War Horse Review

poster from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

On a traffic island near Hyde Park in London, there’s a monument to animals in war. It features a line of plodding animal sculptures, from horses to elephants to pigeons, moving through a gap in a wall that reads “They Had No Choice.” I found it to be the most moving of London’s many monuments, so when I heard Steven Spielberg, who made Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, was making a war movie about a horse in World War I, I knew I had to see it, even if the story seemed kind of nebulous in the trailers.

A farm horse from rural England is sold into the army when war breaks out in 1914 and must survive four years of battle, hard work, and hardship in order to be reunited with his boy.

I went into War Horse expecting to be moved. Most war movies move me, and this was Steven Spielberg, so it was pretty much a given. Apparently it wasn’t. Apart from a few moments of welling during the sad bits, I remained strangely unmoved by War Horse. For that reason, I found it to be technically good, but nonetheless disappointing.

The biggest problem I had with War Horse was that it wasn’t really about a war horse at all. Joey, the horse, is merely the thread that ties together a bunch of human stories. The original book by Michael Morpurgo is told from the viewpoint of the horse, but in the film version Spielberg is just using Joey to take his viewers on a tour of as many different aspects of World War I as possible. Even when we zoom in to look into Joey’s horsey eyes, all we see are the reflections of people.

Joeys eye from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

I guess horses just aren’t cute enough to inspire automatic audience devotion.

The people in War Horse aren’t even that well developed because most of them only stick around for about ten minutes or so each, which you won’t have guessed from the trailers because many of them are played by famous people. The only exception is Joey’s boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who joins the army to find him. I’d say War Horse is more about Albert than Joey, because Albert actually has a goal, but Albert is missing from about two thirds of the film.

Albert talks to Joey from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

Don’t worry Lassie… I mean Joey… even though Dad sold you, I’ll find you again.

During his time away from Albert, Joey goes on his tour of World War I. He is under the care of cavalry officer Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), two young Germans named Gunther and Michael (David Kross and Leonhard Carow), a little French farm girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens), and a German master of gun-pulling horses named Friedrich (Nicholas Bro), all of whom miraculously speak English and none of whom last longer than ten minutes or so before something terrible happens to them. The Bad Luck Horse would also be an appropriate title. Maybe they’ll call it that in French.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston as cavalry officers from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

TOM HIDDLESTON: So, what are our chances of getting mown down today?
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: Oh, pretty good I’d say. Why’d we agree to do this movie anyway?

The movie is supposed to be about Joey, but as a character, Joey is blank. He does make friends with a black horse from his regiment and appears to care about Albert, but that’s it. He makes no attempts to do the Lassie thing and get home. You might be thinking: “but Kat, how can you give a horse a personality if the horse can’t talk?” But it is possible. They did it with tigers in Two Brothers. One was sweet, the other was angry, and they even had a goal: to make it back to each other and their family in the jungle. Joey, however, just kind of goes along with whatever’s happening.

Emilie with Claude and Francois from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

What? My name is Francois now? Okay.

Because of this, the most moving moments in the film were about the people more than the horses. There’s one in particular that stands out. When Joey is trapped on some barbed wire in no-man’s land, all the fighting stops as Colin (Toby Kebbell), a British soldier, and Peter (Hinnerk Schonemann) creep out of their trenches and work together to free him.

no mans land from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

If Joey had been a person, they’d both get medals for bravery.

Of course, the most tear-jerking part of the film is SUPPOSED to be the end, when the war is over. I know this because Joey rides off into the sunset like he’s in a Western or something while John Williams’ swelling string music attempts to beat tears from your face. In fact, Spielberg was so determined to have a sunset at the end that he used filters to achieve it.

Joey rides off into the sunset from the Dreamworks SKG film War Horse

How else do you explain why the sun’s still so high in the sky??

In interviews, Steven Spielberg mentions that he was looking to do a World War I project for a while until he came across War Horse, which was actually on stage in London. I think he should have kept looking. The talents of the man who made Saving Private Ryan are on display in the technical mastery of the film (it looks great) but there’s just something missing from the heart of the story that means it will never be ranked among the great war movies. I shall dub it merely okay, and forget about it. If you see it, you probably will too, except you might not know why.

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