War Horse (2011)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lee Hall, Michael Morpurgo, Richard Curtis
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Toby Kebbell, Tom Hiddleston
War Horse (2011)
(12A) Running time: 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Let’s get one thing clear from the off, Steven Spielberg is without doubt one of the best and most successful director’s in the world today, and Spielberg does not make bad films. A bad Steven Spielberg film, to most directors, would be a success. A good Spielberg film to many other directors would be their crowning glory, and a classic Spielberg film is something very special indeed. When he is on form (Jaws, E.T, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones “not the fourth film though”, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report) Spielberg is untouchable, pure movie gold with a keen eye for what the audience wants and a skill to deliver just enough thrills and sometimes suspense to have audiences on the edge of their seat. At other times he will have you bawling your eyes out over some silly creature you never thought would make you cry, or some emotional event you knew was coming, but never expected the mighty wallop of sudden blubbering. Spielberg is a genius, and it will be a sad time when audiences aren’t excited by his next project. To say War Horse is a classic film would be a lie, to say it was a good film is being honest. To most directors this would be their moment of glory, for Spielberg, this is sadly an average film that wants to be classic.
The story is pure cinema brilliance (boy meets horse, horse goes off to war), the settings, the direction and all that feckin emotion cannot be faulted, the central characters, the swooping score, the action, the comedy, those moments of Spielberg genius that only he can pull off. It is all here, loads of it, in fact there is a little too much of it, and here lye’s War Horses flaws. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a great film while you are watching it, engrossed in the story and, annoyingly, on the verge of crying almost every blasted ten minutes! I cried four times, I aint gonna lie to you, but with all the emotion you tend to miss those bits that go wrong, or even worse, try to ignore them. On reflection you can pick many faults with the way this film plays out, and at least two of the many intertwining stories could have been left out. There are many times in the story you will be wanting to cry, or hold tight your nearest and dearest, but sadly there are also a number of times you might need a sick bucket. War Horse, for all its drama and at times sickening scenes of war, is balanced with an impossible duty to do things right so that the audience never quite feels any true menace. Hell, a scene involving the main horse of the film caught up in barbed wire is brutal, sickening, and then quickly all that is taken away as the British and German army’s call the horse using their own methods, prompting the cinema audience to laugh.
There are moments here which will unsettle even the hardened viewer, but more often than not, this is a classical, heartwarming film that likes to dip its toe into the more darker areas, but never stay there for long. With films like Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Schindler’s List, Spielberg showed he wasn’t afraid to tackle a subject head on, even throw in the odd surprise, and in War Horse the subject is handled delicately and respectively, although it would appear that Spielberg has lost his nerve when it comes to pushing the limits of realism. There are war scenes here, and an assault on the German’s in France is menacing and really brings home what it was like to fight in this war. A powerful scene see’s the soldiers riding through a field on horseback about to attack an unsuspecting German camp. Edge of your seat does not come close to explaining the dread that goes through your mind. In another scene, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan’s opening battle, the British soldiers are fighting in the trenches, with one of our ‘friends’ from Devon ordered to shoot anyone who runs back from the battlefield, the soldiers climb up the trenches and into a literal warzone with no idea of what they are doing. In a panic they just run and shoot at whatever they can. Bombs go off, bullets fly past and the bodies mount up, it is a full on, blistering scene best viewed on the largest and loudest cinema screen you can find. Moments like this prove Spielberg has still got it, and moments like this prove that when he is on form like this, no other director in the world can touch him.
So where do the faults really come from? Well, first off it is NOT from the first hour, there is real passion on show here, true brilliance by a director flaunting what he does best. The actual story of Albert (Irvine) and how he comes to be with the horse is perfect family drama helped along by an exceptional cast. Peter Mullan, as ever, is terrific as Albert’s farmer Dad, and Emily Watson makes a welcome return as the caring and respectful Mother. Ted (Mullan) has a drinking problem, a damaged leg and broken soul from previous wars. Mullan commands his character and brings about one of the first scene’s that had me reaching for the tissues. After coming close to losing the farm to the vile landlord Lyons (a superb David Thewlis) and selling the horse to make money, he sits by the fire, broken and defeated and looks up needy and desperate to his wife and says “I wouldn’t blame you if you loved me less” The look in his eyes, on his face, if you don’t feel something from this then you can’t have a heart. These early moments are tender, full of wonder, friendship and some well crafted comedy. Add to this they are actually filmed on Dartmoor, a five minute drive from where I live, and these early moments are very special indeed. It is easy to get caught up here and swept away by the stunning direction Spielberg puts together.
Once the horse is sold and sent to war the drama continues, and a new cast of characters take centre stage. The horse, however, is the star of the show throughout, and not being the biggest fan of horses, I never in a million years believed the darned thing would bring out such emotional responses, but it does and it will. It is when the film moves into the third and fourth stories about the horses journey through different owners that the film starts to become a little dull, a bit samey and far too predictable. The horse ends up in what appear to be impossible situations, but Spielberg is in full on family friendly mode here and never let’s you believe the horse is in any true danger. You will be excited, scared and on the edge of your seat, but sadly it is your faith in the director which ultimately becomes the films biggest flaw. You know the horse will be OK, you know things will work out in the end, and it is what happens inbetween that counts, and sadly not all of it is worthy of being there. A scene involving a French man and his Grandaughter feels out of place and unnecessary, as if Spielberg was trying every trick in the book to win your heart. This story also leads to a climax that if you don’t see coming a mile off then you have never watched a film by this great director. Further scenes involving the German army are at times hard to watch, gut wrenching and make an almost humane character out of the horse and his friend. The German army scenes have some of the hardest to view moments from the horses perspective, and anyone who is a true lover of horses, or animals in general may find some of these scenes hard to stomach. For all its brutality, it does show the turmoil this one horse goes through, yet, again we have soldiers who try to look after the horse. One story of two brothers feels forced, while the next ‘owner’, a large man who leads the horses as they pull cannons, is far more satisfactory in terms of how it makes the story flow and also in terms of the war and what we are actually experiencing. Make no mistake, the film does go dark, but very quickly pops up the other, sunny side. Probably the hardest scene to watch is when the horse gets caught in barbed wire, and how Spielberg pulled this off is anybody’s guess, and this follows an earlier harrowing scene that will already have your face stained in tears.
War Horse will put your emotions through the grinder: trust me, you WILL cry, you WILL be excited, you WILL be thrilled, and no doubt you WILL enjoy it. This is in no way a bad film, but it is not a classic in the director’s capabilities. Spielberg can casually make great films in his sleep, however here it actually felt like he was trying too hard. It is no way a failure, and I believe this will fondly sit in many film fans collections once released to buy. It is a powerful, honest and compassionate film with some truly breathtaking scenes, and some emotional scenes of epic proportions. This will delight most fans, and for its lengthy running time, you will be caught up in it all, but it is very hard to get away from the fact you are watching a movie. There are far too many moments which cry out to be on some list of classic scenes, and it almost felt like the director was looking for that next great moment rather than carefully tell his tale. Whichever way you look at War Horse, it is a great film, and will no doubt be up for many Oscar and BAFTA nominations this year. Spielberg, you and your crew have all done yourselves proud and it is my deepest respect for the director that probably made me enjoy this more than I should have.