This review contains mild spoilers but is unlikely to affect your enjoyment of the film.
Before I write this review, I’d like to clarify some things. Firstly, I have a very willing suspension of disbelief. I very rarely remove myself from a film and think “this is utterly ridiculous” because it’s the movies and you just buy into ridiculousness. Secondly, I like films that are a bit sentimental, that pull the heart strings and have a couple of cheesy moments for the sake of a bit of emotion. Also, I really, really like Steven Spielberg. So bearing that in mind, let me tell you what I thought of War Horse.
You know it’s going to be a little bit rubbish when a ludicrously bright eyed boy befriends a foal and then his drunken farmer dad buys the horse when he should get a work horse. You know you should be worried when your credulity is stretched by the blatant anthropomorphism in the first 5 minutes of the film. But nothing can prepare you for the following TWO AND A HALF HOURS of the most mawkish, ridiculous ode to all things equine in which every cliché ever is used and and in which a horse basically ends World War I and cures a girl of brittle bones. I always knew that the ‘Berg was a fan of sentimentality, but I didn’t realise he would ever get this lazy, shameless or cheap with it.
The first section is undoubtedly the worst. Our luminous eyed hero runs around an England no one has ever lived in, falling in love/lust with a thoroughbred he imaginatively names Joey after his Dad buys him on a whim because the horse just looks magnificent. He then teaches the horse to plough, and the horse, who is just fantastic so he can do anything, manages to plough a massive rubble strewn field in one sitting, seemingly powered on by sheer will and fantasticness. This is mixed in with several explanations from people in homey Devon accents that this ‘orse, ‘e really is something special. Several people in the audience were probably already crying by this point, I was close to vomiting. The horse then gets sold to Tom Hiddleston, making Jeremy Irvine’s eyes glisten even brighter as he cries. Not for the last time, I might add.
It picks up a bit in the next section simply because Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are too good for this and it had one of maybe two moments in the whole film that are genuinely moving.
Then it goes to two German lads who speak in English to one another and save the horse’s life. These two are also inexplicably bright eyed, and also ridiculously dim. This section is mercifully short and contains the second genuinely moving moment. Interestingly, both these moments revolve around the death of humans, not animals. It’s a tastefully handled conclusion to the sequence, and packs a punch for the family audience without being too unsettling for younger viewers.
I can’t list every section in the film because there’s simply too much sentimental nonsense that follows. We have the aforementioned apparent cure for a little girl’s illness, as well as a doctor choosing to treat a horse (not his several dying men) simply because the horse is just so resilient and magnificent and he’s survived this far, he’s got to survive a little bit more and he’s a soldier. What a horse. There’s a nice section with a German and a Brit saving the horse from barbed wire, although that’s similarly hampered by a belief that people are willing to stop the war for the sake of one horse simply because he’s so ruddy brilliant. It’s important to note that not one human is praised for their efforts for anything in this film. They’re too busy dying with no one noticing because THERE’S A HORSE TO SAVE. The worst bit in all of this is the relationship that our Joey develops with another horse, saving its life at one point because horses know how to do that.
The last scene is the most nauseating of all. I won’t describe why, it has to be seen to be believed.
Spielberg apparently suffered total emotional incontinence when making this film, the whole thing is so utterly, shamelessly aimed at making the punters cry. He’s sacrificed interesting characters, something to say, and genuine emotion for shallow, forced nonsense that comes across as a parody of his actually good films. And the thing is, the whole film is so darned beautiful (save the last scene) that you know there is an expert at work. There are some breathtaking moments and some truly gorgeous shots, but it’s nothing more than a glossy sheen for one of the most nauseating and manipulative films in years.
Review by @NathanaelSmith