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War Horse | Movie Review
If there is nothing else to take away from this film, it's the notion that somehow legendary director Steven Spielberg is officially losing his magic touch.
Had he directed War Horse 20 years ago, it probably would have become a classic.
Unfortunately, it is evident as one watches the film that he can't seem to figure out what movie he wanted to make while he was filming.
The movie begins in Devon, England right before World War I, where a poor farmer (Peter Mullan) impetuously purchases a thoroughbred horse. However, as a race horse, it is essentially useless on a farm, as it is not designed to pull a plow, which is essential to sowing and planting crops.
His son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes it upon himself to train the horse, which he names Joey.
He first teaches Joey to obey his commands, then to handle a plow so they can plant for turnips the harvest, and in doing so earn enough money to pay off their late rent and save their farm. Although the entire community, along with their snide landlord, ridicule his efforts, through sheer faith, determination, and trust, Albert is able to get Joey to pull the plow and turn a rocky field into useable farming land.
Both stories concern the relationship between a young person, boy or girl, with a horse. Irvine's performance as the intensely passionate Albert is thoroughly convincing. He perfectly emanates the character's youthful idealism, and it is very easy to empathize with him.
The film then does a full rotation. After working so hard to train Joey, Albert's father is forced to sell him to a captain in the British Army. The majority of the film then follows Joey as he survives the terror of the Western Front during World War I.
The problem is this isn't White Fang, which is told entirely through the eyes of the wolf. War Horse, at least the movie, isn't told through the eyes of Joey. The horse has no discernible desire.
Albert, however, does. He wants to be reunited with Joey. He is the main protagonist, but 40 minutes into the movie he vanishes and is not seen until the latter half.
Meanwhile, Joey goes through a number of "owners, and after the second round, the audience quickly learns that anyone who comes within 10 yards of the horse might as well be a redshirt out of Star Trek.
Yet, as a director, Spielberg attempts to force the audience to develop sympathy for these people, just in time for something horrible to happen to them.
It would sort of be like filming the beginning of a James Bond film, and then cutting out Bond only to follow the Aston Martin as it obtains new drivers, who all suffer untimely fates.
Oh, and we're supposed to care about the plight of the drivers, who enter and exit the movie like temporary employees in a retail store.
There is nothing wrong with unpleasant things occurring in a film. But you can't make a movie with the inspirational tone of E.T. and then swap it out for the austerity and bleakness of Saving Private Ryan, which is what Spielberg did with War Horse.
As I have not read the novel, I can't comment on whether this problem originated there or with the script. Either way, the screenwriters, Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, should have cut out the unnecessary subplots and characters and kept it confined to the relationship between Albert and Joey. Not all books can be directly transcribed onto the screen without revisions. Jaws, the movie that catapulted Spielberg to fame, bears little resemblance to the novel on which it was based.
In order for a story to work, there needs to be a central character to follow. Joey, as an animal, doesn't work, because the story isn't told through his perspective. We don't know what he thinks or how he feels. Sadly, Joey also doesn't do anything spectacular, other than survive the horrors around him. He makes no true attempts to find Albert.
Again, this is fine if he merely serves as a symbol, which is partially what Spielberg tried to do. One gets the impression that Joey is regarded as an opportunity for the people caught up in the war to maintain their humanity and self-dignity during a time when it is being taken away from them.
In fact, there are some incredible scenes which, if confined to the right genre, would have made the films(s) great. A charge by British cavalry through a French field, a suicide charge by British soldiers across No Man's Land during the Second Battle of Somme and an uneasy truce between British and German soldiers gives us brief glimpses of Spielberg's genius. Not since All Quiet on the Western Front, made 82 years ago, has a movie captured the needless waste of human life during World War I - due to incompetent military leadership - so dramatically.
Nevertheless, Spielberg's genius wanes too quickly.
Even a tense, yet humorous exchange between a British and German soldier while trying to free Joey from barbed wire loses much of its power because neither one of the characters has been previously introduced before they meet. Had the British soldier been Albert, it would have had a greater emotional impact and given the film better cohesion.
Lastly, one has to ask a question which I never thought I would ask of a Spielberg film; what's the point?
I don't ask in order to find deeper meaning where it doesn't exist, but every Spielberg movie has an underlying theme or message in it, and unfortunately I could not figure out what War Horse seemed to convey. This perhaps explains why the movie ends the way it does, without any explanation or sense of finality.
I must praise the cinematography, but what's the point of nice scenery and camera angles when what you're watching isn't as enjoyable? And as much as I love John Williams' contribution to film scores, it's gotten to the point where one starts to have odd sorts of "flash-backs" from other movies with similar music cues in them. While Williams is trying to make us feel inspired from Joey riding across a barren field, everyone is waiting for Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker to suddenly appear out of the mist.
War Horse, as a story, has all the elements for a great film. Hopefully, in due time, another director will take another stab at adapting it to the screen. If he's smart, he'll remember what worked with this version and, most importantly, the majority of it that didn't.