Men on opposing sides of war find their shared humanity in their love of animals in “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s sentimental epic about a country thoroughbred who travels from the fields of Devonshire to the trenches of the Somme in World War I.
The film — based on a play that was based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book — is a tale told on a vast canvas, with a wide array of characters — each of whom develops a connection to “Joey,” one of the prettiest equines ever to grace the silver screen. But that crowded hodge-podge of characters fritters away the potential poignancy as we’re taken away from the story’s heart and soul — a boy and his horse.
Albert, played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, has been in love with this horse since first he was a foal. The animal is of little use in farm country in pre-World War I Britain. He’s a racing stallion in a hardscrabble land where draft horses are all anyone wants. But his drunken, proud and war-hobbled dad (Peter Mullan) buys the colt at an auction and Albert gets to train him, to show the farm folk and snooty landlord (David Thewlis) what Joey can do with a plow.
“You keep looking after Joey and he’ll keep looking after you,” his mom (Emily Watson) counsels.
But war is declared and Dad has to sell the horse to an Army cavalry officer to pay the rent. Horse is wrenched from boy, and vice versa. At least Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) is sympathetic.
What follows after this 40-minute prologue is a magnificent and misguided cavalry charge that leads Joey on an odyssey that puts him first in German hands, then in the care of a French teen and her grandpa, a pawn of war hauling ambulances and artillery and experiencing the horrors of No Man’s Land and the world’s first tanks.
Spielberg, known for taking his visual cues from earlier classics, pays homage to “Dr. Zhivago,” “The Black Stallion” and especially “Gone With the Wind” here — wordless scenes showing the horse’s point of view, battles choreographed David Lean-style and spot-on re-creations of “GWTW” shots that capture the vast fields of carnage and a sunset homecoming.
But despite borrowing from the best, despite a horse that has as much personality as any animal actor we’ve ever seen on the screen, “War Horse” never achieves the pathos, awe and lump-in-the-throat emotion that director, composer and screenwriters were aiming for. We lose track of Albert for most of the picture, robbing Irvine of the chance to move us with his sense of loss. Spielberg is proficient at making us fear for the horse, but his peerless ability to tug the heartstrings fails him.
And John Williams’ score may be the most forgettable of his legendary career.
Still, it is a vividly detailed depiction of a time, a place and a conflict — Spielberg’s World War I movie, to go along with his World War II movie and his upcoming Civil War piece. The naivete of a horse-drawn age faced with the reality of mechanized war is perfectly captured. He gets the big theme — measure a man by how he acts toward animals (the Germans were nicknamed Huns in that war, the film suggests, for good reason) — across.
But those hoping for a holiday weeper might as well leave the hankies at home. This “War Horse” does well by war and justice to the horse. It’s the people who are shortchanged.