When I heard that Steven Spielberg was embarking on a new project, I was sceptical. Having nothing particularly notable to his name since Munich (somewhat underrated), it seemed that he had lost his spark. I need only mention the latest Indiana Jones to send shivers down the spines of anyone that has the slightest hint of good taste in anything.
However, upon hearing he was going to be adapting War Horse - being a colossal success on stage (which in turn was adapted from a children’s novel) - for the big screen, a glimmer of hope appeared. This was Spielberg returning to his classic territory – a story of an unbreakable bond, set in the First World War, between a boy and his horse in a sort of Black Beauty meets Saving Private Ryan affair. Incredibly schmaltzy, but he’s proven he can deal with these themes in an incredibly engaging way (Saving Private Ryan is one of the most shamelessly patriotic, overly romantic, and brilliantly constructed films to come out of Hollywood).
Joey is a horse, bought by a drunken farmer at a livestock auction in Devon, for more money than the poor man can afford. The farmer’s son forms an instant bond with the horse, and the horse pulls its weight around the farm against the odds. World War 1 breaks out and Joey is sold to the army, upon which he embarks on a journey encountering many people and many hardships until eventually, in the depths of the trenches, he is reunited with his original owner – cue the Kleenex.
Drawing from both the original source text, with its story told from the horse’s perspective, and the stage show, with its intensity and incredible visual style, the film becomes confused as to what it wants to do. The film is from the horse’s point of view, focusing on the beast’s power to bring out the best in people. But it also attempts to be violent and intense in a family friendly way. What this leads to is brief encounters with chief characters with which we have no time to empathise with and intense sequences lacking a visceral punch to make it effective.
I can’t say this is true for the entirety of the film though, there are segments where you do see Spielberg’s mastery of this brand of film shine out (2 have stuck in my mind since seeing it), but they are too few and far between to give the film the emotional clout that such a story deserves. The characters are so thinly spread that they become pantomime like tropes in order to make the audience remember who they are and the focus on the boy’s bond to his horse is virtually nonexistent so by the end that you feel the entire first act was a waste of time. There was also a completely schizophrenic cinematic style in the opening that I’m convinced was done entirely to combat the shitty British weather that confused the film as to whether it was trying to be realistic or pure fantasy.
But these are not the weakest points of this film. The biggest shortcoming is the actual horse itself. Where the things they manage to get the horse to do for the film are something quite spectacular, for the entire story to be focussed from his point of view means that we have to find some way to connect with him in the supposed way the characters do. This is pretty hard to do with a live action horse, and where the film could have benefited more from being animated. Allow me to explain; films such as Dumbo or Wall-E – both classic family films – feature protagonists that do not speak. Yet they both manage to carry the entire plot for the film’s duration. Why? Because the animators can control their facial expressions, they can emote. A live action animal cannot convey emotions on cue. If they could, I’m sure we’d be replacing many actors with highly trained chimps (and in the case of Orlando Bloom, I’m surprised they haven’t already). So for a live action film to be from the point of view of an animal just cannot work, as we cannot understand its feelings and thus the film keeps its audience at a considerable distance.
It’s a shame, because as a film, this had great potential. There’s great source material (the stage show blows the film completely out of the water), and you can see the technical prowess of Spielberg at work throughout - from the classic John Williams score that swoops and blossoms in all the right places to the grandiose camerawork depicting a luscious British countryside – but it all falls flat because at the end of it all, it’s just a series of vignettes telling us how incredible the horse is and it’s showing us how emotional we should be without actually invoking any emotions in us by using generic, romanticism in every sequence. Ultimately, it’s just patronising.