Who among us cannot be moved by a brave horse in harm’s way?
The self-evident answer would seem to make Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” a slam-dunk in terms of eliciting sobs from a willing audience. And while I did hear a few sniffles as this movie about a miraculous World War I horse drew to a close, the film (opening Sunday) never fully engaged me. It lacks emotional immediacy, despite Spielberg’s usual high level of craftsmanship and committed performances.
In my teens I read Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic novel about the futility of war, and one stark image remains with me to this day: a dying, eviscerated horse.
You’ll see nothing so graphic in Spielberg’s movie, but by some estimates, 8 million horses died in World War I and continued being fed into the carnage factory even after the generals decided that cavalry charges were rather quaint in the age of machine guns.
This was the historical backdrop of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name as well as the extraordinary stage version adapted by Nick Stafford and, now, an epic film from Spielberg, a master manipulator of viewers’ emotions.
The story begins in Devon in southwest England, where teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with a foal named Joey. He eventually gets to train him after his father (Peter Mullan), a tenant farmer with a taste for liquor, pays too much for the horse at auction. The boy is heartbroken when his father, unable to meet rent payments to a greedy landlord (David Thewlis), sells Joey to the army.
So Albert enlists in a go-for-broke effort to find his beloved horse.
I’ve always believed there were at least two Spielbergs — the sadist (“Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan”) and the sentimentalist (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.”). Films about horses are as sentimental as they come, but Spielberg’s determination to make a PG-13 family film yields interesting results, especially in his depictions of combat.
A charge of British cavalry against a German encampment begins thunderously as the horsemen advance with their anachronistic sabers drawn. The Brits fly through the enemy camp, dispatching surprised Germans with their swords. It’s a fast-moving action sequence, but we don’t see a drop of blood.
As Germans manning machine guns in the woods open up on the advancing cavalrymen, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky produce the film’s most arresting image: riderless horses racing through the machine gun emplacements. Spielberg doesn’t need to show us the bodies of the fallen soldiers. The stunning visuals say it all.
Later in the film, Albert, now an infantryman, participates in an attack on the German trenches. Again, Spielberg conveys the horror and chaos of mechanized warfare without a trace of gore. Bodies fall, men scream and artillery shells throw them skyward like rag dolls. And that’s enough.
The entire look of the film is deeply textured. The early, sunbathed images of Devon seem to explode with color. As the war becomes a bitter slog, gray sludge and mud-caked uniforms become the dominant visual motif.
The actors are all quite good, even though the episodic nature of the story gives them little screen time to establish nuanced characters. Irvine projects three variations of wide-eyed youth — ecstatic joy, depthless sorrow and raw fear. But this newcomer’s performance is so unaffected that you never really question the character’s emotional arc.
The film’s finest performance comes from Niels Arestrup as a French grandfather who with his teenage granddaughter (Celine Buckens) briefly inherits Joey and another horse. The grandfather’s love for young Emilie is overarching and gives the character an inner fire beneath a seeming passive detachment. He also figures into the denouement when he becomes Albert’s unexpected ally in determining Joey’s ultimate fate.
In the film’s best scene, a young British infantryman (Toby Kebbell) advances into no-man’s-land under a white flag to rescue Joey from a latticework of barbed wire. He is joined by a German soldier (Hinnerk Schönemann) who brings wire cutters. The two enemies trade sarcastic fantasies of the “joys” of life in the trenches. (The screenplay is credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis.) Ultimately they flip a coin to decide who gets to take Joey and part company with good will and mutual respect.
Spielberg turns to tried-and-true techniques in his effort to move us. His camera repeatedly glides in for close shots when characters are experiencing powerful emotions. And composer John Williams never misses a chance to tell us how we should feel at any given moment with his overly busy “soaring” score.
The film runs almost 2 1/2 hours, and while it doesn’t really feel too long, you’d think Spielberg could have delivered a bigger dramatic punch with that much time on his hands.
As it is, he’s given us a thoroughly respectable movie — visually striking, handsomely mounted, well-acted and frustratingly remote.