December 24, 2011


“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.”

Rating: C-


Around The Web
  • Pingback: Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’ Video Review with Alex, Peter, Brandon – First Showing | e-Horses.Biz()

  • Pingback: WAR HORSE Review – Collider.com | e-Horses.Biz()

  • alex

    So, War Horse C-, but the Muppets an A-???

    You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me!!!

  • nelson

    just fire goldberg already

    the cancer of collider

  • anon Ymus

    —-Self-basting, over-produced, decades stale horse worship
    —and moral alibis galore as Spielberg BALKS and RUNS from
    all address of the cosmically relevant 60th Anniversary of the

    —————————KOREAN WAR——————————.

    —WAY—–WAY———WAY NOT GOOD. . .

  • BOF

    I thought I was alone thinking Williams’ score was overwrought with melodrama, this score treads on the edge of self-parody and feels self-indulgent in some parts. It’s been nominated for a Golden Globe so some must think otherwise. I’ve also read several reviews of the relentless music throughout Tintin, maybe Spielberg is giving Williams too much free reign.

  • Hello There

    This review reads like someone who never wanted to like this movie. Or by someone who didn’t get the movie. I understand, with any movie, some will like it, others will not. I’m not saying Mr. Goldberg is wrong in disliking the film — if he didn’t like it, he didn’t like it. But Mr. Goldberg seems to want to force his opinion of how he thought things should have been done. Just because it wasn’t the movie Mr. Goldberg had in his head does not make it bad.

    Mr. Goldberg places the fault on trying to show the broad canvas of war while not showing the brutality of war. I would disagree with this point. Does brutality inherently equal displaying gore? I think War Horse very distinctly shows the costs and brutality of war throughout the film. Lives are lost. Lives are changed. The themes in the film very much display this. So does it need blood and guts at every corner to display brutality? Without spoiling specific scenes from the movie, using symbolic or less literal visuals can often provide a more profound look at violence and war.

  • AlexHeyNa

    WHY do they continue to let Matt Goldberg do the reviews??? He HATES everything!!!

  • Pingback: Work ‘Horse’: Untested star saddles up for first big-screen role – Boston Herald | e-Horses.Biz()

  • jimmy3vil

    Goldberg, get your head out of your ass, man.

    Would Schindler’s List have been a better film if we had cut away to the battlefields of World War II?

    Would ET have been a better film if we saw Elliott’s mum and dad screaming and beating the shit out of each other before they got divorced?

    I suppose we should have seen Jaws chowing down on Chrissie’s still-screaming body beneath the water, blood and gristle hanging from his teeth?

    Many movies rely on some level of implied or assumed knowledge to create a tonal foundation that informs the story the film-maker wishes to tell. Saving Private Ryan is a different case, as it uses the images at the start of the film to create the tonal foundation for an audience who have no knowledge of what that situation was REALLY like.

    Spielberg has already told the “horrors of war” story, as you freely admit in your review, but that is not the story he is trying to tell here.

    As for the score, I’d say you’re spot on…

  • CeejayNightwing

    This review fails to understand the source material is adapted from a teenage book by Michael Morpurgo. For him to expect it to be depicting the “horrors of War” just shows his lack of understanding in delivering movies for a target audience. He needs to review himself, not the movie!

  • Sara

    I dont know about you guys, but this review is like many others that I read at the others sites…
    My friend said this movie is boring and said the Play was way better than this film. I think he is right…

  • Mass

    Haha, everyone in here, stop being such haters.

    I like Goldbergs reviews, he reviews with honesty, points out the pros and the cons. This us a sheer example of people who can’t accept negative reviews of positively received films. Some people just really want a film to be successful, I get it, however to blast the reviewer because he gives that said film a mediocre review is immature. Opinions vary from person to person, mostly everyone here should get used to it. Don’t act like all you read was negativity either.

    Keep reviewing honestly Golberg, contrary to what beliefs these people hold, they keep coming back for more.

    • AlexHeyNa

      Hey guys, “Mass” is definitely not Matt Goldberg…

      • VocabDoctor

        And this guy “Alex” is certainly not a clueless dip-shit.

    • Beep Shmeep

      Yeah, people keep coming back… to let Matt know how bad his reviews are.

    • SOB

      The angry and sometimes vitriolic comments that follow Matt around this site need to be stopped through a moderator. Reviewing is only personal opinion. These miserable people search desperately for validation and get vexed when others don’t react the way they want them to.

      To all the curmudgeons out there, people WILL disagree with you. Get used to it and do something constructive with your life.

      I knew a guy who lived to make everyone around him feel wretched. Guess what happened to him? He died angry and alone.

      • micoy

        SOB, I agree with you.

      • Beep Shmeep

        What’s interesting is if you read some of his reviews his issues with movies almost feel like bullying. Bullying the movie. The filmmaker. I think he just needs to make points that are well supported. If he did that and still disliked a film I wouldn’t have an issue with it. And he tends to have terrible mistakes in his reviews. If this is his job I just think he should do his due diligence before voicing his opinion.

  • micoy

    Hey guys: what you are doing is (cyber) bulling. It’s easy, useless and, sorry to say, stupid. When I read your comments I just see a bunch of frustrated people…

  • HorseLuv73

    I read the book twice before seeing the movie and I liked the book more. The book is told from the horse’s perspective so that is hard to translate on film. Characters were omitted and other characters added that were not in the book. If I hadn’t read the book, I probably would have liked it more.

  • Zumba

    Matt, which movie example did you forget to type out as the “Boy and his dog” example?

  • lulu

    I’d like to point out that the name of the boy is Albert NOT Arthur. Albert Narracott.

  • luvbees

    Just for future referene if you are going to give a movie a scathing review, or any review at all for that matter you might want to get the main human characters name right………ALBERT not Arthur. REALLY dumbs down your review.

  • Pingback: Everything You Wanted to Know about “War Horse” but were Afraid Ask « Straight from the Horse's Heart()

  • João Paulo

    C- really, terrible review.

  • orangey

    Matt, who is Arthur? The boy in the movie (and the book and the play) is named Albert. Since you missed the name of the main character, I’m pretty sure you missed the point of the movie – it’s an allegory of the human spirit. You may need to Google allegory.

  • Junierizzle

    So you didn’t like it because you didn’t see kids getting their heads blown off? Okay.

  • TangerineSwing

    The writer apparently has never served in the military. No one wants to relive the horrors of it. Just like the father of the boy who loved his horse. And Joey was befriended by many. The horse symbolizes humanity from the perspective of how animal lovers unite to save that beautiful steed. It transcends the nature of war. When the one battle over, you seen dead horses and men. It brutally depicted how selfish and illogical any war is. The casualties are off the chart. The pretty little farm girl to the two german boys. This is not tragic? That is where the tragedy is. So spare me your condescension, because this movie is a soapbox for people such as yourself. This movie is great. I went in with low expectations but was stunned at how great it was.

  • HTLang

    Just came out of the theater to see this film. Beautifull horses but movie sucked big time. The score is awfull, movie lacks every thing for it to be a hit. If you love horses and movies like Seabiscuit, you wont like this one. I didnt shead one tear. Review of this movie is accurate, point

  • Sam

    Theater was completely sold out where I saw it and everyone seemed to leave happy.

    You’re off on this one Goldberg.

  • Randy Coursey

    War Horse comes across more like a Disney movie, the cinematography is extraordinary, the acting superb, but the storyline becomes somewhat sappy and far-fetched. But in my book that’s OK as this film shines. Spielberg doesn’t use too much computer generated technology. In this day and age it’s nice to see a movie that limits this. I enjoyed this movie and the theater was full of clapping people when it ended.

  • Boss

    This review was actually pretty on… This movie sucked on so many levels. It was overly sentimental and seemed contrived. The idea that a horse became more important than a farm, or the war is ridiculous. In fact, everyone in this movie is one-dimensional in their thinking, which is “save the horse” and forget about what’s really happening. The most delusional character is Albert… Hello? Did anyone miss the part where a 17 year old boy is so infactuated with a horse that he follows him to war? Furthermore, this kid looks like he walked straight out of Justin Bieber concert… He’s no farmer! He’s too clean and immature… Goldberg said he was acting like a 12 year old, try 6. I have a 12 year old and 6 year old; the 12 year old could care less about the dog we’ve had all our lives. The 6 year old, on the hand, is sometimes fanatical about it; although not as much Albie is towards his horse. Hence, I must conlude that Albie is borderline retarded.

  • free healthcare help

    hello!,I like your writing so so much! share we communicate more about your article on AOL? I need an expert on this area to resolve my problem. May be that’s you! Taking a look ahead to peer you.