Trench Warfare’s Got Nothing on ‘War Horse’

by Trey Hock on December 25, 2011

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Usually once a year a film comes along that I find utterly despicable. These films usually come from exceptionally talented directors, and are so manipulative and ridiculous that they show an utter disdain for the audience.

These are not bad films; they are dirty films. They are the cinematic equivalent of Johnny’s leg sweep in the final moments of The Karate Kid.

They use masterfully constructed framing as well a deep understanding of what a motion picture is capable of in order to attack us where we are most vulnerable, and offer no reward for their exploits.

Previous motion pictures of this ilk are films such as Titanic or Forrest Gump. Both play upon a sense of cultural nostalgia, each is set in fantasy versions of times past. One taps into our affinity for young doomed love, while the other presents us with a heroic and lovable simpleton. Each film leaves little room for interpretation as the message is rhythmically drummed into our skulls.

These films are excessively praised, because, like high fructose corn syrup, we have become addicted to their synthetic sweetness and total lack of substance.

It is my lot in life to endure the incessant chants of praise that issue from the lips of those who adore these terrible films. They win awards and ruin what we come to expect from our movies.

The newest of this brand of movies has arrived.

War Horse is the latest in a long line of cinematic atrocities that director Steven Spielberg has forced upon us. It, like the aforementioned Titanic and Forrest Gump, also uses a puffed up cultural nostalgia to push along its story. It glorifies a war that is now roughly a century old, but it also employs the lowest of blows, the anthropomorphic animal.

I was originally going to go scene by scene through the film, but have thought better of it for two reasons. First, it would ruin the film for those out there that may find some small joy in it, and second it would be far too much time and effort wasted on a movie that does not deserve it.

For those of you who want to see the film for yourselves, know this: War Horse is Babe Goes to War. It is The Incredible Journey; it is Free Willy, but often violent and disturbing.

The horse, Joey, gets sent off to fight in World War I. His owner, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) soon follows, and we watch as both of these innocents have adventures and get brutalized by the war they are stuck in.

The premise itself is ridiculous, at each turn the successes of both the horse and his boy are beyond belief, and made me question what I was watching. If this was a fantasy or fairytale, who was it for? The awkward musical motifs for each of the farm animals had a clunky Peter and the Wolf feel to them and often highlighted already blatant points.

Is this a movie for children?

The war scenes and specifically some of the violence that Joey the horse must endure make me question that.

I would offer that War Horse exemplifies the problem that comes with making a movie for everyone. By cramming all of these disparate elements into a single motion picture, they begin to conflict with each other. If it’s too violent for children and too heavy-handed and stupid for adults, then who should see this film?

I would suggest that no one should.

War Horse is a film for no one.

It has capable actors. Jeremy Irvine’s performance is fine. The entire cast, from Emily Watson to Peter Mullan to David Thewlis, is good. Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as a French grandfather and granddaughter give excellent performances that are subtle and nuanced, but all of these actors are employed on a project that is misguided at its source.

It has well-constructed frames that Spielberg lifts almost directly from directors like Victor Fleming, John Ford and David Lean. Perhaps Spielberg thought that because his protagonist was a farmer from the British Isles he should have a handful of Gone With the Wind references, but as with his indecision about his audience, Spielberg never settles upon a style for his film.

It is never fully the lavish war epic of Fleming, nor does it have the stern characters and majestic wide shots of Lean, nor the stark emotional and visual contrast of Ford. Spielberg wants to be all of these directors at the same time and because of that, he is none of them.

When I finished this film I was angry. I was angry that I had been subjected to over two hours of some of the most manipulative filmmaking I have seen. I was angry about Spielberg’s apparent arrogance, which results in this hot mess of styles and tone. I’m sure I will continue to be angry as praise is heaped upon this film.

I’m most upset by the fact that Spielberg has legitimate talent as illustrated by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Empire of the Sun. He could be a wonderful and benevolent member of what is now the old guard of contemporary cinema. Instead he is a super-intelligent evil cinematic villain, which the newer guard of directors should destroy.

Go watch War Horse if you must, then get angry and go watch something really great.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier December 25, 2011 at 2:09 am

wow that was scathing, but I liked it (the criticism that is) and I will avoid this film

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2 Trey Hock December 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Glad you enjoyed it (the criticism).

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3 Peter Pedant December 26, 2011 at 10:25 am

“Perhaps Spielberg thought that because his protagonist was an Irish farmer …” Um, NO HE DIDN’T, because his protagonist is an ENGLISH farmer. It’s set and filmed in Devon, England. The Narracotts are an English family. Everyone talks with English accents, not Irish accents. Did you pay any attention at all during the film?

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4 Trey Hock December 26, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Peter,

I did pay attention, and do apologize for so glaring an oversight. I have made the correction.

I’m sure then that you recognize that the rest of my critique was spot on, and thank you for targeting the ephemera and not the content of my argument.

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5 warren-j December 30, 2011 at 8:49 am

Great review, Trey. Way to detail all the specific points you took issue, and to put them in context with Spielberg’s directorial pedigree and the history of this genre. Spot on!

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6 Trey Hock December 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Thanks, Warren. It’s always my goal to be as fair as possible.

I appreciate the kind words.

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7 Taylor January 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Honestly, I have a few questions about this review- and I mean this sincerely.
Your points are understandable, and in some cases quite valid (the ending tasted like diabetes, in my opinion.), but I feel as though you’re holding the film to standards that it wasn’t trying to fit. I recently saw this, and came away with the impression that it was a good story, if not a good movie. Both Titanic and Forrest Gump were/are ‘classics’, and I didn’t get the impression that War Horse was an attempt to meet those expectations. But. I could just have missed the point.

To me, War Horse was an improvement on the regular ‘horse movies’ that have come out recently, and that was what I saw it as. Not a WWI film, or an overarching moralistic tale, but a horse story. And, to be honest, it beat out Flicka and Secretariat for me.

So I was wondering why the view of this was of a war/heartstrings/historical film? I thought it had it’s faults, but more in the type of plow-horses-being-completely-groomed way.

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8 Trey Hock January 15, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Taylor,

I’m torn here. You said the ending of ‘War Horse’ tasted like diabetes and that should make us the best of friends forever.

You also make the claim that I am holding this film to a standard that it wasn’t trying to fit, and you cite your personal emotions as evidence. Though I believe that emotional experience and reaction to a film is of the utmost importance it may not get at the intentions or craft of a film.

Spielberg visually references some of the greatest directors of the mid 20th century, and does so within the confines of an overtly moralistic tale set during WWI. German soldiers execute boys and drive horse until they die. Spielberg has higher hopes for this film than a simple horse story.

My biggest gripe is just that its so ill fitting for most any audience. It’s, as you pointed out, too sugar-coma-inducing and moronic for most adults, and yet way too violent for most children. That to me is the ultimate failure of ‘War Horse.’ It’s a film that Spielberg tried to make for everyone, so really it’s for no one.

Now tell me more about ‘War Horse’ force feeding you diabetes so we can be friends always.

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9 Rik January 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I was starting to get pissed off at all the positive reviews for this movie, but this review cheered me up. Worst movie I’ve seen in a while, most of the emotional and dramatic scenes are way overdone and manipulative. It’s a fuzzy horse-love story in the middle of a godless bloody war. Funny though that while everybody is getting teary eyed and moralistic over a horse, the horse seems to be the only one who just doesn’t give a shit. Watching this felt like watching a performer who’s trying too hard. He’s screaming his heart out, playing a crazy long solo and it sounds impressive, but the audience is left thinking “what the hell is he on about?”

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10 Trey Hock January 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm

HA! I’m glad I cheered you up, Rik. Thanks for the comment, and hopefully I help you out again in the future.

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11 Patti January 21, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I was very disappointed in this film. I love horses and the portrayal of everything to do with horses, horse training and the nature of the horse was so unbelievable, so anthropromorhised, that it ruined the film for me. Of course the length and the shallow plot did nothing to redeem it. I could not believe the number of positive reviews. I wonder if they saw the same movie that I saw?

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12 Rosie February 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I’m curious; did anyone, including the horse, do anything besides run to and fro?

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13 Trey Hock February 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Haha! Not really. No.

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14 Dani January 23, 2015 at 9:19 pm

I agree on all your points. Thanks for writing them all so well.

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15 Steven W. July 23, 2015 at 9:18 am

Surprised you’d want to make such bold statements, though I suppose one person always HAS to go against the grain. We need different opinions in any society to learn. I agree with most of your points and yet it’s still difficult to agree because of my narrowed opinion I’ve formed for years. After agreeing with society for years it’s hard to admit you were wrong the whole time, or at least not entirely correct. Either way, I appreciate the stance your taking and I wish you luck in the flames of argument.

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