Home Is Where the Horse Is: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse
War Horse is a film of grand scope and of even grander emotions, an old-fashioned ode to a type of “aw shucks” sentimentality that could make you nostalgic for old Hollywood or just downright nauseous. The titular steed at the center of Steven Spielberg’s laborious epic acts as the pure and unfiltered center to the various human experiences crossing its path, a familiar representation of home and comfort even during the darkest times. Examples range from acts of familial tenderness and sacrifice to the horrifically violent specifics of trench warfare in WWI. These vignettes ebb and flow depending on the horse’s changing location, a problematic structure that favors broad narrative strokes yet lacks character development. Unfortunately, War Horse never stays in one spot very long, often rendering it’s drama inert and fleeting.
The lush English countryside acts a fitting locale for the film’s segregated first act in which wide-eyed farm boy Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his family try to fend off eviction and emotional implosion. After his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) rashly purchases an undersized horse to work their farm, Albert attempts to rectify the situation by turning the newly acquired animal (he names him Joey) into a successful harvester. During Albert and Joey’s initial bid to plow the farm’s hard and rocky soil, the entire community comes out to watch them fail. Like many Spielberg’s heroes, Albert is faced with a hostile environment and must work his way out, both through determination and will. By this point, War Horse finally feels invested in the many ways Joey makes Albert (and potentially the community) a stronger human being.
War Horse momentarily justifies its earnest tone by sticking with Albert through thick and thin much like the boy has been devoted to Joey. Yet right when the film starts to find its groove, WWI breaks out and Ted sells Joey to a departing military officer (Tom Hiddleston), pushing the narrative into a scattered, hopscotch-style pace. We follow the horse through the German countryside where a disastrous cavalry charge leaves Joey riderless and alone, the first of many horrific experiences that sends the horse deeper behind enemy lines. From here, War Horse becomes a mosaic focused on the many sides of war and survival. No matter the situation, Joey and his longing eyes provide a clear emotional centerpiece to the human tragedy on display.
The motif pays off greatly during an especially brutal sequence where Joey is caught in no man’s land between English and German forces, his plight offering a momentary armistice from the harsh realities of war. While this scene manages to capture a specific sense of magic, every other dramatic moment only too obviously solidifies Spielberg’s central focus; that Joey’s presence clarifies and crystallizes visions of humanity merely by default. This thesis is far to easily explained for my taste. Aided by long-time composer John Williams, Spielberg never fails to raise the saccharine levels with sweeping long shots and a head-thumping musical score, never attempting to hide a deathly serious sense of symbolism. This is heavy stuff, and War Horse wants you to know how much it relishes the weight of its own thunderous melodrama.