Steven Spielberg’s latest war-torn epic is the amazing, yet most peculiar, film “War Horse.” While visually masterful, lush and awe-inspiring, the film teeters so far into heavy-handed, maudlin schmaltz that the audience has one of two choices; give themselves over to the film and cue the hopeful weeping or dip a toe in the syrupy sweet goo before realizing the film is way too rich for mass consumption.
And while it’s true one can make that argument for many, many Spielberg films, “War Horse” proved just a little too much for me to take. But what’s weird about feeling that way in this case is that in many Spielberg films (or hell, in any heavy-handed or overly sentimental film) there’s almost a demand that you be manipulated. In “War Horse” I felt like Spielberg is fully invested in taking the viewer on this adventure and you can take it or leave it. Although I wasn’t able to completely give myself over to the journey I can still fully admit the film is brilliantly constructed and Spielberg remains a master of the epic war movie but, overall, I just couldn’t find a way to give myself over to the narrative.
“War Horse” opens with the birth of the titular character, as witnessed by a young boy named Albert (Irvine), who is so enthralled by the young colt, he apparently falls instantly in love like a wolf imprinting on its cub. In honesty, the movie kind of lost me at this point because the horse is simply born and the boy is clearly way, way too amazed for no apparent reason other than overwhelming love at first sight, which is evidenced by his “Spielberg Face.” In fact, “The Spielberg Face,” as described by Kevin B. Lee in this fantastic video piece on the subject for the website “Fandor,” is another reason this film may have lost me from the get go. For as big of a fan of Spielberg as I am, the video presents and details Spielberg’s iconic facial expression shots in such a way as to render them cliché, and they very well might be. But in order for an artist to become a cliché of him or herself, they first have to establish the effect enough times for it to be accepted as signature. Thus, can’t a cliché be described as “auterism,” which is one of the highest forms of recognition one can bestow upon a filmmaker? This idea plagued me throughout the film, which is obviously an issue of my own focus, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel as though “War Horse” was “minor” Spielberg or outright aping of better Spielberg efforts.
The trailers for “War Horse” indicate the film is about a boy and his horse in a war. In truth, the film is about the horse going off to fight in World War I while Albert stays home on the family farm in Devon, England until he’s of age. Albert’s father Ted (Mullan) was wounded in a previous war and has taken to the drink to cope with his mental and physical anguish that the battles have wrought upon him, but he’s a proud man and his loving wife Rose (Watson) sticks by him through an apparent life of stubbornly bad decisions. One of these decisions includes bidding much too high for the horse at auction in an effort to best his landlord. The horse, who Albert names Joey, isn’t a horse cut out for farm work, which is what the family needs if they want to save their farm. Yet Albert and Joey forge such a strong relationship that Joey becomes a sort of folk hero to the rustic farm plow community due to his never say die attitude.
Soon war breaks out and all of the boys who are of age in Devon head off to fight, as do the horses who are basically recognized as short timers, destined for the glue factory. Albert is heartbroken as he’s too young to fight but has no choice but to allow Joey to go. Luckily the kind and noble Captain Nicholls (Hiddleston) obtains Joey but promises Albert they’ll write from the front lines, and he follows through. But as particularly bloody wars tend to go, Nicholls and Joey are soon separated and Joey goes on an amazing journey that looks at many sides of the war.
Any fan or person who has followed the Spielberg trajectory pretty much knows what’s going to happen in this film and these predictions play out almost perfectly. There’s some amazing scenes of battle and I basically enjoyed each of the subplots Joey finds himself in. But like an impending disaster (o.k., that’s a bit harsh, but you get my point) anyone who knows anything about the Spielberg canon knows what’s going to happen and thus “War Horse” becomes a predictable and fairly improbable trek towards the obvious conclusion that one can see coming a mile away. Dare I say Spielberg has “out-Spielberged” himself here? I think I can.
But again, all of my issues with the film can easily slide the completely opposite way which is what makes the film so strange for me. It’s beyond critic proof in that anything you say about it, good or bad, is true. Maybe the film is actually brilliant because it’s so self-sure and knows exactly what it’s trying to be and then executes that so well it doesn’t matter what one says because it’s successful on it’s own terms? I’m not sure. And while I wasn’t a particular fan of “War Horse” I’d have a really hard time not recommending it to anyone who asked me if it was “good” because it is good. Really good. But it’s also silly and dopey and…ugh. On and on we can go.