Grand, sweeping epic yet emotionally manipulative
Spielbergs War Horse could be seen as purely Oscar-bait material, on the other hand there are moments of such utter beauty that only can come from the hands of a seasoned masterful filmmaker that you give into the power of the moment built by the masterful concoction of the visuals, music and basic human emotion.
The story picks up in Devon, England in the countryside just before the start of World War I. A poor farmer, Ted Naracott (Peter Mullan) buys a young colt at an auction for an exorbitant price in an ego-tussle with his snivelling land-lord, Lyons (David Thewlis). While his wife, Rose (Emily Watson) strongly disagrees and points out how the horse isnt going to be of any help in ploughing the field, his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) enthusiastically takes it upon himself to train the horse. He names him Joey and after much hard work, the two manage to plough a difficult part of the field so that Lyons doesnt throw them off their property for non-payment of dues. However just when things seem to be getting better, tragedy strikes and Joey has to be sold off to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) as his ride in the war. The horse goes to France and from then on, circumstances lead him from one owner to another. Sometimes its the Germans; other times an old French farmer and his granddaughter and many other others along the way. Albert on the other hand doesnt forget Joey and when he comes of the right age joins the army to be able to find his horse. Will circumstances bring them together again?
The sweeping, epic tone of the film allows Spielberg to play around with some truly brilliant set-pieces. He almost recreates the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan with a brutally (though not as brutal as the former film) executed sequence involving trench-warfare. The beautiful French and English countryside is milked to the extreme and John Williams evocative score only adds to the effect. The scenes of the trail of destruction left behind in the wake of the war too is quite a sight to behold and pushes Spielbergs old stand about the futility of war very strongly.
The movies failing lies in its conversion from book to film. The book is told from the point of view of the horse and here too Joey is present in nearly every frame but unless Spielberg were to make Joey speak or read his thoughts somehow, you only have the physicality of the horse left to form an emotional connect with the audience. The movie fails here overall, because after the first 30-40 minutes, Albert goes missing for much of the running length and Joey just moves from one persons care to another. While each has their own story and admire Joey, none truly have a life changing experience thanks to the horse. It might be no different than a valuable, pretty looking jewel they found and then lost it. So the movie for much of the running length becomes a collection of tales from World War I, involving the same horse. Plus I got kind of irritated with the fact that every fifteen minutes someone has to point out again and again what a remarkable horse, Joey is, like to remind the audience the same too.
The cast if filled with some well known character actors, nearly all from the United Kingdom.
The story might remind you of past movies like Cimarron, Black Beauty or even Lassie but Spielberg manages to make this technically utterly beautiful even if the plot lacks heavily and the emotional strand feels manipulative. At a running length of two and a half hours however, it will test your patience, if you dont have the stomach for weepy, sweeping, grand epics with little of worth actually happening on screen.