Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan
Steven Spielberg gets criticized a lot for being overly sentimental, for taking films that are great and then adding that extra brush stroke that makes it one too many, marring what might otherwise be an unqualified masterpiece. Much of the time I agree with that criticism - he has several movies that would be perfect if only he trusted the audience enough and didn't feel the need to so overtly manipulate emotions - however, sentiment, when done properly, does have a place in cinema and War Horse, while not necessarily perfect, stays on the right side of the line between feeling and treacle.
War Horse begins with the birth of Joey, a thoroughbred who is later bought at auction by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan). Driven to make a point with his landlord (David Thewlis), Ted bids more than he can afford and when he brings Joey home his wife, Rose (Emily Watson), is aghast, not just because he spent so much, but also because what they really need is a plough horse. Rose wants Ted to return Joey, but their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is already attached to him and asks for a chance to try to train Joey to be the horse they need. He succeeds but the triumph is short lived - not long after the field is ploughed and seeds planted, flooding destroys the crop of turnips, and then World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a cavalry officer.
From here, Joey passes through the hands of several owners and the film becomes more episodic. He spends a brief time on the German side, used to transport wounded soldiers. He enjoys a brief idyll on a French farm, tended to by Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young girl suffering from an unnamed illness, and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). He returns to the front on the German side, forced to pull heavy artillery, and later ends up trapped in the middle of No Man's Land, entangled in a mess of barbed wire. Albert, meanwhile, has now entered the war and continues to hold out hope that he will one day be reunited with his beloved horse.
War Horse is the kind of story that it would probably be impossible to tell in a completely unsentimental way. I think you would probably have to have a heart of stone to be entirely unmoved by the sight of horses forced into battle and worked until they die of exhaustion (as happens to some of the horses who haul the heavy artillery alongside Joey). The film really can't be said to dig too deep - the message never goes far beyond pointing out that humans start wars, animals get caught in the middle and suffer for it, and that's sad - and it does have to be admitted that Spielberg sometimes lays the sentiment on a little thick in that it goes so far out of its way to make Joey seem like an overly noble and extraordinary animal. However, because the film itself unfolds on such a grand scale, the emotion ultimately doesn't feel outsized and it doesn't become something that detracts from War Horse's many strengths.
"Grand" truly is the only way to describe War Horse, which has echoes of such epics as Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, Lawrence of Arabia and Paths of Glory. "Restraint" is a highly prized currency in films lately (and that's not a bad thing) and it's kind of refreshing to see a film that is so unabashedly big and nakedly ambitious. Spielberg does big well; he's a director who is very capable to handling sequences that unfold on a huge scale and keeping the wheels from falling off the vehicle in the process. The sequence involving the Second Battle of the Somme, which occurs late in the film, is an intense, visceral and meticulously constructed set-piece that is in every way the equal to the D-Day landing sequence of Saving Private Ryan and should absoltely be seen on the big screen. The sweep and scope of the film is often staggering and, though it sometimes overplays its hand just slightly, it is ultimately a terrific achievement.