With Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch. Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence). 146 minutes.
How can you tell Steven Spielberg’s “serious” films from his blockbusters? In his grown up movies, the special effects are less obvious. The movies are just as expertly crafted – and just as childish in their storytelling – as “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” but movies like “The Color Purple” and “Saving Private Ryan” are focused more on the acting than on the pyrotechnics.
For WAR HORSE, based on a book and a play, it would be mistake to spend too much time focusing on the acting. The characters are only slightly less cartoonish than in Spielberg’s other release this week, “The Adventures Of Tintin.” The great performance, if it can be called that, has to be attributed to the fourteen horses that play Joey, the title character.
The film opens with a nauseatingly cloying ripoff of “The Quiet Man” as the quaint villagers and self-important landlord wonder why farmer Ted (Peter Mullan) is buying a horse better suited to racing than turning over a field. The big scene of the sequence is when Joey actually pulls a plow. It’s not exactly edge-of-the-seat action, although Spielberg films as if it were E.T. taking flight.
Then World War I breaks out and even though Albert (Jeremy Irvine) objects, his father sells Joey to the Army. What follows is a collection of battle clichés, circa World War I. There’s the stiff upper lip British officers, the cruel Germans under the Kaiser, the “good German” who protects Joey when the horse is acquired in battle, the flinty local farmer who has a heart of gold when it comes to his granddaughter, and so on. Spielberg is magnificent in the details, as when we see the Germans use horses to pull their weapons into battle and replacing them without a second thought when they die from exhaustion. (Only the “good German” objects.) In the most memorable scene in the film, Joey breaks free and runs through “no man’s land,” becoming hideously entangled in barbed wire. It is the one moment where Spielberg lets the material speak for itself instead of trying to push our buttons to get the required emotional response.
Unfortunately, there’s much more film to go, including a maudlin and unbelievable reuniting of Joey with a temporarily blinded Albert, now in uniform. By the end of the film, where the screen turns orange with sunset a la “Gone With The Wind,” you half expect Joey to turn to the audience and declare, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”
Originally written as a book for young people about war, Spielberg has turned it into a boy’s adventure in which the horrors of war matter less than Joey and Albert being reunited. Although there is a lot of death in the film, Spielberg’s focus isn’t on the tragic waste of life but on the gallant horse. Having just turned 65, isn’t it long past time for the director to finally grow up?
Ultimately that’s the problem. “War Horse” is so schmaltzy that if movies were food you’d be required to go on anti-cholesterol meds before being allowing to see it.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.