3 stars (out of 4)
If anyone thought Steven Spielberg couldn’t top himself for manipulating audience emotions, they didn’t reckon with War Horse.
Short of placing a bit between our teeth and riding us like an unruly steed, it’s hard to imagine greater Spielbergian exertions in search of tears, gasps and rapid heartbeats. That’s really saying something about the man who gave us E.T., The Color Purple and Saving Private Ryan.
But what he does, he does very well. He’s a master emotion jockey, and War Horse finds him in full gallop, skillfully riding Michael Morpurgo’s well-liked 1982 novel (which also begat a Broadway play, soon headed to Toronto) across World War I battlefields.
You risk accusations of parody, or comparison to Disney, to go in for as much anthropomorphism as does War Horse, which has been written for the screen by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones’s Diary).
Spielberg doesn’t fear sneers. Short of actually speaking, his equine star Joey — variously called “miraculous horse,” “remarkable horse” and “my bonny boy” — might as well be human.
Joey embodies our most noble virtues of loyalty and bravery in the face of danger, and he looks you straight in the eye (a feat no doubt aided by some seamless CGI work).
You can spot his majestic russet form from a distance, even in the midst of cannon and gun smoke, because of the bright ribbons that have been symbolically draped across his broad shoulders.
The ribbons are also a badly needed visual aid to keep track of the many human handlers of Joey crammed into the film’s 145 minutes, a compaction of the narrative that makes War Horse episodic and robbed of some urgency.
This handsome movie, triumphal almost from the get-go, opens on the lyrical green fields of England. Carried by Janusz Kaminski’s wide-eyed lensing and John Williams’ insistent score, we’re heading towards Devon, where the action begins with the war at home.
Dirt-poor and drunken farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), more possessed of pride than common sense, bids far more than he can afford at auction for a frisky bay thoroughbred that his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, a bright debut) promptly names Joey.
Ted’s wife, Rose (Emily Watson), is furious — the farm needs a plough horse, not a show horse. But young Albert is determined to show Joey how to turn a field of rocks into a field of dreams.
It’s corny yet effective symbolism, proving the pluck of Joey and Albert, and it segues credibly into the battlefield action to come. The year is 1914, and the British army desperately needs horses to battle the Germans on muddy European fields.
And so Joey is tearfully sold to the war effort, but not before Albert vows to him, “I solemnly swear we’ll be together again.”
Joey is placed under the compassionate watch of Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), but the dangers ahead are very real, as we see when the Brits launch a poorly planned surprise attack on the Germans in occupied France.
Spielberg’s battle scenes are a marvel of sight and sound; the latter literally shakes the theatres from the pop of rifles and the thunder of cannons. Spielberg tugs at the heart strings, but he’s also not afraid to smack you upside the head with combat that realistically shows the madness of war.
He interrupts the action too often, perhaps fearing a punitive censor rating. There are long stretches of War Horse where Joey passes from hand to hand like the precious golden circle of The Lord of the Rings.
These interludes cross all battle lines. Two German soldiers (Leonhard Carow and The Reader’s David Kross), natural brothers, make use of Joey while fleeing the war and the deadly wrath of their superiors.
Later, Joey falls in with a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his devoted granddaughter, Emilie (Celine Buckens), and the animal briefly feels once again the joys of simple country living.
Spielberg even gives Joey a bromantic partner, a steed that might be called Black Beauty in a different kind of film.
These meanderings tend to distract more than instruct, but by the time the story returns to the war proper—- this time to the trench warfare of the Battle of the Somme — Spielberg is once again in command of his story.
This is where the so-called Great War becomes truly horrific, and where the man-versus-nature backdrop is thrown into sharp relief. Scenes where a horse takes on an advancing tank, and where Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire, are emotional yet also extremely effective. They’re a tribute to Spielberg’s abundant skills.
He knows exactly what he’s doing, but can’t resist that final tug on the blood pumper, with an ending lit up like a climactic moment from Gone With the Wind.
Watching War Horse is like reading a very long children’s book, each chapter a different adventure.
But it succeeds in dramatizing the message that humanity must triumph even in times of great inhumanity, and even if it takes four legs to lead two.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.