Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott
Emily Watson as Rose Narracott
Niels Arestrup as Grandfather
David Thewlis as Lyons
Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls
Benedict Cumberbatch as Maj. Jamie Stewart
Celine Buckens as Emilie
Toby Kebbell as Geordie Soldier
Patrick Kennedy as Lt. Charlier Waverly
Leonhard Carow as Michael
David Kross as Gunther
Matt Milne as Andrew Easton
Robert Emms as David Lyons
Eddie Marsan as Sgt. Fry
Nicolas Bro as Friedrich
Rainer Bock as Brandt
Hinnerk Schönemann as German Soldier in No Man’s Land
Gary Lydon as Si Easton
Geoff Bell as Sgt. Sam Perkins
Liam Cunningham as Army Doctor
Gerard McSorley as Market Auctioneer
Tony Pitts as Sgt. Martin
Irfan Hussein as Sgt. Maj. Singh
Pip Torrens as Maj. Tompkins
Directed by Steven Spielberg
A young lad named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) takes on the task of raising and training a horse his father (Peter Mullan) bought at auction, naming the horse Joey. As World War I breaks out, they need to sell Joey to help save the farm, and so begins Joey’s journey experiencing the horrors of war from both sides of the battlefield.
The thought of Steven Spielberg turning a Tony-winning Broadway play into a big sweeping World War I epic makes “War Horse” an interesting prospect, because like his other new movie “The Adventures of Tintin,” it allows him to explore all sorts of new territory while still creating something fairly appealing to mainstream audiences.
It begins with the birth of a horse, who later is sold at auction and unwisely bought by a poor farmer (Peter Mullen) whose son Albert agrees to train him to do the required farm work despite seeming like an impossible task. Unfortunately, if the horse, named Joey, can’t accomplish the task, Albert’s family stands a chance of losing the farm to their unsympathetic landlord (David Thewlis.) It’s a slow introduction to set-up the relationship between boy and horse that will make for the framing device around a much larger series of stories about the people Joey encounters once World War I breaks out, starting with Tom Hiddleston as the cavalry captain who buys Joey and promises to take care of him. After a raid gone wrong, Joey ends up in the hands of the Germans, particularly two brothers who use him and a black mare he befriends to go AWOL.
Spielberg’s greatest asset in this venture is cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who helps create shots that enhance the type of grand epic scale you don’t really see anymore – Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” may have been the last true epic. The Irish and French landscapes are quite something to behold, but the ensemble cast of British and Irish actors Spielberg has assembled are forced to compete with the landscape for the audience’s attention, leading to heightened performances and too much obvious melodrama. Because of this, there are few real standouts in terms of acting other than “A Prophet” co-star Niels Arestrup, who gives a strong performance as the grandfather of a French girl who finds Joey. Their dialogue in those scenes is playful but corny, though it succeeds at taking the viewer out of the grim mindset of this terrible war taking place. The good thing about the film’s episodic nature is that any story that doesn’t strike your fancy will be over soon enough before we’re moving onto the next story.
The worst parts of “War Horse” are the cornier moments which counter-balance the more heartwarming ones. It always feels like Spielberg is trying too hard to make a movie that can appeal to everyone, which leads to a somewhat tame and generic movie filled with film clichés, even while the story is told from a unique perspective. It leads to more than a few groan-worthy, eye-rolling sequences one wonders if anyone over a certain age or IQ will put up with.
For the most part, the battlefront sequences are fantastic, proving Spielberg to be just as comfortable with the first World War as he is with the second, and the film successfully captures the importance that horses played in this war, as we as their horrendous treatment when they stopped proving useful. The idea of the fairly lithe horse being able to pull a tank is never quite believable to be effective.
Similar to “Schindler’s List,” the Germans are handled differently from many American-produced war films, as there are good and compassionate ones as well as tyrants, making for a fairly-balanced film that neither favors the Brits nor villainizes the Germans. This is made most obvious in a fantastic No Man’s Land scene following Joey’s escape after running wildly through the battlefields. This is where the movie finally starts picking up and paying off for some of the weaker moments.
John Williams’ score is fairly banal and blasé compared to the inventiveness of his score for Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and it seems like providing something that deliberately pulls on the heartstrings, and it’s disappointing to see Williams resorting to old themes in order to do so.
The Bottom Line:
“War Horse” is often hindered by its simplistic nature, although Spielberg uses that to reproduce the feel of the old school studio epics we rarely see anymore. It takes some time to find its footing, but its emotive equine star and a wonderful last act will ultimately win over even the chronically cynical.