Steven Spielberg’s War Horse virtually demands to be admired, even adored. It’s a throwback to movies like National Velvet and My Friend Flicka, with a healthy dollop of Lassie Come Home. Adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel (and the 2007 play Nick Stafford made from it) and directed by Spielberg at his most assured, the movie is easy to admire. Adoration, however, never comes. For that, something’s missing.
The setting is rural England shortly before World War I. Young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine, an appealing newcomer) watches the birth of a part-Thoroughbred colt, the kind of horse that is of little use to the tenant farmers in that part of the country, where bulk and brute strength are more valued than speed and spirit. When the colt has grown old enough to sell at auction, Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullan), a drunken and broken man, sees that his supercilious landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) is interested in the horse, so he spitefully outbids the man again and again. By the time reality penetrates the fog where Ted lives, he has blown his rent money on a horse he can’t really use. Ted’s wife Rosie (Emily Watson) is dismayed and appalled, but Albert is thrilled. He names the horse Joey and promises his worried mother and blurry father that he’ll train Joey to farm work.
Albert’s praise and affection work their magic on Joey, but it’s not enough to pay off the family’s debts; when the war finally comes, Ted sells Joey to the British cavalry. The heartbroken Albert promises Joey that as soon as he’s old enough to enlist, he’ll find Joey somehow and bring him home.
So begin’s Joey’s odyssey—or perhaps more correctly, his Iliad. Sold to a decent officer who truly appreciates him (Tom Hiddleston), he participates in a spectacular cavalry charge that turns to slaughter in the face of German machine guns. Joey miraculously survives the carnage, but falls into the hands of the Germans, who put him to work hauling ambulances full of wounded men, then heavy artillery, a job at which horses routinely drop dead of exhaustion. At every turn, Joey encounters human beings who treat him as gently and humanely as the war’s inhumane circumstances will allow—including a brief idyll with a young Flemish girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), whose bucolic life is yet untouched by the war.
Morpurgo’s novel (like the classic Black Beauty) is written in the voice of the horse himself, giving an equine spin on the events Joey witnesses and participates in. On stage, Joey and the other horses are played by life-size puppets masterfully handled, a striking coup de théâtre that won awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Both novel and play, then, have touches of artifice—the equine narrator, the brilliantly choreographed puppets—that enhance the story for reader and audience. These enhancements perhaps conceal the story’s shortcomings.
On screen, what Warren Beatty (in a different context) called “the tyranny of naturalism” takes over. Joey is no longer a narrator, nor an impressive puppet; he’s just a horse. Gorgeous to behold, it’s true, with eyes that sometimes flash with surprising intelligence and expressiveness, but still only a horse. This shifts the movie’s focus from Joey-as-narrator, or Joey-as-puppet, to the humans he meets, and they’re a pretty sketchy and two-dimensional bunch, serving their purpose in a plot with a wide streak of soap opera, then vanishing as the picture moves on.
War Horse has strong appeal for all ages, and at least two sequences are as good as anything Steven Spielberg has ever done: that cavalry charge early in the war, then a later scene as Joey gallops in panic through the trenches and across the no-man’s-land of the Somme. The virtuoso craftsmanship is undeniable, but too often it’s also derivative and unsubtle (like John Williams’ musical score, simultaneously pompous and vulgar). The movie’s crimson sunsets and sweeping crane shots make us think of Gone With the Wind, when we should be thinking of Albert and Joey. War Horse reminds us of great movies we’ve already seen instead of showing us a great movie we can discover right now.