Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston
Directed by: Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”)
Written by: Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”)
In my generation, childhood affection for horses was strictly a girl thing. No male I’ve ever known has squealed with delight at the mention of a pony. No guy I’ve ever met has ever doodled pictures in their notebook of the majestic steed they hoped to get for their birthday. That’s not sexist; it’s just a fact: horses were for girls. Maybe it has something to with the landmark boys’ toys of my youth being Transformers and G.I. Joe, while the girls my age had My Little Pony. Hasbro made the call. If my disinterest in horses is entirely market-driven, then it shouldn’t be surprising that the commercials for “War Horse” left me rolling my eyes. Why is this teenage boy whining so much about his horse?
Directed by Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), “War Horse” follows the adventures of Joey, a horse owned by teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Purchased by Albert’s drunken father (Peter Mullan), Joey is saddled with the burden of saving the family farm. Trained by Albert to plow the field, Joey earns the admiration of the village. However when a flood wipes out the crops, money is needed to pay the rent. Joey is sold to the British army on the brink of World War I as Albert vows to reunite with him one day. As the war progresses, Joey’s journey takes him across Europe, and across enemy lines, from one owner to another.
As proven with “Saving Private Ryan,” no one directs early-20th century battle scenes like Spielberg. From an early charge of the cavalry to a later battle in the trenches, the sequences here end up more family-friendly than the grisly, gory nightmares depicted in “Ryan” without losing the immediacy that made that film the standard-bearer. As the last conflict where man and beast worked together, World War I proves to be fertile ground for Spielberg, depicted here as a turning point in the history of war where mounted soldiers swung swords while being fired upon by machine guns. That’s the story you’ll wish was being told here. As it turns out, the film strays a little too far into schmaltzy territory when no weapons are being fired. As mentioned before, pre-Army Albert comes across whiny, and his passionate love for his horse falls on the wrong side of cheesy. One of Joey’s stops, with a sickly French girl and her doting grandfather, feels too cute by half and is mercifully ended by a battalion of German soldiers. And the less said about the sassy goose and Joey’s horse friend, the better.
It is a testament to the power of Spielberg, however, that the too-earnest parts can somehow stitch themselves together in a satisfying way, teaming up with the director’s masterful combat scenes to craft an uplifting conclusion that ends up bringing a tear to your eye.