In 1997, Robert Altman executive produced an interesting but short-lived television series called “Gun.” The only recurring member of the cast was a semi-automatic handgun; each episode featured an entirely new story with entirely new actors and one new owner of that same gun. Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse” is basically the same idea, only with a horse as the one constant instead of a gun and an Ireland-circa-WWI setting instead of modern day America. We follow a horse named Joey from birth through his childhood — do horses have childhoods? I’m not a big horse guy — to his unwitting adventures during the Great War, where he passes between owners on both sides of the conflict. The strength of any anthology depends upon the strength of the characters, and that’s the biggest problem about “War Horse.” Joey’s present for all of these stories, but he’s surprisingly uninvolved in many of them (or maybe it’s not that surprising since he’s, y’know, a horse). He’s less a protagonist than a guide through a world full of protagonists, some far more richly characterized than others.
The best of the bunch is unquestionably Joey’s first owner, an Irish boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert’s father, a drunken war veteran named Ted (Peter Mullan) buys Joey as an act of instinct and foolish pride; the horse catches his eye at auction and when his greedy landlord (David Thewlis) joins the bidding, Ted refuses be embarrassed. With the rent to the landlord due, Albert must train the colt to plow his family’s pitiful plot of fallow land or lose everything. There’s some real tension here, and what feels like a genuine connection between Irvine and the horses who play Joey.
Before Albert’s family’s dilemma can be fully resolved, war breaks out in Europe and Joey is sold to the army, where he’s selected as the mount of an impossibly chivalrous officer (“Thor”‘s Tom Hiddleston). In these early days of the war, the British soldiers entertain romantic notions of what the battles will be: swords flashing, horses charging in perfect regimented unison. The horrors of modern warfare with its machine guns, gases, and tanks, will quickly dissuade them of their high-minded ideals.
From Hiddleston, Joey passes hands to a pair of young German soldiers and then to a young orphan and her grandfather. Later, he’s acquired by a cruel German officer who needs horses to pull his heavy artillery and doesn’t care if they die in the effort. Each move away from Albert feels like another move away from the heart and soul of this story. In Michael Morpurgo’s original children’s book, Joey narrated the story. In the Tony Award winning stage adaptation of the book, the horses were brought to life with remarkable life-size puppets. In Spielberg’s “War Horse,” the horse is just a horse (of course, of course). All it can do is observe the people around it, some of whom are painfully dull. “War Horse” is the law of diminishing returns in action.
Spielberg’s brilliant use of camera, lighting, and production design mean the film is never boring to look at. Joey’s life darkens as the war does, and many of the latter scenes take place amidst the horror of trench warfare. These scenes feature several impressive long takes panning the hellish landscape of the battlefield and following Joey on an unsuccessful ride for freedom. From any other director, these would feel like watershed moments. But Spielberg, the director of “Saving Private Ryan,” has captured the senselessness of war before with more clarity, scope, and raw terror.
I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject. Circumstance has led Joey to run into No Man’s Land between the German and English forces, and he’s gotten tangled in a nest of barbed wire. Two soldiers, one from each side, tentatively make their way out to free the horse. They both acknowledge that neither has any idealogical reason to kill one another, and despite their mutual distrust, they quickly learn to work together toward their common goal. Then the horse is free and only one man can own him and animosity suddenly returns. This tiny episode is a beautiful microcosm of the film’s themes: the power of an animal to remind us of our shared humanity and the futility and absurdity of war.
If only every story bore that same emotional impact. Even the grand climax, which uses John Williams’ nostalgic score like Pavlov ringing a bell for his dogs, fails to achieve its heartwarming goals (it might have something to do with the fact that Albert’s obsession with Joey borders on the absurd, if not the outright creepy). There’s both too much about this horse and not enough with him at the same time. Even though it is about an animal and not a person, “War Horse” bears all the flaws of a mediocre biopic: a sketchy and schmaltzy life story that’s so busy cramming in all the broad strokes that it doesn’t have time to fill in the more important details.