War Horse is an oddity of a film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film, at least from a formal filmmaking perspective. It’s exquisitely crafted with a grand level of sweep that puts it right in tow with films like Gone With The Wind or Doctor Zhivago. If anything, War Horse functions as a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking. Its view of the world seems particularly dated, lacking any hint of cynicism at all. It’s an admirable attempt to view the world in such an optimistic way. And in a time where films like Hugo and Midnight in Paris look upon a bygone era with nostalgic reverence, War Horse seems to only add to the zeitgeist. But with that in mind, there is a very active attempt to construct a narrative around this shroud of nostalgic reverence, to the point that it feels too manufactured to be taken seriously.
The film’s biggest hurdle, and the one obstacle it never overcomes, is the fact that such an intense emotional investment is based on the relationship between Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey. It becomes especially problematic when the film depends on Joey to unite various vignettes throughout the narrative. The horse, with all the mysticism that surrounds it, ends up becoming a creature of bad fortune, bringing death to various characters that it comes in contact with. It’s something that doesn’t really get discussed outright, with Spielberg diligently imposing a sense of spirituality to the proceedings. Such spiritual undertones being ascribed to a horse can become comedic, particularly given that Spielberg is maintaining a fairly serious tone throughout his picture.
As a means to address the fact that his lead is indeed a horse, Spielberg employs John Williams’ score recklessly. The music swells at all the trite moments one would expect in a film of this sort, and serves to really underscore how inorganic and unnatural the film feels. And given that the film gallops at a bloated two and a half hour runtime, the feature can be a true assault on the ears.
War Horse has the benefit of utilizing some incredible set pieces. The film’s final act has several scenes that mount the tension of the narrative well. It’s the sort of thing that Spielberg knows how to do well, as we have plenty of impressive war and chase sequences. But despite bits and pieces that I admired, War Horse never shakes this sense of falseness. The picture ascribes to an old-fashioned model of filmmaking that I’m not necessarily averse to, but in this case, it feels too manufactured and insincere for me to ever warm up to. Whereas Hugo marries a new technology to reinforce its fairy tale and Midnight in Paris adds a sharp wit to its nostalgic veneration, War Horse doesn’t pay tribute to films of ole’; it copies it with flat results.