When I looked back on my blog to find out what today’s TBT film was I audibly groaned. I’ve never wanted to see this film again. Especially now I’ve seen the amazing stage production. That was genuinely an emotional triumph and a beautiful adaptation of a (frankly) stupid story. Stupid because, for me, the story of an animal’s journey through World War 1 is never going to compare to that of a human’s in terms of emotional resonance. 2018 was the centenary of the end of World War 1 and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old was a film experience I’ll never forget. During the run-up to the actual centenary I got annoyed by the knowledge that an animal charity had designed their own purple poppy badge in memory of the animals who died in warfare. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love animals and think remembering their sacrifice is a good thing. BUT I don’t think it’s right to focus on them over the human sacrifice and you know there are people out there who will have only worn a purple poppy. As another example, I was recently witness to someone compare having to have their dog put down to having a child on life-support. As a former dog owner who went through the experience of having to do that, I know how much it hurts but you can’t compare the situations at all. Animals are great but, surely, we can all agree it’s not the same, right?
Over the years, I’ve managed to gain something of a reputation with some of my colleagues. Every time someone mentions Steven Spielberg it’s highly likely that I’ll start ranting about War Horse to them. I’ve ignored multiple eye-rolls as I’m in mid-flow such is my annoyance with this film. I remember watching it for the first time and laughing non-stop. Everything seemed so absurd and stupid to me. It didn’t help that everyone bloody loved it as soon as it was released. I just couldn’t understand why. I still don’t understand why. Is it just because people love horses so bloody much that they can’t see anything behind it? Or is it just because it’s Spielberg? Is he, like Meryl Streep, somebody that can put their name on any old shit and it gets rave reviews? Let’s be honest, Spielberg’s a hack these days. I still haven’t forgiven him for The Post. Or Ready Player One. Or War of the Worlds… you get the idea. He’s made a lot of shit in recent years.
But there’s something about War Horse in particular that really gets me. This is a film that is supposed to summon up the war-time spirit and feeling of that time. But there isn’t a single second of it that feels grounded in reality. And it’s all because of that magic fucking horse. This isn’t a film that tells a naturally emotional story. It’s a super manipulative story that lacks soul and charm. It’s as if Spielberg knew that audiences would only give a shit about the horse and decided he didn’t need to worry about the rest of the film. So little does he care that he leaves it to the original score to indicate how his audience should feel about events that take place. Every death takes place in such a matter-of-fact and detached way that, were the film playing silently, you wouldn’t know you were meant to be sad.
It’s a film that takes place during World War 1 and the only separation it gives a shit about is between a horse and its young owner. Everything that is unrelated to the horse is kind of irrelevant. And, even then, things are glossed over in order to get back to the horse. At one point, Albert tries to sign up for the army despite being far too young. He’s willing to lie about his age to follow his horse. Lying about ages is something that young boys did all the time in 1914 and beyond but Spielberg just lets it go. Doesn’t push it as far as he should. As it deserved. It’s frustrating.
This is such a Hollywood version of World War One. Death is both ever-present but never obvious. It’s such a watered-down interpretation of a conflict that caused so much death and damage. If this were the only legacy given to the men who laid down their lives to fight then it certainly wouldn’t be fitting. It’s pathetic. This is a Disney version of the First World War. It wants to be a war movie but is too afraid to go too far. Look at the outrageous lengths that Spielberg goes to in order to prevent death ever rearing its ugly head on screen. It means there’s this weird cloud hanging over the entire film and it means the tone is all over the place.
And let’s not forget, the emotional pull in this narrative comes from the human characters not the fucking horse. The greatest character here? The French farmer who loses his entire family because so many armies have taken over his country. Do we care about him? No. We just care about that fucking horse. This isn’t a film. It’s a series of shorts that end way before their emotional or dramatic payoff. It’s a cartoon about a horse that can, inexplicably, get through any danger unscathed. It’s so awful. I’m still so angry. It is only thanks to the occasional moments of glory (Tom Hiddleston’s face as he gallops into battle, the aforementioned Grandfather, a few decent shots) that I gave it any kind of rating. Everything else is superficial, charmless, and rose-tinted.
To close out this second review, I’m going to quote myself from last time:
From a director who gave us the gritty realism of warfare in Saving Private Ryan, War Horse becomes nothing more than Homeward Bound 3: Lost in No Man’s Land.