“A Boy and His Pet” stories can be immensely charming. Pets are sweet and they look up to the boy (or girl, but usually it’s a boy in these stories) and the boy loves his faithful friend. The genre started out as a “A Boy and His Dog”, but has expanded to “A Boy and His Robot” (The Iron Giant) and “A Boy and His Dragon” (How to Train Your Dragon). Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse pulls it back to terrestrial creatures and starts out trying to tell the story of a boy and his horse. But then the movie changes gears, separates the two and rather than show the struggle of both to get back to the other, the story uses the horse to try and tell a series of vignettes about life during World War I. However, those vignettes lose their honesty when Spielberg refuses to show the devastating horror of war.
A farmer (Peter Mullan) goes to auction to buy a strong workhorse to plow his fields, but becomes enamored with a horse who’s strong but isn’t built to pull a plow. The farmer gets into a prideful bidding war with his landowner (David Thewlis), and ends up winning the horse but at great cost. There’s not much logic to a landowner trying to drive his tenant into bankruptcy rather than have the tenant successfully grow a crop and share the profits, but the landowner in War Horse is eeeeevil. The farmer brings home the horse to the chagrin of his wife (Emily Watson) and the absolute joy of his son, Arthur (Jeremy Irvine). Arthur promises to train the horse—who he names Joey—and becomes a horse whisperer to make Joey pull the plow.
But their relationship is severed when England enters World War I and the farmer sells the horse to the army, specifically to the world’s noblest young lieutenant (Tom Hiddleston) who promises Arthur he’ll take good care of Joey and, if possible, return him when the war is over. From this point forward, Arthur almost entirely vanishes from the story and Joey—who doesn’t have much of a personality beyond “tenacious” and “able to impress humans”—is used as a framing device to see how war affects life on the battlefield as well as the homefront.
War Horse always seems to be running around the best path for telling the emotional parts of its story. Arthur has the attitude of a 12-year-old boy trapped in the body of a 17-year-old, but Irvine plays the character with such total commitment and unwavering affection for Joey that we buy how much he really loves that horse. But when the narrative tears them apart, we stick with Joey and lose Arthur, even though he’s been the human anchor for the entire first act.
Instead, the plot completely becomes about Joey getting shuffled around to different owners. We then see how officers, deserters, small families, and grunts on the battlefield are like Joey: they’re not bad people (provided they’re not side characters), they’re victims of circumstances beyond their control, and they’re trying to find a way to retain some sense of normalcy or at least their sense of self. There’s also the obvious revelation that the evolving battlefield (World War I was the last time horses were used in battle) will always remain barbarous as long as man continues to find new and exciting ways to kill his fellow man. The movie could make the tonal shift work if it didn’t keep pulling its punches. Visceral atrocities are always in the background, so the cost of all these small stories never feels personal. Spielberg had no problem putting the horror of war front-and-center in Saving Private Ryan, but apparently with War Horse, Spielberg wants to make a war movie the whole family can enjoy provided the kids don’t mind seeing gigantic piles of horse carcasses.
War Horse‘s story seems like a matter of unnecessary compromise, and the emotional burden is put on the visuals and the acting. Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski—who also worked on Ryan—delivers wonderful, sweeping imagery. He knows how to make the English countryside look idyllic and brings a shocking look to the battlefield without re-running his design for Ryan. The entire cast does an outstanding job and they provide complete characters despite their limited screen time. However, the quality of the cinematography and the performances are almost completely overshadowed by John Williams‘ abysmal score. When it comes to adventure—Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park—Williams is untouchable. But with drama his approach lacks subtlety, and his work on War Horse sounds like a cross between self-parody and a brazen attempt to steal Howard Shore’s amazing Lord of the Rings score. Spielberg decides to open the movie by letting Williams do an overture as the camera sweeps across the lush, gorgeous vistas, as if to say, “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be triumphant.”
The idea behind War Horse is to show how war touches lives beyond bullets and bombs, and it’s a sound concept. There’s nothing inherently wrong about using a framing device like Joey to tie together vignettes. The fault lies in wanting to show the broad canvas of war but without the brutality. When Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan, he didn’t attempt to do a remake of The Longest Day. He made sure the audience understood with full clarity the meaning of the expression, “War is Hell.” With War Horse, the message becomes “War is not a very nice place to go.”