War Horse was a movie I was avoiding for several reasons. The two and a half hour runtime was the first thing, and the sentimentality and love of animals was another. Director Steven Spielberg tries to make an old-fashioned 1940s war epic and instead makes Homeward Bound with a horse…and dammit if it doesn’t tug on the heartstrings. I sobbed like a baby for at least two hours and if you don’t, then you have a heart of stone! The big problem lies in the immortal question: If this movie had been about a guy, would it have been as good…and the answer is, probably not.
Albert Narrracott (Jeremy Irvine) cares for a horse named Joey that his father brings home one day intending to have him plough their fields. After successfully proving his worth and saving the family farm, Joey is sold into the service of the British army and a young captain (Tom Hiddleston). Throughout Joey’s life he meets tragedy, the warmth of human kindness, and the cruelty of war as he tries to get back home to Albert.
War Horse is a beautiful movie, and for a straight-forward tale of someone seeing the horrors of war it succeeds. Spielberg is an expert when it comes to capturing the war and the numerous trench sequences towards the end, and the German infantry scenes are spectacular and on par with any other war epic. The story of a soldier (regardless of species) returning to his loved one is pulled right from the movies of the 1940s. In many ways you could compare Joey to Audie Murphy! Joey sees the war from the Germans, the English, the French, every view making this accessible to everyone with no bias short of wanting Joey to be reunited.
The lingering question still went through my head as I watched this movie, would I have enjoyed this movie if it was a man? It would have been extremely predictable had it been a human hero. We’ve seen these stories told time and again, War Horse in that respect is not original. What is original is seeing how the horses were treated during this time. WWI was the last war fought with the cavalry charge and the movie’s first battle sequence starts with the Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls and his regiment charging the Germans…before their mowed down by guns. The horses then are used to pull artillery until they die and if they stop, their shot. That element of death around every corner is heightened because Joey and his mate Topthorn, are helpless in every sense. Sure they can run away but their easily caught and if their hurt, they can’t do anything. Had this been a man, I doubt I would have felt as emotional in watching this movie. Sure at times this film plays like a 2 hour Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial but with the imagery and the sweeping and gorgeous score by John Williams (rightfully award nominated in my book), the story of Joey becomes the story of innocence seeing the horrors of war.
That theme continues as Joey interacts with a slew of people, and in the beginning you start to assume the horse is cursed. You see bravery in Captain Nicholls, comfort in the story of two German brothers who go AWOL, and the best is the story of a little French girl and her grandfather simply trying to live life and ignore the war. The most haunting scene is the one in the trailer where the Grandfather (Niels Arestrup) is telling the story of carrier pigeons. It’s a gorgeous scene emphasizing the phenomenal script. I took the liberty of including it here for you all to watch!
I’m not quite sure if War Horse is a good movie, but it’s a beautiful movie about a horse trying to escape a war he shouldn’t have any part in. Years from now I’m sure people will write essays about this movie, but I’ll just weep over the story of a horse trying to get home.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.