By Matt Waite
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is very much an old-school epic that harkens back to a time when Hollywood frequently produced sweeping historical sagas on a grand-scale. This is both good and bad.
Certainly Spielberg is attempting to tell a grand tale with a good deal of talent in front of and behind the camera, but I never felt that the work had the depth of some of the director’s previous works, such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. There are several instances when the tone shifts jarringly during scenes, including one scene of slapstick humor, which has absolutely no place in the epic that Spielberg is trying to film.
There are also deluges upon deluges of sentiment in the film that comes off as very cloying at times. I especially disliked several scenes early on, where Spielberg films Jeremy Irvine running through nicely groomed meadows, which reminded me very much of the way Ben Stiller filmed Simple Jack running in Tropic Thunder. This is no fault of Jeremy Irvine, who does fine in the lead role as Albert Narracott, but is more indicative of the way Spielberg tries to drown his film in sentimentality at times he should have been incorporating meaningful character study and plot depth.
I did enjoy the talent Spielberg’s crew brings to the film, such as Janusz Kamiński, who really brings the film alive with some fantastic cinematography and has all but guaranteed himself an Academy Award with his work. The art-direction is also strong, especially the cottages, which are particularly impressive. The performances are very good for the most part, even though a few approach caricaturist levels, and several actors forget their German accents midway through their performances. I was particularly impressed by Emma Watson’s performance as Albert Narricott’s resilient mother, which really should be gaining more attention than it is.
This being a Spielberg film, there are several battle scenes that are exceptionally well filmed. One cavalry charge in particular has several stunning shots that are easily among the most impressive he has ever filmed. However, I was distracted by how Spielberg chose to film very gritty battle scenes, but also decided to make them completely bloodless affairs. The contradiction of having non-romanticized battle scenes with explosions while also incorporating a 1960’s style melee combat where cavalry pretend to hit soldier and they then pretend to fall over from invisible wounds is very strange to watch. I am sure some older audience members will appreciate this nod to old-school films, but I am also guessing that younger audiences used to more realistic battle scenes will just find it distracting.
There is definitely an audience who will embrace War Horse’s over-the-top sentimentality and old-school filmmaking, including that body of mainly mid-sixties white males who supposedly award films based on excellence with shiny gold statues called Oscars. Of course there were certainly things I liked about the film, including the excellent production values and skillful execution present throughout the film, but in the end it was just too inherently flawed to be an excellent film, much less the classic it clearly wanted to be.
3 ½ out of 5 stars.