Sometimes, even if a movie is beautiful and brilliantly made from a technical standpoint, it fails to stir anything in the human soul. Now, not every movie wishes to do such stirring, but when a movie so obviously does wish to inspire and yet fails to, it must be classified as a disappointment. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is just such a movie.
War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo (which was then turned into a play before being adapted for the big screen), is the tale of Joey, a horse, and the many owners he experienced over a few short years before, during, and after World War I. Filled with loss and lament and regret, War Horse ought to require no less than a half-box of tissues in a weepier group of people and, at minimum, a good deal of caring in everyone else. However, with a bloated runtime pushing two-and-a-half hours, the film feels too cool and calculated. It is as if someone behind the scenes knew all the buttons to push to make people feel emotion but wasn’t sensible enough to hide the mechanism by which the buttons were being pushed. The result is an unending sense in the viewer of “Ah, I am meant to cry at this point. See how it’s raining now. See how the music just changed. See how everyone on screen is turning their backs and giving up. Clearly this is a moment orchestrated to illicit tears.” For the viewer though those tears never arrive.
Early on in the film there is a scene in which Joey and his first owner’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), must plow a field full of rocks or the family will lose their farm. This still being terribly early in the film, however, we have no reason to think that Joey won’t be able to do the plowing. Sure, we’ve been told he’s a race horse, not a work horse, but there’s never a moment of doubt that Joey will be successful, no matter how unsure the farmers are. Even so, this single scene is extended and extended again with Williams’ forceful score underlying the pain and anguish of Albert and his family. Then, miraculously, just when it looks darkest, Joey succeeds! It is long. It is overwrought. No one in the audience will believe for a second that Joey won’t succeed. Yet, as with the rest of the film, it the would-be moment of doubt keeps going and going, as though the scene needs to be extended to try to convince us to believe that Joey will fail so that we marvel when he doesn’t. Rather than convincing us of the difficulty inherent in the task or that Joey isn’t built for it, or even that Joey is an amazing horse, all that it convinces the audience is that we are all in for an exceptionally long, and unworthy, film.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe War Horse is as a series of short stories. Joey is owned by a poor farmer and his family. Joey is owned by an army captain. Joey is owned by an old man and his granddaughter. Some of these vignettes work well, Joey and Albert together is clearly meant to be the strongest story and is, but others are completely underwhelming. What is worse is that after a while, one ends up simply waiting to see by what semi-contrived fashion Joey will end up moving to his next owner. The interstitial moments that move us from one story in the film to the next are more interesting than the film itself.
I cannot escape that scene of Joey plowing the field despite everyone thinking he will fail. It is not merely that the scene itself is poorly executed, it is that the scene ruins the rest of the movie. Less than 30 minutes into the film, by plowing the field, Joey has done the impossible, the stuff he does later is no less impossible, just different impossible. At the latest, the hero experiences his moment of doubt/failure early in the first act, the rest from that point forwards has little drama to it, no matter how much the music swells or how dark the night is or how much it precipitates. And the music does swell, and armies do fight, and characters cry, and it does become night. It all just has no soul because never, even during that first moment, is there even the slightest doubt that Joey can do anything. And, during that first moment, the film forcefully shuts up even the most vociferous of doubters.
The technical aspects of the release, as indicated above, are brilliant. The picture is incredibly sharp without losing any grain. Those dark scenes are still brilliantly detailed. Janusz Kaminski’s all-too-often-used blown out windows are spectacularly white. The colors are rich and full, be they brown mud, blue sky, orange sunsets, or red blood. The 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack, too, is full and rich. John Williams’ stirring score, the pounding of hoof beats, gunfire, speeches, they utilize every channel available to create an immersive, would-be effective sound design. It is a film put together by people who know every rule about filmmaking and use them all.
The hits don’t stop coming if one goes all-in and gets the four-disc Blu-ray set. The package comes with a DVD and digital copy (thereby eliminating two discs), the feature film on Blu-ray as well as a Blu-ray disc with more extras. Just like the film itself, it is bloated nearly to the point of laughability. The full-length (longer than an hour) behind-the-scenes piece on the second disc is entitled “A Filmmaking Journey” and, like the main feature is incredibly highly produced. Outside of its sweeping score and dramatic, Hollywood feature-esque openings and closings to scenes, it really is little more than a typical piece that one finds on DVD, it’s just been overly-extended. Shorter featurettes like ones on editing and scoring, sound design, the work of an extra, a couple of round tables with cast and crew, and Kathleen Kennedy going through photos she took while on set (and other producer-y things) work far better for their leanness.
War Horse has an incredible team behind it, one which has one numerous Academy Awards and while it succeeds on many levels, it fails on the most important one – telling its tale in an interesting fashion. The film is hugely interested in showing that the people behind it know all the tricks of the trade, all the things little and big which go into filmmaking, save for how to tell a story. Perhaps with a drastically reduced runtime, perhaps if it chose to focus itself a little more, perhaps were it reined in somewhat, it could have reached far greater heights. More is not necessarily always better and War Horse is the perfect example of that.