“War Horse” is a movie that perhaps only Steven Spielberg could have made. This is both good and not so good. On the plus side, the film has many of his trademark virtues – a resonant feeling for loneliness and emotional connection, stirring action sequences, vaunted storytelling. The not so good stuff, the dewy sentimentality and picture-book imagery especially, is generic Spielberg. The generic ultimately wins out.
Originally a bestselling 1987 novel by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” was dramatized for the London stage by Nick Stafford in 2007 and later won a Tony on Broadway. In all of its incarnations, the heart of this material – a boy’s love for his horse – is almost as old as the movies. Set in England just before the outbreak of World War I, the narrative centers on Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a teenager living with his family in the English countryside who bonds with the beautiful bay thoroughbred he names Joey.
When Albert’s alcoholic father (Peter Mullan), in order to avoid eviction, sells Joey to the British cavalry, Albert is heartbroken and vows one day to reunite with him even though horses in World War I often ended up as cannon fodder. From this point on, Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) serve up a series of extended vignettes chronicling Joey’s travails as he is adopted by a kindly English officer (Tom Hiddleston), a pair of German brothers (Leonhard Carow and David Kross), an old Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his teenage granddaughter (Celine Buckens), before the film finally circles back to Albert, now a British soldier in the Somme offensive.
The novel imagined the story from Joey’s point of view and the stage play utilized large-scale puppetry to represent the horses. By contrast, Spielberg’s movie is, unavoidably, more realistic. In the end, no matter how photogenic Joey is, he is still irrevocably a horse.
This is not all for the worse. The heavy-going mystic-symbolic trappings of Joey in his earlier incarnations are played down here in favor of the sheer gorgeousness of the steed. This is in keeping with the movies' rich history of glorifying horses as horses (“National Velvet,” “The Black Stallion” etc.).
But inevitably, because Spielberg is Spielberg, Joey does indeed become more than just a horse, even if we don’t enter into his thoughts. Joey is the spiritual connection between warring factions who, at bottom, are just decent human beings caught up in a senseless war. The centerpiece sequence has an American and a German soldier venturing into no man’s land to disentangle Joey from a welter of barbed wire. It’s a powerful scene and yet, in his not too subtle way, Spielberg is manipulating us as much as those puppeteers on Broadway manipulated Joey.
In general, Spielberg milks each scene for maximum memorability, which becomes wearing after awhile. The grandfather and his granddaughter are pastoralized creations every bit as much as Albert and Joey. The rural landscapes – those that aren’t littered with corpses – are shimmering, nostalgic tableaux that evoke the films of David Lean and even, in a particularly overscaled moment at the end, “Gone With the Wind.”
Spielberg has never been the director you go to for subtlety, and, at his transcendent best, in films like “E.T.,” subtlety is the last thing you wanted from him. He’s a big-gesture, direct-emotion kind of guy. Some of “War Horse” is intensely affecting – especially the early scenes between Albert and his long-suffering mother (Emily Watson) and the massacre in the wheat fields of the overmatched British by the Germans, which ranks almost as high as the D-Day invasion sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.”
But too much of this film is felt on a cinematic level instead of an emotional one. Spielberg by now can do this sort of thing with such facility that he often lets his technical skills override his deepest engagement in the material. I guess what I’m saying is that “War Horse,” despite its excellences, is a supreme demonstration of a director phoning it in. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.)