For the past few months I've jokingly referred to Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" as "Oscar, Please." I've had this mental picture of Spielberg submitting a canister of film to a low-level Academy employee and then arrogantly outstretching his hand expecting to receive an award.
The reason I think this way is that the film incorporates a lot of elements that typically lead to a good showing in Oscar voting. The film has shots of English countryside, harrowing war scenes, tales of triumph, European accents, a swelling score by John Williams, lovely evening lighting in the final scene, and of course a horse that you can't help but love. Spielberg combines all of these elements marvelously, but the sheer quantity of the elements makes it seem like he's pandering to Academy members. That said, Academy members have good taste and if you have good taste you'll probably find a lot to like about "War Horse".
The horse is purchased early in the film by a drunken but good-natured farmer (Peter Mullan) who risks his family's farm buying a beautiful horse instead of a practical one that can pull a plow. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has an immediate rapport with the horse, who he names Joey. I couldn't be sure, but I think there might be something off about Albert as far as his mental faculties. That's another one of those awards-bait elements right there. With rent due and the landlord's patience running out, Albert must get Joey to plow a key field. Against all odds the team succeeds and they become inseparable. But then they're separated. The father needs more money after all and the British army needs horses for World War I. Joey is sold and goes to war.
Joey sees the war from both sides as he's passed around from one owner to another. He starts out with a hotshot British captain (Tom Hiddleston), then is captured by Germans and put in the care of two teenagers who try to desert, then is found and by a girl and her grandfather on a farm in France, then is taken by Germans to pull artillery, then escapes and becomes trapped in the middle of a battlefield during a tense standoff between armies. Joey is very lucky in all his adventures as it seems there's always some horse-lover nearby to stick up for him just as he's about to be shot. Albert meanwhile joins the army hoping to track Joey down and goes through some wartime adventures of his own.
The battle scenes are very well done, capturing the horrors of war while not making the film inappropriate for a PG-13 audience. And the plow scene at the beginning is an inspiration to us all. But the film's best scene is the one where poor Joey is trapped in the middle of the battlefield as soldiers from both sides empathize with his struggle. The characters' actions in this scene are very low-key, but the tensions are very high. The scene proves that Spielberg is a great filmmaker even when he's not handling a flashy blockbuster.
"War Horse" is Steven Spielberg's best film in a while. I like him more when he does serious films like this one. I believe 2005's "Munich" was his last great one. He's been dropping the ball lately on his "fun adventure" movies like the alien-heavy fourth "Indiana Jones" installment and the dull big screen adaptation of "Tintin". I was afraid that "War Horse" would be a beautiful but uncompelling film, and I'm glad that it turned out those fears were unfounded.
Three and a Half Stars out of Five.
"War Horse" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. Its running time is 146 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.