War Horse | Film review
Steven Spielberg’s Hallmark-style epic is half as troubling as it needs to be.
As admired as it is, Schindler’s List has its share of detractors, who say it’s ideologically perverse to make a major Holocaust movie that emphasizes a thousand who were saved over the millions who died.
Of course, Oskar Schindler was a real person who saved real people, but Steven Spielberg’s interest in the Few Who Survive has persisted through subsequent films—troubling him, it seems, only to varying degrees. The uplifting Saving Private Ryan pondered the justness of risking five lives to save one. Now there is War Horse (Saving Private Equine?), which is unique—and uniquely problematic—among Spielberg’s films for using an animal as its point of identification. As Joey, a horse anthropomorphized even in name, zigzags across the wreckage of World War I, the movie hand-waves the human death toll while asking us to marvel at the gumption of one majestic steed.
There’s nothing new about using animals to ponder inhumanity—Au Hasard Balthazar, in which a donkey bears witness to man’s sins, remains the most celebrated cinematic example—but War Horse skirts the darker implications of its material, favoring sweeping, largely bloodless battle sequences. Adapted from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and the West End sensation of the same name (acclaimed for its elaborate mechanical puppetry), War Horse sees Joey as a rallying point: As bad as the fighting gets, good men and leetle girlz of all nations can unite around one cause.
At the outset, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) bids far more for the horse than he can afford, taking Joey home to a mythical pasture that resembles the one in Babe. (Spielberg cuts to fowl for reaction shots.) Despite sneers from their landlord (David Thewlis), Narracott’s son (Jeremy Irvine) trains the horse to plow a field—the first of many miracles we’ll see over the nearly two hours to come. This early section’s saccharine quality suggests a Disney Family Special.
The movie picks up—and nods toward David Lean–like grandeur—when old man Narracott sells the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a British soldier who rides Joey into war. Thereafter, the equine finds himself lost and found, crossing battle lines and acquiring a new name each time he finds shelter. Notable owners include a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) delighted at the joy the horse brings his granddaughter (Celine Buckens). Later, in by far the best scene, a Brit and a German enter no-man’s-land to free the buck from barbed wire. (It’s affecting, in part, because the men’s fate is given as much consideration as Joey’s.)
The result is a handsome film that—especially as allegory—owes as much to the Western as the war movie. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski doesn’t drown it in light, and John Williams plunders Aaron Copland’s collected works to assure us of the story’s monumentality. War Horse also benefits from saving its most powerful moments until late. It’s difficult not to be moved when an army doctor (excellent Liam Cunningham, the priest in Hunger) agrees to treat Joey for tetanus—though one wonders whether, before penicillin, the resources might be put to better use.
Still, coming from the biggest name in Hollywood, War Horse seems regressive and pandering. In films as diverse as Empire of the Sun, A.I. and Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg has pondered the nightmare of being separated from loved ones. Healing all wounds with a gorgeous sunset, War Horse plays as something else: a survival tale without survivor’s guilt.