War Horse: good but not great

Steven Spielberg’s WWI drama War Horse has been met with much critical acclaim. Naturally, I wished to see what the fuss was about, expecting a show-stopper from one of the most prolific directors of our time. Sadly though, I found myself disappointed with what I saw.

Before I get into what irked me about the film, let’s discuss the points where War Horse hits its mark. 

Visually, the film is undeniably splendid. Spielberg seems to channel John Ford in his sweeping shots of verdant countryside and blazing sunsets. War Horse not only handles gorgeous landscapes extremely well, but also captures ugliness with unblinking candor. The film is set during World War I, and an abundance of harsh images inevitably accompany the subject matter. We see the grime and muck of the trenches, the flesh seared by mustard gas, the tangles of barbed wire lacing corpse-strewn battlefields. Planting the audience into inescapably vivid settings (whether they be serene or desolate) is what War Horse does best.

Another aspect of War Horse that I admire is that the presentation of individuals from opposing sides of the war is balanced and nuanced. Spielberg avoids the pitfall of making all the Germans wicked, ruthless machines and all the Englishmen paradigms of virtue. The time spent with a handful of individuals (English, French, and German) reveals, as cheesy as it sounds, that they have a lot in common. They’re brave, they’re frightened, they worry about their loved ones. The audience’s window into these characters’ back stories and motives reveal the underlying humanity in everyone and the stupidity of war and bloodshed.

That being said, the characters of War Horse aren’t all brilliant. I was highly disappointed that David Thewlis’ (Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films) character was sold so short. Thewlis plays Lyons, the landlord that owns the farm where our protagonist Albert (Jeremy Irvine) resides with his parents. Albert’s family has fallen on hard times, and is struggling to provide Lyons with the rent he requires. Instead of writing Lyons as a sympathetic but helpless fellow only doing his job, Spielberg decides to make Lyons a cardboard cut-out antagonist. Lyons revels in his power over Albert’s father, Ted, and seems to relish the idea of taking his farm away. He even makes a pass at Ted’s wife. Lyons is a villain straight out of a melodrama, and it’s really disappointing to see such a needlessly one-dimensional character in a Spielberg movie of all places.

While I admit that I may be placing too much emphasis on such a minor character, I’m sad to say that my grievances aren’t confined to the secondary characters. Unfortunately, I never really loved the protagonist. Jeremy Irvine plays the part of young Albert well, particularly in the scenes in the trenches, but for the most part, his character struck me as incredibly bland. He’s a good kid and all, but there’s nothing especially compelling about him.

Albert’s bond with his horse, Joey, which is the supposed focus of the film, deserves more explanation and exploration than it gets. While the vignettes with the French grandfather and granddaughter and the two German brothers is undeniably interesting, they rob the film of time that could have been spent developing Albert’s relationship with the horse. Because the movie didn’t see fit to dwell overlong on this key relationship, I simply wasn’t all that invested in it.

Now, perhaps it was the mood I was in when I saw War Horse, but I didn’t find myself caught up in the emotions of the film. The moments meant to moisten eyes and spur surges of sympathy or empathy fell flat. In fact, these moments came across as incredibly contrived, even manipulative. The movie seemed to be trying too hard to elicit tears, which is a big turn-off for me. Emotional moments in a film inspire tears when the viewer is completely wrapped up in the moment onscreen. But when the film is too aware of itself and its audience, the viewer can’t possibly lose himself in the action. He is constantly aware that he is watching a movie and the spell is broken.

All in all, War Horse is by no means a bad film. It’s quite good, in fact. I just don’t think it lives up to all the hype it’s been getting. Is it worth a watch? Sure. Are there better films at the box office right now? You bet.

Definitely check the film out if you’re into war dramas. Otherwise, I’d say it’s safe to skip.

-Alyssa

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About I've seen that movie, too

I'm just a girl who loves talking about music and movies. And music in movies.
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4 Responses to War Horse: good but not great

  1. reach4succeed says:

    I also thought that the emotion between Joey (horse) and the boy should have been more developed and felt on screen. But we all have imagnations, we can use them. I thought it was a great film-close call but still great not just good. Do you want astounding great, then try The Artist.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the film! I agree that allowing for offscreen development is a good way to flex our imagination muscles; I just wanted a little more onscreen reasons to be invested in the relationship. Still a good movie, though!

      And yes, The Artist is definitely in the realm of astounding great (I say so in a previous review! 😉 haha )

  2. John Kelly says:

    Alyssa,

    From your review it seems that Spielberg has fallen prey to the pitfall of his own genius. Spielberg has the ability to make the unimaginable into the spectacular and the inconceivable into the fantastic. Spielberg took an Extraterrestrial and made the audience feel as though each had found him hiding in the wood shed with that glowing finger. He took the horrors of the holocaust and brought audiences across the world to their knees in sadness and to their feet in praise as the credits rolled. Spielberg’s weakness has always been, and by your review, seems to still be that realm of subject matter which naturally resides just below the incredible and yet pushing the upper limits of the mediocre.
    I thank you for the review and shall take your advice and instead spend my movie night retaking in the grandeur of E.T. or perhaps the horror of Jaws.

    • John,

      And once again, I thank you for your thoughtful comments! I never really thought of Spielberg’s movies in that way before, but I think you’re right: his films seem to shine brightest when they focus on more fanastical or larger-than-life subjects. An alien, a gigantic shark, a tragic historic event that dwarfs most events in human history in terms of loss and cruelty… These are all iconic and therefore enduring subjects that make for excellent clay in Spielberg’s hands. Maybe War Horse’s problem is that it’s simply not *big* enough for Spielberg. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s an interesting thought!

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