For better or worse, War Horse is one thoroughly old-fashioned piece of work. It’s simply crafted, at times bordering on simplistic, and it doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve -- it wears its heart on its heart, and the earnestness is admittedly a lot to take at times. However, if War Horse were to have been released 40, 50, or 60 years earlier, we’d likely be hailing it as a masterpiece today rather than admiring it as an impeccable anachronism of family filmmaking bygone.
As such, director Steven Spielberg spends as much time breaking the audience in as Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) does with his new steed, Joey. He’s a stallion for a family in need of a workhorse, the latest in a series of poor decisions by Albert’s drunkard of a father, Ted (Peter Mullan), but sure enough, Albert manages to make a plow horse out of Joey yet. Alas, that noble effort fails to prevent the family farm from falling on hard times once more, and as England heads into World War I, Ted sells Joey off to the army. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) swears to the distraught teen that he’ll do his best to see that the horse returns to his rightful home, but it soon becomes apparent that the captain is merely the first of many new owners that Joey will encounter amid relentless human conflict.
Made up of equal parts The Black Stallion and All Quiet on the Western Front, with hints of Gallipoli and Gone with the Wind thrown in for good measure, Spielberg’s translation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel (already adapted rather recently into a wildly acclaimed stage play) is as devoid of cynicism as it is subtlety. Everyone who encounters Joey -- an older Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter, for example, along with both British and German soldiers reluctant to fight -- regards the rather humanized beast with unfailing awe, and perhaps the film’s biggest fault is that most every character that Joey meets along the way is easier to empathize with than that human puppy, Albee.
War Horse is filled with sturdy supporting performances -- especially by Mullan and Arestrup, not to mention Emily Watson as Ted’s much put-upon wife, David Thewlis as the Narracott’s undoubtedly greedy landlord, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Nicholls’ very English commanding officer -- but even once in the ranks himself years later, Irvine’s character harbors a devotion nigh worrisome to that damn horse of his. The sentiment clearly exists to be contrasted against the harrowing experience of battle, which Spielberg conveys with ease, even for a PG-13 picture, but the screenplay (by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) becomes something of a revolving door for compelling protagonists.
Thankfully, each new chapter of Joey’s journey brings with it a renewed sense of what capable hands the material has fallen into. Janusz Kaminski shoots much of the earlier, more pastoral sequences with a golden hue more classical than cloying, while the wartime passages are unsurprisingly defined by dingy browns and grays, as the trenches of turmoil and No Man’s Land echo a plowed-then-flooded field prominently featured in the first act. When Nicholls and his men charge out of a field of wheat and into an unsuspecting German camp, it reeks of David Lean’s influence on Spielberg; touches of John Ford also abound, especially in the film’s silhouette-heavy final moments. As one might expect, Michael Kahn’s editing is as quietly sure-handed as ever while John Williams’ score is suitably grand, if a bit too forceful on occasion. The technical proficiency comes as no surprise, but the often understated manner with which the director reveals fate's grim designs keeps the melodrama on an even emotional keel.
More often than not, War Horse serves as both a compelling evocation of an era in transition -- when swords gave way to cannons and guns, when horses gave way to tanks and trucks, when turn-of-the-century industry threatened to co-opt timeless innocence -- and a familiar yet effective anti-war screed along the lines of Spielberg’s own Empire of the Sun. However, in the wake of great conflict and even greater contrivance, the ending doesn’t feel like a pulled punch so much as a missed opportunity to elevate this film from an old-fashioned adventure to a tale every bit as staggering as it is sweeping.