Reviewed by Marc Glassman
December 30, 2011
An epic World War One tale, with horses and children and good Germans and Frenchmen and Brits fighting in impossible circumstances: does that sound like an Oscar winner to you?
This is Spielberg working on a grand canvas, with lots of emotional content and a powerful melodramatic story. The buzz is noisy indeed.
War epic; family melodrama; horse story; coming-of-age tale
In Dorsett, the Narracott family may be poor farmers but the father has his pride. When he takes a liking to a beautiful horse in a bidding war, he’ll take on anyone, even Lyons, who is his landlord. Outbidding everyone, old Ted takes the horse back home to his son Albert and wife Rosie. When Lyons threatens to take back the farm, young Albert names the horse Joey and teaches him how to plough a field, saving the day.
But when the First World War starts and horses are at a premium, Ted sells the horse to Major Stewart, a good man, who offers to write to the heartbroken Albert about “their” horse’s adventures in France. Tragically, Stewart is killed by the Germans, who seize Joey and his best pal, Topthorn. Before they’re brought back to the frontlines, two boys, Gunther and Brandt desert the German army, taking the horses to help them ride away.
When they’re caught and shot by the Germans, Gunther and Brandt don’t reveal that they’ve hidden the horses in a nearby French barn. There, Joey and Topthorn are cared for by Emilie and her grandfather—until the Germans come and seize them again.
Years pass and somehow, the two horses survive, pulling cannons to the front. As the War nears its end, Topthorn finally expires and Joey panics, running into the war zone. Caught by barbed wire, Joey would likely have died there but a Brit and German flying white flags of peace took pity on him and cut him loose.
Albert, now a soldier in the British army and temporarily blinded by gas, hears of the “miracle horse.” He surmises that it’s Joey-and with the help of Lyons’ son, they get him proper medical attention. After the War ends, there’s another bidding fight for Joey, this time from Emilie’s grandfather. In the end, all is well, and Joey, the warhorse, once again becomes a beloved farm animal.
This is a Spielberg film so you know that the performances will be fine. But in a film filled with anecdotes and location shifts, no one can be cited as War Horse’s star. Perhaps the most eye-catching bits of excellence come from the emotional duel between Peter Mullan’s Narracott and David Thewlis’ Lyons. You can see that their anger towards each other is based on more than a horse; they’ve gone through a lot together and—likely—have loved the same woman, Rosie (Emily Watson) who chose the poor but honest Narracott as her husband.
It’s Spielberg. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s epic.
There’s no subtlety in War Horse. This is a film meant for a large audience. And Spielberg is there to deliver the goods.
Could this win Oscars? Certainly in technical categories. But War Horse is too sentimental to work on critics—and even the Hollywood elite—today. Major awards will go elsewhere but the film will draw worldwide attention.