You can always count on veteran director Steven Spielberg to produce something at the very least watchable but often, as is the case with War Horse, something pretty damn great.
He has been accused of sentimentality before and that can most certainly be applied to his latest epic. But is that always necessarily a bad thing? War Horse is without a doubt a sentimental film, quite unashamedly so, but the trouble isn’t with being that way as an idea but how it’s done. Spielberg hasn’t always succeeded in trying to make sentiment work, but here he succeeds beautifully. His skill at making us care about anyone, and indeed anything, is masterful. By making the star of the film a horse, by making him both so heartwarming and iconic (shots of “magic hour” sunlight, for example, making the horse look glorious) he creates a special experience and makes you feel like you’re the only one being told this story.
That story – based on the 1982 children’s book and subsequent 2007 stage adaptation – is of Joey, a horse who’s raised and trained by Albert (Jeremy Irvine) to plough the fields and help keep the family farm. However, one day Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) sells the horse out of necessity, much to the heartbreak of Albert, to a soldier who takes him to use in battle after World War I is declared.
The film has the feel of a classic sweeping epic, but one where the emotion matters just as much as the spectacle. If there’s any issue to be had with the film it’s the episodic nature of it. We see Joey passed from one person to the next as a result of usually unforeseen circumstances, and so inevitably some of those segments work better than others. Couple that with the fairly hefty 146 minutes and it could have used a shorter, more naturally flowing narrative.
Having said that, when you’re caught up in the moment it’s hard to care about that. Despite its length it never drags or gets tiresome, largely because of the way it effortlessly mixes all different kinds of films into one, at once evoking the visceral warfare of Saving Private Ryan, the awe-inspiring spectacle of Jurassic Park and even, at times, the adventure of the Indiana Jones series. And it does this without feeling like it’s trying to do too much at once. This really does feel like a huge mixture of all the ingredients that has made Spielberg one of the most successful directors in history.
A mention must go to the score by frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams. He has worked with the director for almost 40 years, and it’s obviously a winning combination. War Horse is just another in a long line of great Williams scores; his beautiful and epic-yet-intimate music being one of the most memorable aspects.
While the horse is the star of the show, we shouldn’t forget the oh-so-important human performances. From Jeremy Irvine as Joey’s faithful true owner Albert – a real find of a newcomer – to the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, and Niels Arestrup, everyone is just on the top of their game working under the direction of one of the greats.
Yes, it’s as about as sentimental as you can get but, instead of feeling schmaltzy, it feels genuine and real. You’d have to be pretty cynical – or a robot! – not to at least have a lump in your throat a few times. The film offers a lot of things but ultimately it’s a touching, moving, and inspiring tale of a boy and his horse.