War Horse is the story of Joey, a horse whose life changes dramatically when he is bought from a Devon farmer by the English army. Joey’s journey takes him across World War I Europe; he passes through people’s lives – on both sides of the conflict – as tries to find his way back home.
It is easy to see what Steven Spielberg was trying to achieve with War Horse. It is a new way to look at the concept of war, through the eyes of a creature with no agenda and no loyalties. The film looks at the various sides of the war for what they are, actions that lead to the suffering of people. The film appears to be made up of short stories that use the horse – Joey – as the common denominator between them all. The film runs a little long because of this, and the audience is not given enough time to identify with these characters before the film moves on.
We all know that Spielberg is able to tell a war story well, but the split narrative of War Horse also splits the audience’s attention. In the end, the audience finds their protagonist in the horse, and the fear and confusion he feels as he is moved from person to person throughout a four-year period. Of course there are moving stories in there because, at the end of it all, War Horse is a study of the human condition; the two young boys who abscond from the war, the young girl and her grandfather who are trying to keep to themselves, and the soldiers – on both sides of the war – who are unsure of whether they are ever going to come home.
To name all the performances in this film would lead to an incredibly long review, but let it be said that many of the roles are necessary to show the time period, and to move the story forward, but no actor – except perhaps Emily Watson – is allowed to make their characters more than two dimensional.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston as the English soldiers who take Joey to war show the diversity of the war. Captain Nicholls (Hiddleston) is a man who has a gentle heart, and vows to bring Joey home if he can, but in the same vein he is a soldier who is proud to fight and die for his country – until his final few minutes. The humanity of the people within the film is conveyed in small moments, and this is where Hiddleston shines. It would be easy for Cumberbatch to fall into cerebral roles after his outstanding turn as Sherlock Holmes, but he plays his character, Major Jamie Stewart, as a brash soldier who is the epitome of stiff upper lip English, and is allowed to show some diversity in his role. Emily Watson is given enough screen time to show the struggle that she is facing between her love for her husband and her need for survival. The story she tells about her husband Ted (Peter Mullan) gives some indication as to why he is as he is, but Mullan is not allowed to develop very far.
The tone of War Horse is not a light hearted one. This fits in with the subject matter, but constant images of war torn landscapes and people on the verge of falling apart become hard to watch after a certain amount of time; perhaps this is why we end up siding with the horse. Another reason for this could be the horrific realisation that people can be terrible to one another, but animals lack this consciousness.
War Horse is a rich historical drama, but the story is very much framed in order to get the strongest emotional response from the audience. Even as tears roll, it is hard to shake the notion that we are being manipulated. Another problem lies with the amount of time we are allowed with each set of characters.
In the end, War Horse skims the surface of a horrific conflict that left millions of people – and horses – dead. Everything in the story wraps up a tiny bit too neatly, and many of the short stories are not finished off at all. There is no doubt that the film is well shot and looks great, but the uneven pacing, the underdeveloped characters and the blatant manipulation of audience emotions detract from the excellent visual.