Friday, December 30

REVIEW: War Horse

(out of 4 stars)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
2 hours 26 minutes
From Dreamworks

Jeremy Irvine
Emily Watson
Peter Mullan
David Thewlis
Tom Hiddleston
Niels Arestrup

I was really looking forward to this one.  It would be a Christmas Day movie, a tradition with me.  And it’s only proper that I lay something out on the table right here and now and it’s just about the most wholesome thing about me.  I love live-action horse movies… I love dog movies too… even cat movies.  Hell, I even loved Babe.

I have loved horse movies forever and I swear I have seen them all, the good, the not-so-good and the pretty horrible.  I think the first movie I saw was a C-western called The Lion and the Horse.  I saw it again recently and it was pretty bad but when it came out, my age was in single digits and I was riveted watching two or three cowboys chase a wild stallion across the wide open spaces.  Soon I caught more of that same action in Gypsy Colt (the equine version of Lassie Come Home) and Black Horse Canyon.  Once I realized what a horse-loving cowboy I was (my bike was my steed and I had the duds, guns, ropes and the attitude, which included great effort to stay out of the bathtub), I went back and caught National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, Smoky, The Story of Seabiscuit and more.  In later years it was numerous versions of Black Beauty, Miracle of the White Stallions and the superb The Man from Snowy River where four horses had prominent parts.  Thank you, Australia.  Later still were two of the finest horse operas ever made… The Black Stallion and Hidalgo.  (If I have missed mentioning your favorite, don’t worry that I missed seeing it.  I am sure I didn’t.) 

So I come to the table with a certain flair for this type of movie.  I liked War Horse and whether I like to admit it or not, it was the best part of my Christmas Day.  If you carry on about horse movies the way I have, I think it’s pretty certain you will like it, too.

Now then, sit back in the saddle, loosen the reins and listen up.  This is not all that good of a movie.  When one thinks of the director attached to it, it’s really not that good of a movie.  Spielberg has only himself to look at when he set the bar so high all those many years ago.  He has brought much that is good to the movie industry.  I happen to think he’s made some of the best movies ever made.  This, unfortunately, is not one of them.

I had heard that he wanted to make an animal movie and had long been looking for the right property (I also heard that he has long wanted to make a musical) but this film is so mind-numblingly formulaic and I could not detect anything very original.  The general mindset for horse movies is this:  we meet the horse as a colt; we usually know the mother, too.  The wobbly little thing bonds with a kid in the family who cares for it and loves it like nothing else and is horrified when the animal is taken away (usually sneakily).  This happens because the family needs money more than they need the kid happy and well-adjusted.  The animal suffers… often in a rodeo… your heart aches.  But the sun always comes up in horse movies and most animal movies (sorry Yeller, sorry Marley) and you watch the reunion through wet eyes and a runny nose.

Ok, it’s not a rodeo here.  It’s WWI.  But I’ll tell you what.  It’s not going to cut it.  Audiences are too sophisticated today to want to see a horse film that is scarcely different from most other horse movies they’ve seen.  This film is actually based on a play but it likely appealed to Spielberg because he was drawn to those corny old stories of his youth.   Those who like animal movies will not like the war part and this is certainly not for young children.  Those who like war films may find this one a little antiseptic.  Not much happens in the war of much note.  (I did find a scene where a Brit and a German bond for a few minutes to free the animal from some serious barbed wire.)

Spielberg sent out his people to come up with the title star.  After a while they hired the horse that starred in Seabiscuit although it has been reported that several horses played the title role 

The human actors were all perfection.  Young Jeremy Irvine delivered a heartfelt performance as the boy who loves and trains the horse and follows him into combat.  Peter Mullan and Emily Watson were ideal as the parents living a hardscrabble life in the face of eviction.

Janusz Kaminski’s cameras move gorgeously across the meadows and hills and captures the magic and the spirit of this animal while at the same time exposing us to the grimy darkness that is war.  John Williams, as always, provided a noteworthy score.

NEXT POST:  Learning to Live Out Loud

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review on this one. After reading it, I've decided I'll wait for the DVD. I, too, am a sucker for horse films as I owned horses in my youth and find them to be beautiful and majestic animals. Since your review mirrors what others have been saying about this film, I'll spare myself the usually irritating visit to the local theater and watch this in the comfort of my own home.