It’s not much of a stretch to say that Spielbergo gets to make whatever films he wants in ways that most other directors couldn’t dream of.
It’s not his skills as a director that I’m referring to; it’s the fact that he’s Spielbergo: the most successful director in the medium and in the industry thus far in the last 110 years. He's someone who makes any movie with the understanding that the payment for his services is 30% of the gross box office earned by whatever film he puts out there.
Few people have that level of clout. Peter Jackson is the only other one I know of. Let’s not get bogged down into the merits of such a system, since all I wanted to point out, which, in retrospect, is pretty obvious, is that he gets to make whatever flick he wants to make in whatever way he wants to.
So if he wants to make a flick set during World War I about a lucky horse and the boy from Devon who loves him, and all the people whose lives are touched by the horse as he makes his journey through that despicable war, well, that’s what he does.
And that’s what the pretty literal title refers to: War Horse is about a horse that goes to war. How’s that for subtlety?
Lest you suspect that Spielbergo is trying to do to the Great War what he did with Saving Private Ryan and WWII, breath a sigh of relief or disappointment, because he’s nowhere near as ambitious here. Plus, rambling anecdotes about helping out at a bra shop, making out with ugly local girls in barns and watching one’s wife trim the roses interspersed with unbelievable carnage would have been completely out of place here.
A colt is born on the grassy, postcard-perfect hills of Devon, and a local boy called Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is instantly smitten. He makes tentative overtures with apples and such towards the horse, but his protective mare of a mother keeps him close, and warns him off messing with humans by counting out with her hoofs. The colt is put up for sale, and wouldn’t you know it, Albert’s alcoholic father attends the auction.
This father (Peter Mullen) is smitten himself by what he sees as the horse’s indomitable spirit, which will be made reference to throughout the flick. Despite the fact that he needs a dull but reliable workhorse to plough his fields so he can plant his turnips (I wish I was making that up), when he sees his smarmy landlord (David Thewliss) circling the colt as well, he gets all het up and starts bidding wildly during the auction.
This scene is, to me, a pretty remarkable one because of how many clichés and preconceptions about England it tries to compress in the briefest amount of time. Every chap wears so much tweed it’s coming out of their ears like they’re the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz. The working class ‘peasant’ played by Mullen has a strong Scottish brogue and takes so many long pulls from a hip flask, a fairly small one, that I suspect it might be a magically self-replenishing Hip Flask of Never-Empty. Peasant and landlord fight it out whilst muttering or yelling that they’re better than / as good as each other, as class warfare is the first battle to be fought of many.
Old limping Ted, who was wounded in the second Boer War, don’t you know, brings the thoroughbred home, much to the consternation of his wife (Emily Watson) but to the delight of their son Albert, who bonds so completely and tearfully with the poor creature that I think the story would have made more sense had Albert been a teenage girl. At least that would have made more sense, in terms of how much pleasure he derived from riding the horse constantly.
The prideful landlord, though, isn’t done getting revenge on his indentured peasants, so the poor but honest peasants have to do the impossible or lose both the farm and the horse: they must get the horse, given the unremarkable name of Joey, to take to the plough.
This is the kind of hackneyed storytelling Spielbergo does really well, because he manages to transform an absurd scenario (what possible reason could have prevented them from getting help or additional plough horses from any of their friends and neighbours?) into high drama. Honestly, these scenes in which Albert and Joey desperately battles to get the job done had the greatest tension for me, far more so than the war scenes that come later. I felt my heart leaping out of my chest, urging them on, desperately willing them to succeed.
It’s also a testament to the skill of all involved, and the horse too, that the horse is such a character, expressive in some ways and capable of getting across to us what they want us to think or believe. Sure, there’s a lot of lifting required on our part, because in reality we end up projecting onto him more than he’s expressing to us (at no stage does the horse talk, which is really a missed opportunity if I ever saw one), but there’s more than enough there to tug the heartstrings even as it bypasses the logic parts of our brains.
Of course, the chaotic universe has other plans, and Joey, beautiful, noble horsey Joey, ends up in the care of an officer (Tom Hiddleston), who promises he’ll bring back Joey from France once they trounce the Bosch, tally-ho what. The officer is ever so sweet, so we possibly know not to get too attached to him.
The officer’s commander (Benedict Cumberbatch), leading a cavalry unit on a surprise raid on the Kaiser’s forces, didn’t really get the memo which said that running a bunch of guys on horses at machineguns didn’t really work anymore, so this goes about as well for them as you can imagine. The Germans themselves end up saying, in quite an even-handed manner, ‘what the hell were you thinking?’
The story here is still mainly about the War Horse, but it’s really about the people touched along the way by Joey’s indomitable spirit, as he goes from adventure to adventure, if you can really call them that without minimising the horrors of what these people went through. People, soldiers, children, old men, all respond to some innate and ineffable quality that Joey possesses. We also see Joey taking actions to help out others, whether it’s horses or people, to the extent where we start to make the leap (or mistake) by attributing human emotions and motivations to a horse’s actions. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since the flick doesn’t work if we don’t make that ‘mistake’.
There’s a reason why we do this with horses; humanity’s love affair, or deep affection for these creatures has lasted thousands of years. The advance of human civilisation in a lot of ways depended on these and several other noble creatures. And though we exploit them, and, as the flick shows, treat them horribly for our own benefit, there seems to be an understanding between us that our relationship is symbiotic. We attribute human thinking to them, or something close to it, and we believe they have a capacity for love and heroism like our own.
Without that, or without feeling that, the film wouldn’t work, if it does at all. The horse is a noble and heroic creature only if we believe he has agency, or the capacity to make deliberate decisions regarding himself and others. Otherwise, it’s just about a horse who miraculously survives a brutal war that killed millions of other people, horses and penguins that we'll never know about.
It’ll be up to the individual viewer to decide whether it works for them like it did for me. Seeing the trenches and no man’s land of Verdun replicated as only Spielbergo has the budget to do is both horrifying and elevating, since we really (if we get swept up in it) care if Joey survives, if Albert survives, if any of the people who cross Joey’s path survive; at least the one’s who were nice to him, that is.
This is broad strokes dramatic storytelling, but this is Spielbergo, after all. It’s sentimental, obvious, corny and completely lacking in anything close to emotional complexity or subtlety, but it engages on the level it’s aiming for, which is the purely emotional. It’s a film like the kind of rah rah war propaganda stuff Frank Capra used to put out in the 1940s, for which the term ‘Capra-corn’ was invented.
There are scenes at the end which could not be anything but inspired by Gone With the Wind (which is definitely not a corny or cheesy flick, though it is quite sentimental), and I wouldn't even call them a homage, but they are certainly emblematic of the way that Spielbergo set out to make a flick that wasn't a period piece, but was decidely old fashioned in its themes and aesthetics.
And so I say to you in all honesty, it’s ever so corny, but it gets the job done in a very calculated way.
Especially if you love horses, and honestly, if you don’t, you’re probably a horrible soulless excuse for a human being anyway.
7 ways in which this almost makes up for the travesty that was that last Indiana Jones flick out of 10
“Will we ever meet again?”
- “Neigh.” – War Horse