New on DVD: War Horse (2011)

This is going to sound like heresy to all the equestrian-minded folk out there, but I found Steven Spielberg’s War Horse kind of irritating.

Oh, it’s big and gorgeous in ways that reminds of the David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

But while it often delighted my eye, Spielberg’s latest felt empty. Not even a deep cast of British actors could bring it to emotional life.

And as long as I’m spreading rancor, let me suggest that this story should never have become a big-budget movie.

The source material, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book for children, already is a long-running West End and Broadway show. I’ve not seen it, but the reviews suggest a case of indifferent material elevated by brilliant staging, with breathtaking life-size puppets portraying the equine characters.

The question going into the Spielberg film, then, was whether the yarn would still deliver in a “real” world without that awe-inspiring stagecraft.

Well, every now and then the movie offers some visual magic. But too often Spielberg’s pony feels overplotted and plodding.

The setup is awfully similar to that other famous horse tale, Black Beauty. We follow a beautiful horse throughout its life, from a bucolic colthood through a series of masters, in this case English and German military men during World War I in France.

There’s also a Lassie Come Home element, with the young farmer who raised the colt and names it Joey going to war in the hope of being reunited with his beloved animal soul mate.

That may sound like a fool’s errand — finding one horse in the madness of global conflict — but then War Horse is overloaded with unlikely coincidences and manipulative plot twists. This film will burn out cynics in record time.

In the long (too long, actually) opening sequence we see how the young horse is purchased by a drunken Devon farmer (Peter Mullan), who spends way too much money on an animal built for racing, not pulling a plow.

But the man’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), befriends and trains Joey. Sadly this boy/beast love affair must end; the family can only keep their farm by selling Joey to the army.

There the horse becomes the mount of a cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston); an ill-advised (but thrilling) attack on a line of German machine guns ends that segment.

Joey becomes the charge of two young Germans who use him in their plan to desert; then he’s taken in by an aged French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his sickly granddaughter (Celine Buckens).

Retaken by the Germans, Joey must pull massive artillery pieces, a chore that usually kills animals within weeks.

But thin and weary he survives, at one point breaking free to race through the crowded trenches and across No Man’s Land between the warring armies (a superb visual set piece).

Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall, Richard Curtis) attempt here to have it every which way. They want to make a PG-13 film suitable for young audiences (there’s hardly any blood) but substantial enough to satisfy adult interests (the madness of war) and end up shortchanging both audiences.

Some of Spielberg’s choices are lamentable ... like having the French and German characters speak in heavenly-accented English rather than employing subtitles.

The biggest problem is that the film has no central character. Spielberg is smart enough to not anthropomorphize Joey; the horse (actually, horses) does a pretty great job of “acting,” but he’s still just an animal.

But rarely do any of the human players — among them familiar faces like Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Liam Cunningham, and Eddie Marsan — get a chance to establish their characters. Most are in and out with just a few minutes of face time.

Irvine is fine as young Albert, but he never seizes the screen, which is what this film requires.

Thus the success of War Horse rests largely on the showmanship of its director. And at numerous points in the film Spielberg delivers.

At its best War Horse employs the many tools of modern cinema to capture the sweep of its sprawling tale. John Williams contributes a lush score heavily influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The art direction and costuming is impeccable.

And there are lump-in-the-throat moments of visual beauty — at various times Spielberg seems to be channelling not only David Lean (a cavalry charge through a wheat field that reminds of Zhivago) but also John Ford (the bucolic rural settings of How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man), Victor Fleming (the red sunset from Gone With the Wind), and Lewis Milestone (an infantry attack across No Man’s Land reminds of All Quiet on the Western Front).

Frame for frame, this is a gorgeous movie.

Now if only it had engaged my head and heart as completely as it mesmerized my eyes.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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