell Joey to a young officer in the Army. The young Army officer, a kind eyed Tom Hiddleston, is the picture of upper class English politeness. The Great War was a new kind of warfare; old rules of engagement were becoming obsolete as new, more advanced weaponry, made a mockery of them. When the English charge a German machine-gun nest it is a massacre, Spielberg masterfully cutting around the bloodshed with shots of riders in a field and riderless horses leaping over machine-guns.

Young Joey then ends up in German hands being looked after by two young brothers. From there he's taken in by a young French girl and her grandfather before being re-drafted by the German army. In this way he criss-crosses the borders of the war, his story giving all-too brief glimpses into different lives and experiences of the War.

And that's what they are - glimpses. Spielberg knows how to get a lot out of them, but I was still left with no central character I felt connected to. Not all of the images are immediately striking - or at least, not in a good way. Spielberg's usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski saturates the film, laying the soaked in syrup tones a bit much at times.

And one of the things I found myself most annoyed, perturbed and a little confounded by was the continuing cinematic trend of having foreigners speak to one another in perfect English; something that is especially noticeable when there are English characters in the film as well. It is a cinematic tendency I understand - the folk are talking to one another in their own language but the audience are "hearing" it as English - but I think it's long past time we moved on from it. It really is a piece of arch theatricality that only served to take me out of the film and, frankly, I would have expected different from Spielberg.

I can see what was being aimed for with War Horse and, for a number of people, it definitely worked. I just wasn't one of those people. I never felt nakedly manipulated by Spielberg; it simply never connected with me and thus there was no emotion to pull on. 


  1. Excellent Post, upon reflection your point about the English Language issues are bang on, it’s got to be an audience accessibility issue, the reality is some viewers (fat America) are turned off when they are made to read. This combined with the films generally crap-ness really contribute to the argument Spielberg is either had brain fade or is in the middle of some mid-career crisis.
    Hopefully next time we are can find something better to share. TOTCM

    1. Mmm, I do wonder as to how much the supposed audience aversion to subtitles influenced this decision. Or, if as Mr. Dirk Calloway suggests below, it was just lifted wholesale from the stage show. It's strange to me, as I would have though Spielberg is one of the few directors who could have pushed for that, if he really wanted to.

      In any case, "War Horse" is merely one of Spielberg's "less great" films. He's had a few of those over his long, incredible career. But hey, not even The Beard is perfect.

  2. I saw the stage-show in London last year. They had the English language with accents thing going on there too. Spielberg lifted a lot from the show, wholesale (including that goose). I quite liked the technique in the show, and in the movie, because it blurred the lines a bit between "the good guys" and "the bad guys". Too often in war movies "the good guys" are the ones you can understand and "the bad guys" are the ones you have to read the dialogue for. In Spielberg's defence, Enemy At The Gates employed the same technique maybe ten years ago, and got just as praised / criticised for it.

    In any case, I'm prepared to put War Horse into the bucket where films like Scorsese's Cape Fear, Nolan's The Prestige, and Jackson's Lovely Bones live. You know what I mean: movies that don't suck, but they also don't quite live up to their potential. They just sort of... exist. I can imagine some kid writing an essay on Spielberg in 50 years' time and finding War Horse quite conflicting "it was nominated for Oscars, it made ok money, people didn't hate it... so why doesn't it make for good copy in my Film 101 essay about Blockbuster Auteurs? Ah well, back to writing about Jurassic Park!"

    1. Yes, but herein lies the wonderful difference between films and stage-shows: films allow the use of subtitles. I have zero issues with plays or novels having the non-English speaking characters speaking English as they are entirely necessary devices. However, film allows these characters to speak in their own language, while allowing the audience to still understand what they're saying. I know the "English speaking foreigners" is a device as old as cinema itself, it just pulled me out of the film. And not all the non-English speakers were "bad guys" in any case. Also, "Enemy at the Gates" should not be used to defend anything.

      I do agree, though, that "War Horse" is one of those films from a legitimately great filmmaker that just doesn't achieve the glorious highs of their other work. Or, indeed, the possible potential of the film itself.