Movies are a manipulation. Let’s not mince words here. Anyone who calls a movie “manipulative” is really just saying that a movie is inexpertly or clumsily manipulative, rather than elegantly or subtly. Calling a film manipulative is like calling food tasty – the word itself is meaningless unless you modify it. Rancid. Cloying. Delicious. Moving. These are the modifiers needed to really make a meaningful criticism of a film.
So when I call War Horse manipulative the only way I can really do justice to its worth as a film is to modify that declaration with the words “masterfully,” “movingly,” and “artfully.” From the first trailer it was clear that for the bulk of the power from this film would come from trading in on meaningful looks, soaring orchestral cues, brilliant and evocative cinematography, and the general human affection for certain kinds of easily anthropomorphized animals. To this end, the film comes through on every expectation, and delivers a moving, resonant, and brilliantly crafted piece of emotionally compelling cinema.
War Horse gains a lot of ground in this battle for our emotional control by casting two of the most intensely and innately expressive leads that could possibly be found. One, of course, is a thoroughbred colt named Joey, whose eyes speak volumes and whose physical performance is masterful as most any animal in film. There is something innately empathetic about horses, something that makes them more cinematically appealing than any other animal. Their grace, their beauty, the size, the baleful nature of their eyes. They look from birth as though they have wisdom and weariness. So when we see a horse bonding with a young boy we get the sense that he has reached something elemental and ancient, has reached a plane of understand and experience that most others will never reach.
When such an animal goes to war, then, and is subjected to and is made to be part in the abuses than man inflicts upon his fellow man, it is tragic and meaningful in a way few things can be. All children grow old and lose their innocence. All the best people can at least be made aware of the damage and fear that the world can inflict. A horse, however, brought into this world remains just as confused and lost as always. Even Joey, who is loaned a level of almost saintly anthropomorphism through his actions, never seems to be able to come to terms with the horror around him. The fact that I am speaking of him in such a way, through such characterizations and ideas, is a testament to the completeness of director Steven Spielberg’s mastery of filmic power. Even at my most cynical, I can’t help but feel that there is a deeper understanding in Joey which elevates this from a story about an animal to a human story told in the relief of an animal.
The second lead who allows for War Horse to soar above the seemingly cloyingly manipulative nature of its tale is Jeremy Irvine as Albert, whose father purchases Joey at auction mainly to stick it to his overbearing landlord. This is a role that is, on its face, deeply absurd. Albert has a tendency to speak to Joey, a horse, as though he were an understanding and sapient human friend. When the horse is shipped off to be part of the war effort, Albert makes pledges of enduring love, affection, and fealty that would be consider extreme if leveled at a girlfriend of wife. Yet Irvine is capable of such earnestness and genuine pathos that its not hard to understand his love of Joey. To him, the two of them have tied their destinies together, have proven their worth to the same doubters and are therefore fated to continue to prove their worth in the future together. Joey was his friend, but also the instrument of his betterment, and losing Joey means losing the piece of himself he invested in that animal.
To that extent, this is a movie stuffed with people overcoming obstacles, each of them with the aid of this “miraculous” animal. There is the drunken father (Peter Mullan), trying to save his farm despite his crippled leg and battered soul following the Boer War. There is the doting, strong-willed wife (Emily Watson) trying to bridge the gap between her son and husband. There is the pair of young officers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston) preparing to earn their stripes in their first war. A pair of young German brothers hoping to make good on their promise to come home safe. A young, ill French girl and her grandfather trying to ignore the war as it closes in on them. These lives, among many others, are all touched by Joey as he makes his way through the terror or World War I. Each vignette is filled with heartwarming dialogue and a surfeit of reaction shots of people marveling at the horse. (There’s so much marveling in this movie that at times it plays like a parody of a Spielberg film.) Each story results in a climax of a kind, and each tale earns, through all the elements of the magic of film, a small level of investment and grace. I preferred the tale of the German brothers among all others, and felt that the graceful, inevitable end of that story was the most resonant.
And thus I come to my real complaint, the one thing that I would allow to stand as a real criticism of this film. War Horse spends so much time with Joey that it seems to shrink the human horror around him to an almost minuscule amount. The greater story is packed with so many little stories that the collective power of all of them drowns out their individual strength. Those two German brothers could have supported an entire film, and shrinking their piece of the plot down so was a masterful act of compression. However, on a larger canvas they might have made a more compelling film than this one. This is not to diminish the film, but to highlight the power of their story. It hurts to see so many excellent moments relegated to simple side tales in a more sweeping narrative that focuses on an animal that, despite all of its grace and beauty, I cannot empathize with on the same level as a human.
But then again, this is not that story, or any other individual story. This is the tale of a war through the eyes of an animal never meant for it, but forced into it all the same. Those people around him are only there to enable his journey or be impacted by him. I still feel distressed that the great World War I epic of my time has to focus on an animal as a means of telling the story of the first terrible modern war, but I suppose that is the price I must pay.
I’ve a feeling that when I watch War Horse again I will be looking forward to the vignettes from the larger narrative more so than the overarching story of Joey and Albert. While their story is wonderful and their climactic scenes are undoubtedly powerful, I still can’t help but feel a sense of longing for what stories might have been told without them.
It puts me in a strange position – War Horse tells an incredible story, but at the same time, I wish it had taken time to tell me a different one.