War Horse: A Poor Script Halts This Stallion In Its Tracks
As an enormous Spielberg fan, and a fan of the Tony-winning Broadway adaptation of War Horse, it pains me to say that Spielberg’s film version War Horse neither moved me to tears nor impressed me as much as it has others. Perhaps my familiarity and admiration of the play’s plot points led to disappointment when the script changed a number of the most interesting and complex elements of the play into facile and overtly manipulative ingredients for consumption by the lowest common denominator audience members. The visuals are astonishing, the music soars, and the horses’ performances are first-rate among all-time animal performances. However, though the film successfully gallops in its visual moments, it slows to a trot when the script’s dialogue is spoken.
The film opens with young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) seeing Joey, a young horse owned by a neighboring farmer. Years later, Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) needs to buy a horse to plow their increasingly worthless land, but when engaged in a bidding war by their landlord (David Thewlis), he blows most of his money on Joey instead. Joey, despite not being a plow horse, must learn to plow, or he shall be sold and the farm will be lost. Albert is more than happy to train him, and he develops a deep bond with Joey. When Great Britain joins World War One, a young captain (Tom Hiddleston) buys Joey to use him in combat, but promises to return him upon the war’s swift completion. Of course, the war does not go as planned, and Joey finds himself encountering many people on both sides of the war, as Albert joins the Armed Forces in hopes of making a difference in the war that took his horse away from him.
For better or worse, this is a stagy melodrama, full of “type” characters that don’t really have dimension, with some being more affecting than others due to the strength of individual performances. Right from the beginning, the family’s landlord is a one-dimensioned, pointy-mustached rich jerk who seems to take pleasure in watching this family twist in the wind. In the play, it was a feud between brothers that led to the purchase of the horse, and the conflict was fueled by familial pride. Albert’s father was not likable—the actor had to earn the audience’s feeling not through manipulation but through the journey of the character’s realizations. Here, there is no such complexity. The father’s alcoholism is shamelessly excused with a thankless monologue by Emily Watson about the father’s war experience and the medals of heroism he won, and his pride regarding the money spent on the horse is forgiven when we see what a treacherous villain the rich 1%er in the village is, and how he mocks this old war hero’s plight.
Further complexities were exorcised from the play in order to aid Spielberg in dumbing down the material for the audience. At one point, Joey is saved by a German medical worker who goes AWOL with Joey. Here, instead of being an adult who leaves solely because war is hell, an act some may dismiss as cowardice, the German medical worker is replaced by two very young German boys, one of whom is desperately underage but dying to fight, the other of whom goes AWOL dragging his brother along to keep him out of war—by changing the character from an adult to two boys, and giving him a facile and familiar reason for running, the complexity and the real emotion are replaced by a controlling and forceful hand. Characters are constantly explaining exactly how they feel aloud, and while I didn’t love the dialogue in the play, even the play’s lines felt less stagy than the film’s.
While it may seem like the play has somehow infected me and ruined by moviegoing experience (although I submit the same patronizing exposition would likely bother even those discerning audience members who haven’t seen the Lincoln Center production), there are certain elements even the most cynical and heartless viewer cannot deny. The visuals are some of the best of the year, and despite feeling manipulated and grouchy by the dialogue, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski sucked me back in every time. The final forty-five minutes boasts perhaps some of the most beautiful shots ever contained in a Spielberg film, which is really saying something. The John Williams score toes the line more gracefully between melodramatic and emotional than the script does; it is easily one of the most memorable of the year and perhaps his career. Spielberg’s intention of making a John Ford-esque old-school epic never is better than when it’s shots of the horses on rolling plains or running through trenches as Williams’ score blares.
I found myself unmoved at the film’s end. Pretty pictures and pretty music can be incredibly moving in real life, but only if the story works. Spielberg spends so much time dumbing down complexities to make everything as simple and palatable as possible in this film that I didn’t find myself engaged on an intellectual or emotional level. Kaminski, Williams, and the performers do their best, and there were moments where I felt myself being drawn in emotionally, but then the script would spoonfeed us another long explanation about how the characters got there and how war is hell, and I was immediately disenchanted once again. I spent these stretches of the film—you know, the stretches where people were talking—wondering if the film would’ve worked better with all of the actors speaking the language of their characters. One of the key elements of the play was that characters from other countries struggled to communicate with one another due to the language barrier, and the humanity the horse brought out of them helped bind them together, if just for brief moments. Here, everyone speaks perfect English; the communication is endless and needless. I’m a sucker for most emotional films. War Horse’s emotion just isn’t consistently earned.