Janus Film Review Presents: War Horse (2011)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: Television broadcast/BBC (2018).


War Horse is a curious film. It represents a sumptuous visual and technical accomplishment, rendered all the more refined by the artisan touch of director Steven Spielberg. Whilst it offers nothing groundbreaking or especially original within its photography, every frame is meticulously assembled, with an effortless control and unrivalled eye for compositional perfection. In short, Spielberg makes the art of filmmaking seem almost too easy. His technical methodology is completely sound, and though this doesn’t always promote adventure, it’s not hard to understand why Stanley Kubrick - the king of kings - personally chose to collaborate with Spielberg on the original concept of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), which would eventually be realised after Kubrick’s untimely demise.


The story of War Horse is a paean to the timeless relationship between man and beast, and there’s no doubt this particular tale, centring on a horse named Joey, possesses a primal quality. The heartstrings are tugged and plucked within thirty seconds of the film commencing, and this rather sets the tone for the entirety. We are immediately told: ‘It’s a horse, not a dog’. This is supposed to mark the ensuing events as truly remarkable - and they surely are - but only because the narrative eschews logic and is, objectively speaking, absurd. It is important to remember that War Horse was originally a story for children, and in this regard a fair amount of latitude can be granted. However, original author Michael Morpurgo apparently believes his story to be something akin to a treatise on the futility of war, and I can imagine that as a novel for children, his broad strokes approach is likely effective. However, we are discussing a film that is designed to appeal to a wide-ranging and discerning audience, and this creates problems.


The idea of a near-omniscient horse traversing the First World War, shining a light on the folly and beauty of humanity in wartime, is fantastical in the extreme. Ridiculous, actually. Sweet and perhaps even moving, but still ridiculous. I suppose I’m being rather cold and unforgiving to such a warm and accessible story but as presented here, in the filmic context, I’m electing to maintain a higher standard. The film wishes to ruminate on the triumphs and failings of two opposing forces during war. Then, at its leisure, regress to pronounced sentimentality and ludicrous clichés on all sides, and when it’s all said and done, have us cry over a bumpkin and his horse. It is overdone to the point of melodrama. As I’ve already mentioned, the story works beautifully as a segue for younger, curious minds. As a film aimed at the fullness of an adult intellect, the shifts in tone are simply too jarring. War Horse should have been either The Notebook with a horse, or Saving Private Ryan and a horse. In trying to be both simultaneously, the film version of War Horse does itself (and its audience) a disservice.


War Horse was adapted for the stage before the screen (with the use of elaborate animatronics) and in many respects the success of this version is unsurprising. At its best the story is a profoundly emotional experience, something well suited to the intimacy of the stage. There is an almost parabolic quality to the early parts of the narrative. This translates very well to the stage, which is always more performance-driven, relying less on the overall story. The strengths of the film adaptation lay not in moments of story or performance (despite the film having a stellar cast) but in the power of the set piece. The film’s British cavalry charge might be a rather clunky ode to Tennyson, but from an aesthetic standpoint, it is almost faultless. The No Man’s Land sequence is even better. From the anticipatory horror of the trench ladders to the violent explosions, fallen soldiers and finally, Mustard Gas, the scene conveys the full-throated horrors of a war perched uncomfortably between classic warfare, and nascent instruments of mechanical death.

I’ve said almost nothing about the overall acting performances. Well, the clue is in the title. Jeremy Irvine is earnest and worthy as Albert Narracott, our primary protagonist, but at the same time his performance does nothing to warrant excitement. This applies double to the various other humans in the film, who are defined either by vice, accent or uniform, and are barely required to break a sweat. The story is constructed and delivered in primary colours, hence the brutal shooting of young deserters and the ruining of a sickly child’s birthday by apathetic soldiers. It’s all designed to illicit a potent, obvious and entirely unsophisticated emotional reaction. Once more, this is perfectly acceptable in a story for children, but not if the aim is for something more ambitious; especially if said entity has designs on social commentary. In this context, the film’s willingness to plumb the most predictable emotional depths in pursuit of a reaction is both trite and irritating, and represents sentimentality writ obscenely large. In the end, the argument will always be that concerning a lovely story like this, the heart should govern the head, and this might very well be true. Alas, I’m reviewing the film before me, and my heart of stone is sadly unswayed. This was a very pretty, but also rather long and mawkish, two and a half hours.

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