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Review: War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Premise: Adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo. Set in World War I, a young Englishman’s horse is sold to the military. The young man (Jeremy Irvine) enlists in the military and goes off to war in an attempt to recover his beloved animal.

What Works: War Horse is an episodic narrative, with each segment telling a short story about those who owned, cared for, or encountered the horse. If War Horse is taken less as a story about an animal and the young man who raised it and more as a tour through World War I with an emphasis on the British experience, the film is easier to appreciate. Although the scope is limited to Britain and continental Europe, the film does manage to collect a variety of scenarios and string them together in more or less logical way. The battle scenes, although not as bloody as the opening of Saving Private Ryan, do manage to convey the fear and chaos of trench warfare and the stories of civilians effectively bear the devastation that this war has wrought on their lives. The scenes of the horse are also well shot and staged, and the film manages to get the audience on the side of the horse without overly anthropomorphizing it. 

What Doesn’t: The episodic nature of War Horses’ story has about as many advantages as it has disadvantages. Although the film is able to cover a considerable amount of ground, every short story in this collection suffers from its brevity. People are introduced, characterized in short strokes, and then summarily dismissed from the story, most of them never to appear again. Unlike Forrest Gump, which has a similar narrative construction, this film does not return us to familiar characters and track their development or juxtapose scenes together in a way that creates meaningful contrasts. As a war picture, War Horse also comes up short. One of the well-established tropes of war pictures is the protagonist’s return home, whether it is for better or for worse. This is often the key moment in a war picture because it punctuates the change in the character from when he left. But in War Horse the hero’s return is curiously absent of this kind of contrast and this is indicative of the absence of any substantive perspective on war. Whether the filmmakers of War Horse see battle as pointless or patriotic is not apparent. This lack of gumption on the part of the story may be partly due to the feel-good nature of the film. This picture attempts to be a piece of feel-good entertainment that will appeal to families and animal lovers (and presumably Oscar voters) around the holiday season. And as a way of rendering itself appealing, the filmmakers of War Horse avoid making any kind of political statement, whether it is about warfare, animal labor, or social class issues. This has the effect of making War Horse rather bland. In order to overcome that blandness, War Horse turns up the sentimentality. This is most notable in the sound mix. John Williams’ score, although pleasant, is overbearing in many scenes, the volume turned up in an attempt to bully our emotions into submission from the very first scene. This quest for audience approval undermines the story, as the plot incorporates a lot of coincidences to sustain itself. World War I was a conflict that embroiled most of Europe as well as portions Africa and the Pacific, so to believe that this man and his horse would have any chance of even being in the same country, much less the same battle field, is a strain of the credulity of the film. All of this emphasis on audience appeal makes the film a highly engineered piece of filmmaking that comes across as pandering.

Bottom Line: War Horse is one of Steven Spielberg’s lesser works. Although it does have some impressive technical qualities and is undeniably entertaining, the movie is also fairly empty.

Episode: #370 (January 1, 2012)