Neigh, by David Bax
When I first heard that Steven Spielberg’s new film, War Horse, told the story of a young man who joins the British Army and enters into the first World War in order to find the beloved horse that his father sold to save the farm, I thought it sounded rather stupid. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can report that, despite Spielberg’s best efforts to ground the tale in serious depictions of war and its effects on all it touches, it actually is rather stupid.
All is not devoid of worth in War Horse, though. The heavily episodic structure allows for a number of diverting – and sometimes even affecting – stops along the way to the gratingly and unforgivably predictable outcome.
The film begins with a local, struggling farmer named Ted (Peter Mullan) drunkenly buying a show horse at auction instead of the work horse he so desperately needs. The man’s son, Albert, quickly falls in love with the animal, though, and trains him to be not just useful but remarkable. However, when a storm washes out Ted’s crop, he is forced to sell the horse, now named Joey, to the burgeoning war effort. From there, the film takes place over the full four years of World War I, as we watch Joey pass from one caretaker to the next. British and German soldiers (from privates to colonels) possess him at one point, as well as members of the occupied French citizenry.
The film is done in from the beginning, though. That overlong, opening chunk before the war starts is filled with as many clichés as you can imagine, from the stern but supportive farmer’s wife (Emily Watson) to the needlessly cruel-hearted landlord (David Thewlis). By the time we arrive at the first truly interesting episode, the damage is done. That first foray into the war, though, is the film’s best. The inhumanly reliable Tom Hiddleston plays the colonel who buys Joey from Ted. His story, which concerns the preparation for and beginning of the war, is shockingly effective. Hiddleston and the always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch manage to be both heroic and human in the way that the best war films allow. After that, there are the two German privates who use Joey to desert and then the old French man and his granddaughter, trying their best to wait out the fighting as quietly as they can. There are more stories – some of which are worth seeing – but there you have the general structure.
What might have already become clear to you (and what becomes clear to the viewer once that dreadful opening chapter comes to a close) is that War Horse is more a film about war than about a horse. In the terror in the eyes of the soldiers; in the understanding and misunderstandings the two sides have about each other; in the destructive and dehumanizing churn of a war gone on too long, we understand that this is not just a story about World War I but about all wars and what they do to us and to the earth. It’s hard not to see in the simple lives of the French man and girl a parallel to those who have spent the past eight or so years occupied by foreign forces in the Middle East.
At a few points in the overlong film, these lofty aspirations come to fruition, paying off in the magical but human way for which Spielberg’s best films are known. Mostly, though, it’s the overly sappy Spielberg (instead of the acceptably sappy one) that shows up here. What should be the most heartfelt moments, such as Joey learning to plow a field in the pouring rain in front of the whole town (for some reason), are drawn out past the point of plausibility. Instead of extending their emotional impact, this makes them quite forced. We know how things are going to turn out so we feel manipulated by their lingering.
Despite the absence of visible bloodshed (thereby ensuring the PG-13 rating), Spielberg does manage to once again capture war with an alluring terror. These sequences you will want to revisit on Blu-ray someday but you’ll most likely find yourself skipping the stuff in between. As a whole, War Horse is wobbly and only half-considered.