Steven Spielberg is hardly a director who lacks experience when it comes to the portrayal of war. Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Band Of Brothers all featured the horrors of battle but were crucially emotionally grounded.
War Horse, Spielberg’s adaptation of the feted stage play of the same name takes place during the First World War but rather than evincing genuine emotion like his other war films, it’s an overly sentimental, archly manipulative, sickeningly saccharine tale; desperately earnest but terribly misjudged.
It begins in the sanitised rural countryside, a sparklingly clean fairytale land which looks like something straight out of a Ladybird storybook; a veritable bucolic paradise that represents alcoholism as merely a regrettable personality quirk and exists in perpetual pastoral splendour complete with comedy honking geese.
We meet the Narracots, played by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson. They’re honest-to-goodness farming types who are in danger of being pushed off their land by their unsympathetic landlord (David Thewlis). Help arrives in the shape of their young son Arthur (Jeremy Irvine) who forges a bond with a spirited thoroughbred horse deemed unsuitable for farm work.
Nevertheless, Arthur is able to tame the beast and convinces it not only to take a ploughshare harness but to plough a rocky field. But it’s not enough for him to merely plough the field; Spielberg has it contrived as a triumphant miracle – the ploughshare cuts through a stone boulder while John Williams’ score ramps up the schmaltz to hitherto unparalleled degrees.
The horse, Joey, is in for quite an adventure. He’s bought by a kindly officer, shipped off to the front lines, miraculously survives a doomed cavalry charge, is taken in by a French farmer and his daughter and eventually ends up in No Man’s Land where he manages to not only stop the war momentarily but also unite German and English soldiers in shared empathy for his plight, before finally rejoining Albert at home (Albert having naturally survived going over the top himself).
Spielberg has long been a director who refuses to give his audience any credit. War Horse is Spielberg at his most obvious – we’re hand-held through the drama with contrived camera angles and force-fed the most nauseating script since Richard Curtis’s last romantic comedy. Curtis is no stranger to over sentimentality – he’s been steadily churning out predictable sappy rom-coms (Notting Hill, Love Actually) for years, but it’s strange to have that cloying approach applied here, especially considering his previous good form as the co-writer of Blackadder Goes Forth, a genuinely heart-wrenching portrayal of The Great War.
War Horse displays a stunning lack of subtlety. It’s almost as if a large neon sign with flickering letters reading “APPLAUSE” is permanently hovering somewhere above the whole production. Spielberg never pulls back far enough to let his audience make up their own minds about a scene – instead he instructs, almost commands them to feel a designated emotion. “THIS BIT IS SAD”, “YOU SHOULD FEEL UPLIFTED NOW”.
It’s draped in what is easily one of John Williams’ worst scores. He’s been a long-time collaborator with Spielberg and he’s produced some of cinema’s most memorable and iconic soundtracks – Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Jaws – but here there’s a profound lack of finesse; the swelling strings and horns slosh over the whole production like a suffocating, syrupy treacle.
There are occasional flashes of Spielberg’s genius. A cavalry charge over a seemingly abandoned German encampment and a scene where two men are executed in front of a windmill, its blades obscuring the deed, are inspired and show a poetic quality not found in the rest of the film. But for the most part, War Horse is a massively overcooked turkey; a contrived sugar-coated exercise in mawkish tedium.