War Horse would probably be the greatest film you’ve ever seen, if you’ve never seen a film before. If you were a young child introduced to the cinema for the first time, it would be a magical adventure. Instead, it’s a cheaply Frankensteined pastiche of other, better films, glued together with a glaze of overwrought melodrama. For a script by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame), it’s an atrocity worse than trench rot. The dialogue reads like someone Googled “stirring wartime cliches” and then cut them out and arbitrarily handed them to all the best British actors working this year. It’s just another parade nugget trotted out for awards season. But in the moment, it works beautifully. Because Steven Spielberg is a goddamn ninja when it comes to emotional manipulation. You’ll find yourself sniffling and sobbing, and puckering your lips — especially if you’re an animal lover. But this isn’t the fluid or organic emotionalism of a quality film. This is emotional tae-jitsu — he lackadaisically strikes all the pressure points to make you sad. If I had written this review in the hours after I first saw the film, I’d probably be half-heartedly praising it. But with a little time between the flick and the review, you start to realize just how fucking lazy it really is.
The script from Curtis and Hall, based on the book and probably the stage version, starts us off in Charlotte’s Web by way of Babe. Farmer Hoggett is here played by Peter Mullan, in the guise of Ted Narracott. He’s a stubborn drunk tenant farmer, toiling on the land with his wife Rose (Emily Watson) and his teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), working to pay rent to a rich sneering landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). While at auction, instead of the field horse he needs, he spends a ridiculous amount of money on a beautiful thoroughbred. Mostly to stick it to sneering Lyons and his richie rich ways. The horse is named not Ed, but Joey, after a different Matt LeBlanc vehicle. Lyons, in full moustache twisting glee, decides to call in the need for the rent. So Narracott stubbornly and drunkenly agrees that he can plow the rocky south field before the season ends and to give Lyons his damn bloody money, damn bloody dammit.
Narracott realizes his folly and in a fit of rage, decides to shotgun the racehorse, because blasting animals in the face with a shotgun in a staple of all classic children’s literature. His son steps in between his drunken shotgun toting da and his new horse best friend, and if only Ted pulled the trigger, we’d be spared the next two hours of saccharine boilerplate melodrama. But alas, Albert decides to initiate Training Montage B, done to a jaunty all clarinet rendition of “Eye of the Tiger.” Then, when the time comes to plow the field, the entire village shows up, mostly to laugh and say, “Narracott, you can’t
herd sheep with a pig plow with a racing horse!” And then as the horse tries and fails, the townspeople start the townspeople chant of “You can do it, War Horse!” and “Plow it up, lad!” and “Give ‘em hell, Rock!” And just as Lyons is twirling his moustache and contemplating tying Emily Watson to the train tracks, by jove, War Horse is Plow Horse and he done plows up the field. And the land is saved, and villagers cheer, and Peter Mullan says, “That’ll do, pig.” to his dumbass son.
And then World War I starts. So Joey has to be sold to the army so that he can become War Horse. Albert is stricken that his father sold their lovely horse, who just miraculously plowed the field, and tries to enlist, but he’s too young. Instead, the captain who takes Joey (Tom Hiddleston) promises to return the horse after the war good as new. Because, hey, just because you’re planning on charging machine gun batteries on horseback with swords drawn is no reason to assume that you or the War Horse are going to die horribly.
From this point, War Horse basically Forrest Gumps his way through World War I, through various atrocities and terrors. After Captain Nicholls’ charge goes…poorly, despite the brave speechery of
young Dennis Quaid Benedict Cumberbatch, War Horse is captured by the Germans. And even though War Horse bounds around from Germans to sweet little French people to more Englishmen, everyone conveniently speaks impeccable English. Even to the point that there’s a grammar joke told by a literal Grammar Nazi. (I am fully aware that the Germans in World War I are not Nazis. But I’m assuming that the soldier survived the war, got swept up in the fervor of the National Socialist party, and went on to have his face melted by the Ark of the Covenant.) Meanwhile, War Horse makes several friends who are ripped away from him, everyone dies horribly and piteously off screen, and he ends up trapped in the middle of the battlefield so that Curtis and Hall and Spielberg can recreate the famous Flanders Christmas Truce. But you know, with a magical remarkable horse.
Despite my obvious cynicism, especially when the film starts into its Spart-equus phase, and despite the clunky acting of Jeremy Irvine — who is actually outshone by his horse, War Horse still has moments of touching sadness and buoyant humor. I laughed, I cried, I sighed, it was better than Dogs and Monkeys. But like I said, it’s all the bullshit Spielbergian manipulation. At this point in his career, he doesn’t even need to try anymore to get people to start reaching for their napkins to dry tears. And ultimately, that’s my problem with War Horse. It feels so cheaply manufactured and so hastily thrown together. The cinematography is so lush and gorgeous, but it can’t cover up the cheese Hallmark pablum being foisted upon us by Curtis and Hall — who at one point might actually have written “Milpool” on the cocktail napkins they scribbled the script on. Like generic Walmart prescription medicine, War Horse is cheap but effective. But if you asked me if you should gallop out to see it, I would most definitely snort and say neigh.