‘War Horse’ movie review: Steven Spielberg’s WWI epic through the eyes of a horse

War Horse, a journey from the English meadows to the trenches of World War I told through the eyes of a horse named Joey, features the kind wonderful, sweeping story that might have been a real classic if told with some measure of subtlety and realism.

Of course, that’s not at all what director Steven Spielberg delivers here: War Horse, more than any of his other films, is a throwback to that old Hollywood cornball sentimentality, the kind that went out of style in the 1940s. Emotions are manipulated, tears swell up, the spirit stirs, and Spielberg (mostly) gets away with it: while this isn’t a classic, it settles for being a pretty fine film.

Right from the first frames, the tone is set: the foal is born and immediately springs to his legs, and John Williams’ (excellent) score swells up on the soundtrack. The horse is purchased by local farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), who has gone out to buy a plow horse but comes back to wife Rose (Emily Watson) with a beautiful thoroughbred.

Their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) immediately takes a shine to the horse, who he names Joey. The local landowner, Lyons (David Thewlis) threatens to take the family farm if they can’t pay the rent, and without a plow horse, they have no hope. But if Albert can somehow train Joey to plow the fields in time…

This is enough material for most features, but it’s merely the beginning of War Horse; soon enough, World War I takes center stage, and Joey is sold to the army, leaving Albert behind. 

The rest of the film becomes a series of vignettes as Joey and a companion horse, Topthorn, travel from British military (Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch play cavalry officers) to German forces to the farm home of a French man (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter.

By the memorable climax, which features Joey desperately charging through the trenches and becoming entangled in barbed wire, if you haven’t felt something yet, Spielberg makes sure to pull out all the stops to get through. As blatant as the whole enterprise is, you’d have to be a pretty cold-hearted cynic not to be moved by Joey’s plight.

That’s not to say that the film is perfect, or that Spielberg can get away with everything; emotional cues are underscored three times visually and aurally, and the finale, set against that burning red-orange sunset, gets to be a bit much. 

I would have also liked some realism here, like the French and German characters speaking their native languages instead of heavily-accented English, or the horrors of war more Saving Private Ryan than hamstrung by a family-friendly PG-13 rating.

But hey, I wanted something akin to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the heartbreaking film told through the eyes of a put-upon donkey. Spielberg aims to lift the spirit in War Horse, not crush it, and to that end he succeeds.

Technical elements are expectedly first-rate; cinematography by long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski is magical, making great use of a diverse color palette. Supporting cast is also superb, with some memorable (if brief) work from Toby Kebbell, Liam Cunningham, Peter Mullan, and Nicolas Bro, among others.

While War Horse may not rank with Spielberg’s best work – and his critics will have a field day with it – this is one from the heart. Along with The Adventures of Tintin, he’s had a pretty fine year.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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