Manipulation is the essential center of cinematic art. Every choice made in a good film - from story to casting to music to editing - is based on eliciting some sort of reaction or feeling from the audience. Every good filmmaker is aware of what they are trying to express through the manipulations of editing or score or performance.
Manipulation becomes a problem when it becomes too obvious, when the fingers pulling your strings become too insistent. Everyone has a different threshold for this; some recoil at the slightest hint of overt manipulation, while others openly get emotional about Volkswagon commercials featuring children. It’s a wide spectrum.
I find myself on the more conservative side of that spectrum; a film that is working too hard to get reactions out of me immediately turns me off. And for the first act of War Horse it was touch and go; there’s a sunny provincial phoniness to the first act that troubled me deeply. But it turns out that Spielberg needs this stuff to set up a baseline for the horrors to come; there are battle moments as intense as anything in Saving Private Ryan, and the final hour of the movie reduced me to a blubbering mess of well-earned tears.
The film begins in a bucolic British country village. The titular war horse is born, and there’s something so special about it that a drinky, barely hanging in there farmer spends all of his money buying it at auction. His wife is horrified as the horse isn’t the kind of field beast they need, but his son - who was present at the horse’s birth - is ecstatic. The kid feels an immediate connection with the foal, who he names Joey.
All of this stuff is a bit much, leading up to a scene where Joey - who is made for running, not plow-pulling - must clear a whole rocky field in the pouring rain or the family will lose their farm. But again, this is the base - the story (based on a novel by Michael Morpugo) needs to establish a more idyllic time before World War I breaks out, a world where a mustache-twirling landlord (played with relish by David Thewlis) is the worst evil that can be confronted.
When the war does break out things get tough, and they get tough fast. War Horse is structured as a slow descent into utter hell, told from the horse’s perspective. His original owner is forced to sell him to the army, where a very decent officer (Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston), takes ownership. He’s a genteel man of the British army, but WWI will not be genteel, and the first engagement that Joey takes part in is a total slaughter, as the English cavalry charges a German machine gun line.
It’s here where Spielberg begins to show his cinematic genius. This is a PG-13 movie intended for families over the holidays; he can’t show war with the same kind of bloody fierceness he used in Private Ryan. But that’s okay, because Spielberg is one of the greats and he knows that he doesn’t have to rub your nose in guts to give you a true, horrified reaction. It’s so much more effective to cut between the charge of the cavalry and shots of riderless horses running through the German machine gun encampment. We don’t see the riders cut off their horses, but we feel the carnage. It is a beautiful moment, and the moment where I knew this movie was going to be incredible.
From there things get worse. Joey ends up in German hands, then with French peasants, then back in German hands again. It’s episodic, with Joey bringing a small bit of hope and love into the lives of each of his owners before the monster of war engulfs them all again. Spielberg keeps the material PG-13, but like with that machine gun charge he knows how to get the horrors across to us. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is an execution that is obscured behind a rotating windmill blade; it’s a classic scene, destined to live through the ages.
It’s shocking how hardcore War Horse gets; the trench warfare of WWI was ugly and brutal, and Spielberg brings us into it. And it isn’t just the human suffering he shows; when Joey gets stuck pulling German artillery we watch horses worked literally to death. It is heartbreaking.
None of that matches the sheer terror of a scene where Joey is lost and frightened in No Man’s Land, the blasted hell between opposing trenches. It’s a bravura sequence, one of the best in Spielberg’s canon, and what begins as an adventure moment - you’ve seen Joey jumping over a tank in the trailers - becomes a filth-encrusted nightmare of pain and misery as the horse runs without thought through trenches, battles and finally into an unpassable line of cutting, razorlike barbed wire.
While War Horse is told through Joey’s point of view, the film endeavours to never anthropomorphize the animal. There is one moment where that line gets close to being crossed, but in general Joey is an animal. A special animal, but an animal nonetheless, and he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him. That point is driven home in the No Man’s Land run, as the horse reacts purely from blind panic. We can put our thoughts and feelings on Joey, but the film doesn’t do it for us.
By the end of the film things have gone so badly - again, it’s completely a descent into hell - that we’re up for any kind of happiness. The film rewards us, and the happy ending isn’t overblown or ridiculous - Joey doesn’t end the war - but it is deeply gratifying and satisfying.
There are many wonderful human touches along the way. Niels Arestrup, who was so memorable in A Prophet, plays an embittered French jam maker whose only surviving family member is his brittle-boned granddaughter. David Kross (the young lover in The Reader) is Gunther, a German soldier who only wants to take his 15 year old brother away from the front lines (this segment, by the way, is original to the film, and is among the most hard-hitting parts of the movie). Eddie Marsan is a soldier who has seen so much death and horror that he is open to a small miracle involving Joey. There’s an incredible scene where a German and an English soldier each come from their trenches to meet in No Man’s Land and help the injured horse. Again and again the stretches of misery are punctuated with small bits of humanity and hope, acted with sensitivity and honesty by the incredible cast Spielberg has brought together.
I found myself in tears for the last third of War Horse. The film presents an overwhelming vista of sadness and joy, often hand in hand, and the victories are simple ones: survival, meaningful moments of human contact, an understanding that the world isn’t as ugly as World War I makes it feel. This was probably the worst moment in human history, a complete clusterfuck of misery and horror unmatched in the annals of war - but War Horse argues that we can come out the other side, and be better for it.
Visually War Horse is remarkable. Spielberg is back with Janusz Kaminski, and together they have worked to recreate the feel of the great John Ford movies. The landscapes are as much a star as the horse and the people, and they use the horizon line to spectacular effect. The bucolic English opening recalls How Green Was My Valley, while the rest of the film treads Ford’s favorite ground of honor and humanity in war. This isn’t just homage; Spielberg has made a movie that I think Ford would have liked.
The one weak link in the entire film is the one thing that keeps it from being an unfettered classic. Jeremy Irvine, playing Albert, the boy who first bonds with Joey and who returns into his life at the end, doesn’t have the same depth and strength as the rest of the cast. He’s stilted and often slackjawed, feeling like he was cast more for his wholesome look than his acting chops. He’s not terrible, and in a lesser film would have been more tolerable, but here he’s thrown into a sea of incredible performances and top notch direction and cinematography, and he feels like a refugee from a lesser English TV show.
Sadly he’s the heart of the film as his relationship with Joey is the main throughline of the movie. Part of what makes the opening act feel stilted is Irvine’s performance; since the film is episodic he gets out of the way of the story fairly early, but his return - as a man who has now seen the horrors of trench warfare - isn’t as strong as it needs to be. The mystical connection between boy and horse is the hardest aspect of the film to sell, and I think Irvine isn’t capable of selling it.
Otherwise War Horse is incredible, almost a masterpiece. There are sequences of such breathtaking skill and confidence that I believe the film must be seen by everyone who ever hopes to make, or even talk intelligently, about movies. Spielberg is a giant, stepping up to this film and creating eternal set pieces with ease. Other movies would be happy to have one set piece as good as the charge on the machine gun nest; War Horse just keeps them coming.
Perhaps you’ll feel Spielberg’s fingers on the strings in War Horse. I did, but they were never insistent or clumsy. They were always masterful and deft. He doesn’t have anything left to prove, but War Horse certainly adds further cement to Spielberg’s place as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.