Joey is loyal, steadfast, encouraging, high-spirited, and self-sacrificing, always putting the interests of others ahead of his own. He’s a hard worker, but he loves to run and play, too, and is smart enough to take shortcuts, as long as doing so doesn’t hurt anybody. He’s a quiet sort, yet he’ll make his opinion known when needed. In short, he’s an ideal friend and a heroic character.
Here’s the thing: Joey is a horse.
As the protagonist in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, therefore, Joey presents certain dramatic challenges. Unlike Francis, the titular talking mule in Arthur Lubin’s 1950 wartime comic fantasy, Joey’s thoughts can only be surmised from his actions. Fortunately for Joey, he encounters a series of humans who are sympathetic to his steadily-worsening plight in the early part of the 20th Century.
Joey is lucky, too, in that his story is told by Spielberg, who applies all of his considerable skills as a filmmaker to what is, at heart, a trite tale about the horrors of war and the ultimate moral superiority of animals. Consider the opening sequence, in which Joey is born, as young farm boy Albert watches with growing excitement.
Glowing, heavenly light shines down, notably on the beaming face of Albert, eyeing the proceedings through a wooden fence. Janusz Kaminski, who has served as Spielberg’s director of photography for nearly 20 years, beautifully captures the soft gaze of a young man falling in love — his eyes, his smile — and the physical details as well: the boy’s worn clothing; the gorgeous, open, rural setting. Accompanied by John Williams’ full-bodied musical score and edited with an easy, assured rhythm by Michael Kahn, War Horse is established as an epic in the style of wide-screen classics from the 1950s and 60s, married to a storytelling sensibility dating to the mid-to-late 30s.
The horse is sold at auction, and Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullan) wildly overpays for the animal, motivated by animosity for competing bidder Lyons (David Thewlis), his wealthy landlord. Ted’s purchase meets with disapproval from his wife Rose (Emily Watson), who has legitimate concerns about their precarious financial situation; she fears the loss of their farm. Albert (Jeremy Irvine), however, assures his mother that he will personally train Joey and mold the high-spirited animal into the plow horse they need. And it works! But then the Great War breaks out, Joey is sold into slavery the war effort for the British, and is shipped off to Europe, where his episodic adventures continue.
Splendidly staged, the battle sequences are sometimes astounding, such as when a British cavalry unit charges across a wheat field early in the morning, hurtling toward a German unit caught unawares. It resembles a John Ford Western, the mounted soldiers riding through camp, slashing and shooting, cutting between a ground-level view and a “God’s Eye” perspective, surveying the extent of the damage from above.
Just as impressive are the recreations of the trenches, from which frightened soldiers charge out into the desolate hell of “No Man’s Land” through barbed-wire barriers. Historical details accumulate: valuables being placed into buckets before a charge, to be distributed among the survivors; the massive collection of young men, difficult to tell apart in the smoke, dirt, grime, and panic of battle; the exquisite costume design by Joanna Johnston.
Spielberg’s distinctive, top-notch direction often overpowers the material, which finds its basis in Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel. I haven’t read the book, but evidently it contains dialogue between Joey and Topthorne, another horse who plays a prominent role, and expresses Joey’s thoughts on the page. An adaptation mounted for the London stage in 2007 featured horses portrayed by life-sized puppets. Spielberg’s version, with a screenplay credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, renders the horses mute, and favors close-ups of their eyes to connote intimate communication, followed immediately by action(s) meant to illustrate their thoughts.
For all the glories of visual storytelling that are on display, War Horse cannot escape its episodic nature, calling to mind another Spielberg picture about the horrors of war and its devastating effects upon soldiers and civilians. While Saving Private Ryan shocked with horrific scenes of carnage, it relied on a company of easily-delineated characters and a focused storyline that endeavored to drive home heroic themes. The film’s message may have been diluted by a weak resolution that dissolved into nostalgic sentimentality and undermined much of what came before, but the imagery still resonates.
Like that movie, War Horse clings to a series of characters who display courage in the face of danger, not only Albert, but also British officers (Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch), French civilians (Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens), and German soldiers (David Kross, Leonard Carow, Nicolas Bro). There’s only one “villain,” a cartoon of evil, but otherwise everyone who comes in contact with Joey is either already in touch with their inner angel or is quickly moved to become more humane. It’s a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t add up to more than the power of individual sequences.
Calling this beautiful, dramatically incomplete movie Saving Private Joey is, therefore, entirely justifiable.
‘War Horse’ opens wide across the Metroplex on Sunday.