JAMIE MATHIESON sends Spielberg’s equine epic to the knacker’s yard.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
War Horse, winner of the Snakes on a Plane award for least ambiguous title of the year, is about a horse that goes to war. War is bad. Especially for horses: around eight million were slaughtered in the First World War. But as horrible as war is, and as lovely as horses are, I do find it hard to empathise with a horse, even when it’s called Joey, which is a lovely name, especially for a horse.
It’s not much easier to empathise with the humans. Our lead, a strapping but wet Devon lad, has two lines throughout the whole film: ‘Come on Joey, I know you can do it!’, and ‘No, you won’t take Joey away!’, with a hundred variations thereof. The film is repetitive, overlong, and I felt like I’d seen it before. At points – when Germans were speaking English in a German accent, and when French people were speaking English in a French accent, and when our hero’s parents worried the landlord will take away their farm, and when comic relief was provided by an amusing duck – it was all too familiar. Ah, yes. I was watching a CBBC serial from the nineties.
When our brave lads finally go over the top, the carnage is riveting, and horrifying, and everything you’d expect it to be. But that’s the problem. We all know what’s going to happen when they charge into No Man’s Land: we can all see the bodies on the barbed wire. The mayhem of the trenches is so seared into the popular imagination of this country it’s very hard to say anything original about it, and Spielberg doesn’t even try – what we effectively have here is a series of outtakes from Saving Private Ryan.
Where Spielberg does try is when he’s shooting the horses (in both senses of the word). He clearly loves the horses, and he is at his most creative and witty – at his most Spielberg – when he’s finding ways to show us just how fast those hooves can fly. The adoration just strays the right side of Animal Ark, though at several points I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Father Ted’s My Lovely Horse.
The film’s supporting cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, whose appearance on screen was hailed with an audible ripple of delight throughout the cinema – Sherlock is surely the most popular actor in Britain today. Yet the real star of the show isn’t any of the actors, or even the horse, but the scenery. This could be an advert for Devon tourism. France looks quite nice too, until everything starts getting blown up and horse bodies litter the battlefield like a game of Age of Empires.
Yet the sense prevails that Spielberg couldn’t decide whether he was making a cheery family favourite or a grim horror-of-war spectacular. He’s tried to make both, and the consequence is that at 146 minutes War Horse crosses the finish line long, long after you’ve stopped caring.