War Horse is, when you get right down to it, a story about a boy and his dog, even if the dog happens to be a horse. I don’t mean to offend horses—or dogs, for that matter—but I want to be honest about the conventions involved. It’ll make appreciating the moments when the film breaks convention that much more enjoyable. It’s in those moments when the film breaks convention that it yields the most rewards.
Albert is the boy in this picture, and he forms a bond with a small thoroughbred horse he names Joey. Both Albert and Joey possess an iron will that manifests itself first in Albert’s efforts to train Joey, and Joey’s efforts to serve this boy he grows to love.
All of that sounds a little silly, I know. Trust me, Steven Spielberg does something with it that I can’t articulate too well without getting into too many specifics. So here’s something specific: Albert’s father buys Joey at auction. He needs a strong work horse, but he buys Joey for no other reason than to one-up his landlord who also shows up to bid on the horse. Joey isn’t built for the work the farm demands, but Albert persists in training Joey to do a job that he shouldn’t be able to do—plow a dry rocky field. Aided by a little rain, and rough-hewn determination, Albert and Joey complete the job with all the triumph of watching Rocky go the distance with Apollo Creed.
But the film is called War Horse for a reason, meaning Joey doesn’t stay on the farm for long. World War I erupts, and a British soldier purchases Joey to take with him into battle. One of those early breaks with convention occurs here. The officer treats Albert with dignity and courtesy when he takes Joey away, promising to return the animal when the war is over if he can. He can’t keep that promise, and you don’t really need me to tell you that. The film may break with convention in some places, but sticks real tight with convention in others.
War Horse telegraphs itself in the first fifteen minutes. The screenplay’s smaller touches keep it from turning into something we’ve already seen a hundred times before. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis endow the story with something more humane and graceful than a film like this usually conveys. It deals with the horror of war, and the evil that stirs in the hearts of bad men when it rages. But it also spends time painting numerous portraits of the goodness of men facing these terrible times as well.
Spielberg shapes it all into a grand piece of cinema. He takes a more classical approach, reaching back to the golden-age of Hollywood. Sun-drenched vistas. The dead, colorless cold of no man’s land. He runs the entire spectrum. The lush color on the screen might overwhelm the color of the story’s characters, but not by much. Some of them, yes, come straight from the stockpile. Others, however, create some of the more moving and emotional moments that Spielberg seems to effortlessly summon. This is a filmmaker very adept and skilled at his craft. He still knows how to sweep you away, even if it is only for a little while.
Something about it, though, doesn’t really add up in the end, and I wish I could put my finger on it. I think some of it has to do with the aspects of war it tries to examine. It doesn’t spend any time at all with the hows or the whys of the conflict, which may keep with the historical understanding that World War I was a pointless war, but it makes everything seem too arbitrary. Watching this, you’d think that nations assemble their fighting men to go and wage bloody battle because that’s just the natural thing bloody-minded men do.
It might have helped for the film to give some of the fighting a point, even if it was nothing more noble than men fighting to save their homeland. There’s a brief moment as the soldiers leave for war where the townspeople gathered to see them all off, and almost every face has a smile. Their leaving for war seemed occasion for a parade. Placed in historical context, everyone thought the war would only last a matter of months, not the four years it really lasted. The film never really tells us that, so watching it happen, almost without that context, seems a little strange.
The overall world of War Horse, then, seems to take place in a vacuum. Maybe that’s just me trying to put too much of a burden on a film that was never too interested in carrying it in the first place. This isn’t a story about the particulars of war, but more about the storm it creates, and how those trapped in its wind and thunder endure.
In that respect, Spielberg, and his well-honed team of filmmakers, succeed on just about every front.
Lee Hall and Richard Curtis