Grounded by the bond between a young boy and his pony, Steven Spielberg’s sweeping World War I epic takes audiences from the remote English countryside to the heat of battle, examining the many ways in which war taints lives. Inspired by Nick Stafford’s play of the same name, “War Horse” is a rare film capable of touching viewers of all ages, but its over-zealous appeals to pathos are often off-putting.
The year is 1914, when Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a Devon youth, first befriends the thoroughbred Joey after father Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) wins the horse at an auction. The Narracotts are struggling tenant farmers who quickly become the town’s laughingstock when word gets out that they purchased a thoroughbred to plough their rocky fields. But under Albert’s gentle guidance, Joey eventually gets the job done. Inclement weather later destroys the crops, forcing Ted to sell Joey in order to pay the rent.
By this time, the British Empire has officially entered the Great War, and Joey’s new owner, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), assures a heartbroken Albert that he will do his best to ensure that the horse returns to Devon. Thus begins Joey’s remarkable four-year journey, during which he serves both the British and German armies as fate takes him through rural France all the way to the trenches of no-man’s land. Unfortunately, not all of Joey’s various keepers are lucky enough to make it out of the war alive. Meanwhile, Albert comes of age and enlists to serve his country, and even in the bleakest times, he never gives up hope of being reunited with his beloved horse.
As much as “War Horse” is a love story of sorts, it is also a parable of how war touches people, particularly the young. The tragic loss of childhood and innocence is a constant theme, prominent not only in Albert’s saga but also in the lives of others who encounter Joey – the German brothers who use him to try to escape back home from the frontlines and the young French girl who cares for the horse until the German army raids her family’s farm for supplies.
Spielberg doesn’t scrimp on the horrors of war, yet tasteful editing keeps the film at a PG-13 rating for some violence. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski wisely opted for film over digital format, resulting in a beautifully rich palette and scenery practically vivid to the point of seeming tangible. John Williams, another frequent Spielberg collaborator, provides the epic score that, like the movie itself, is often too sentimental.
Kudos to Spielberg for making a film that isn’t afraid to be emotional, but his heavy-handed approach often detracts from its potential effect. “War Horse” has a tendency to yank, rather than pull, at the heartstrings, erring on the side of sappy earnestness rather than poignancy. Movies ought to make audiences feel something, but when the emotional manipulation lacks subtlety, it undermines the magic and upsets the artistry that is the ideal cinema.
“War Horse” is, ultimately, a powerful story, but its execution leaves room for desire.