Steven Spielberg's new film War Horse that tells the tale of a boy and his unbridled affection for his horse is, again, one spot in the Oscar race lost to the wrong candidate. I say this because the film's nomination barred the entry of much more worthy films, namely Gosling's Drive and Fincher's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which deserved to compete.
In War Horse, the prolific grand-master adapts Michael Murporgo's novel of the same name. The boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) feels an instant connect with the horse Joey and trains him to plough his field. But Albert's father (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to pay the bills particularly of the gluttonous landlord.
The war is tip-toeing close to English territory, and Joey must be traded to the cavalry. Albert is shattered at this and volunteers to go to war, driven more by his need to be with his horse than for the welfare of the nation, but he is obviously underage. The odyssey of Joey across the warring territories of England, Germany and France, ends in No Man's Land and a tear-jerking reunion.
As schmaltzy as the story looks on paper, the film is a classic instance of old-school Hollywood, and exaggerated sentimentalism that never quite transfers the emotional rush.
In Joey's journey, where he encounters a number of people from English cavalrymen to German brothers coming to terms with the war, to a young French girl and her grandfather, we see Albert's story pushed uncomfortably aside. We miss out on the boy's quest and are left untouched by his sense of longing and loss.
Although Albert's story is cut midway, the void is covered by the conflict of the First World War. It broadens the film's perspective. Spielberg tells
of an alien encounter with as much depth as he tells the tale of a petty fraud on the run.
There are some brilliant sequences like the one where a coin is tossed between two combating soldiers in no man's land to claim ownership of Joey. There's an affecting subtext, where one of the men, staring at the horse says, "Running into the fray, look, what a strange beast you've become," indicating a direct comparison. It's a scene memorable for its sheer articulation which breaks down even the toughest war veterans, with the horse acting as the catalyst of human vulnerability.
Joey's unplanned and misguided mission is coming to an end, but it seems largely insignificant, especially when you count the odd individuals who derive superfluous inspiration from him. Like the little French girl comparing the two horses that have ended up in her windmill chamber to boyfriends she could never date. This is simply stretching sentimentally too far, making it trivial.
At one point, the film becomes laborious, not with emotion, but because of its running time. A feeling of boredom settles in relieved only by the colossal amount of technical wizardry on display.
This is the work of the god of background compositions, John Williams, and the savvy-Janusz Kaminiski, Spielberg's frequent collaborator as director of photography. The film has many scenes which simply have to be studied--the superbly-lit frames where beaded sweaters dissolve into marching horses, and where the shots are just too beautifully etched for a film whose theme is battles and hostilities. Fans of John Ford's and Victor Fleming's school of filmmaking will see scenes that look like they're drawn from Gone with the Wind.
An unusual blend of technical finesse in a mostly schmaltzy set-up, riding Steven Spielberg's War Horse is a mixed experience. I'd recommend it for the striking imagery.