Film Review – War Horse

War Horse Movie PosterThere is much you can tell about a movie from its start, the music, the images, and the tone. In Steven Spielberg’s new film War Horse, everything you need to know is spelled out in the first three minutes of dialogue and scenes. We have an over the top image of the countryside with overly cheerful but semi-epic music, giving the sense of a journey but with no real danger. (To bring this point home, the music is repeated several times over the course of the film, doing nothing to make the movie more intense, and gets very repetitive.) This sequence goes on for a while and we get to see a boy, Albert (Jeremy Irving), watching a horse grow up, and him obviously dreaming of owning him. So when his foolish father buys the horse instead of a work horse, for reasons of vanity, Albert and his new horse Joey instantly bond, as Albert tries to train him to be a work horse.

These sequences before the war could be ripped from any over the top story about a young boy trying to prove to the world his animal can do something. For good measure, we have the following by-the-book characters: a drunken father who is still “non-threatening,” a goose that chases people, and the pièce de résistance, an evil landlord desperate for them to fail. These moments really add nothing to the film but to show Albert with his horse, and to set up the idea that this is some sort of miraculous horse, so when it is repeated a million other times in the film we will believe it.

Albert, for being the most central figure, is the most boring character in the entire film; he is not a character but a prop to move around, spout his love of Joey, and get upset that the horse is gone. He has no strong feelings about his family, his friends, and, later, his fellow soldiers, unless it relates to the horse. What is worse is that nothing seems to affect him. Even in the horror of war, when he loses people he knows and is injured, we do not see him react in any way. By giving him no personality other than his love for Joey, it is impossible to take him seriously, and the emotional pull we should be having about him and the horse never materializes.

This is a movie that is ripe for emotional manipulation, but it fails, not just with Albert, but with everything else as well. Joey ends up being bought into the British army and ends up switching owners and sides in the war numerous times to examine the war from different perspectives, but with any of the other temporary owners of Joey, the time spent with them is usually sparse and we have little time to grow to care about their situation or their feelings towards the horse. Even the horse we have no real attachment to. Several times, the events that happen to these new owners are glossed over or hidden ,so the results are lessened at every turn. Whenever the horse switches owners, the movie chooses to focus on those characters, and the horse almost feels like a background character, so him being a force to connect these people becomes more of a gimmick. By the time we do focus on Joey, the film has reached a point that you have just stopped caring and are desperate for anything unpredictable to happen.

War Horse 2

If the spectacle of the war had had a major part to play, you could overlook the characters being caricatures and props, but besides one ten to twenty minute sequence in the trenches, there is little of the war that is examined. It is more incidental that the war is going on to explain the horse changing owners. Even the deaths of men and animals doesn’t make the war feel real. Too often, the deaths are so easily set up that it is not a shock that the deaths happen, and are so quickly done, with so little reaction, that they leave no impact.

This is the core problem of the film that I kept trying to figure out: what is Spielberg trying to get us to focus on? The war is incidental, the characters are either not focused on or are so one-note as to have no emotional attachment, and the horse, a beautiful majestic creature and an easy emotional pull for any audience, is so background that for a movie about him, it is hard to focus on any real, strong moments. We then have three “emotional moments” that prolong the ending, but have such a predictability to them that it is hard to get involved in them, and it simply serves to keep the movie going even longer.

If Spielberg wasn’t the director here, the early buzz this movie has been getting would not exist, but since it is Spielberg and he is doing a war movie, of course we can overlook the weaker moments of the film. This might work for him, but there are no strong moments to be found, and in the end, here is a film so limp that it is a struggle to think what this film is.

Final Grade: D-

About

Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

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  • Gareth

    What an absolute retard you are. All credibility as a serious critique of films has been lost forever.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    It is definitely a topic that is debated among our staff. Stay tuned for Allen’s rebuttal.

  • Ben Rendall

    I am sorry you did not like my take and I am glad you got enjoyment out of the film, but I stand by my review that it is a meandering mess of a film.

  • Gareth

    A Golden Globe nomination for best film with an A – mark. The ” awful ” John Williams score also up for a Golden Globe. Still you know best don’t you ? Probably one of those hacks who made his mind up he would slate it even before he saw it. Trying to make a name for yourself by being one of a small band slagging it off, PATHETIC !. I will listen to Roger Ebert if its all the same to you. He knows his films. You clearly do not and should resign.  

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Some movies just don’t click with some people. He isn’t the only person I have heard this opinion about War Horse from.

    Allen will be writing an article giving the counterpoint to his argument (in support of War Horse), and that is fine too.

    We aren’t writing articles to repeat what everyone is saying, just give our individual opinions. I’m sorry if that disappoints you, but if you want to share why you like or dislike a film in the comments, we encourage that…debating how someone else feels will get us nowhere. We’d love to hear why you enjoyed the movie.

  • Gareth

    I can accept opinions and views but this is the most ridiculous review ever. The worst review of War Horse from all the critics by far. The worst I have seen in a C. Is this bloke seriously saying War Horse is on a par with ” The Hottie and the Nottie ” as his mark suggests he is. He has rubbished every single element of the film and that to me smacks of someone out with a score to settle. A Spielberg hater who thinks he can boost his own profile on the back of someone who has actually gone out and devoted a year of his life on a subject close to him and an education for youngsters about WW1 and the Men and Horses that made the ultimate sacrifice so it is insulting to those memoies as well. These Men , and Horses fought to preserve his freedom of speech and his greatest achievement is to just snipe from the sidelines with a coffee and a dunking donut. PATHETIC !

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    I haven’t seen the film so I’m not going to argue its merits, but it is his opinion so I’ll respect that.

    I’m sorry to hear our reviews have disappointed you, why don’t you tell us what you liked about War Horse. Let’s try and be construction with the discussion.

  • Gareth

    Its odd Spencer that Mr Rendall has gone quiet and you are fighting his corner. I am a huge Spielberg fan and also a lover of Horses so its not surprise the combination works for me. I am angry but also I feel sad for Mr Rendall that his heart and soul are so cold that he cannot embrace a movie of great beauty and compassion. The horrors and futility of war shown through the eyes of a Horse. A noble, beautiful, intelligent beast thrown into the hell of it all with no choice. The message from Spielberg of the futiliity of war and the ongoing hope that Spielberg shows , in this film and Schindler’s List that through all the hell there is still hope. To rubbish it, every single element of it is insulting to all those that went through it. He has no empathy or compassion and frankly I am embarrassed for macguffin that you let this man publish this disgraceful review which has besmirked the reputation of your organisation.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Gareth my concern isn’t defending Ben, but rather defending everyone’s right to have their own opinion respected. We created the website to create an environment where people can discuss films without being attacked.

    Your last post started to get into why you enjoyed the film which was good, but then you went back into attacking Ben for his opinion. If you don’t like what he had to say that is fine. If you want to post in the comments why disagree with the review and why you like the film that is fine. But if your purpose in coming to the site is just to complain and insult him, then feel free to visit another film website. Nobody is forcing you to come here.
    As I’ve said before Allen will be writing a counterpoint in favor of War Horse. We want to present a variety of opinions on the site and we want to start dialogues about film where everyone feels comfortable contributing. Attacking people is not conducive to that.

  • Andrea

        I found this movie atrocious. Spielberg can and has done way better. I cry at Hallmark commercials and could find nothing to cry about in the film. I mostly felt bored because as soon as I started to get into a part it would switch people. I also found the music very repetitive and not inspiring, again I expect way more from a famous composer.
        While Spielberg definitely picked a time that was frought with tragedy it was not played out well. I could never get into the film and characters.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Have you seen Tintin? Are you generally a fan of Spielberg’s work?
    It is surprising to see a Spielberg film flying under the radar at the box office like War Horse has.

  • Edmusinc

    Wow, I was on the opposite side on this one. I found I fell for the schmaltz quite a bit. It seems that Spielberg is channeling his inner John Ford in this movie. The early scenes have the flavor of The Quiet Man and How Green Was My Valley, then the war stories echo the feel of They Were Expendable, and the final shots with the strongly orange hued sky are almost stolen from The Searchers (even the dress that Emily Watson is wearing in the movie looks like Vera Miles in The Searchers).

    It’s no secret that Ford was a great influence on Spielberg. In fact I find it fascinating that the same year that J.J. Abrams pays tribute to Spielberg in Super 8 we get Spielberg paying homage to Ford. Everyone loves who influenced them. 

  • Ben Rendall

    I didn’t see as much connection with John Ford as others did, at least with some of the characterizations taking “How Green was My Valley” as an example there I found the plight of the people to be much more believable and authentic while the characters here felt more like caricatures to me which made it hard for me to get involved with there situations. 
    As mentioned in the review the war sequence did feel real to me and was well done, but it was just not a huge part of the overall film to make it have enough of an impact.

    I am glad that you and others got an emotional response from the film, that is always hard to get from any piece of art work, just didn’t work for me this time.

  • Andrea

    I have not seen Tintin yet. I did not care for the preview though. I do love Schindler’s List and Jaws. I liked Minority Report, Indiana Jones, Hook, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Catch Me If You Can. So yeah, I guess I am generally a fan.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Hmmm, it does sound like you are a bit of a Spielberg fan, I’m surprised it was such a disappointment. I’m not particularly intrigued by the trailer, but it looks about par for the course from what I could tell.

    I wasn’t intrigued by Tintin from the trailer, but Allen compared it to what one would’ve hoped Indy 4 would’ve been, and that sold me enough so that I will be going to check it out.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    That is interesting to think about. Maybe I will check it out for that reason. I think it is one of those films that I know what I’m going to be getting going into it. It doesn’t look like it has a lot in the way of surprises.

  • Gareth

    Crirics seem incapable of just going with it. War Horse was always going to be sentimental. No one does sentimental better than Spielberg. Some of my favourite moments in life have been in a cinema ” manipulated ” by Spielberg’s sentimentality. Who can forget the last 10 minutes of ET, anyone that does not cry at the scene has no heart. No dubt Mr Rendall poo poo,d that as well. War Horse is in a similar vein, just have to go with the plot and surrender or just be critical of everything and keep your heart closed. I feel sorry for Mr Rendall. He must be very cold. My favourite Spielberg films are 1. Schindler’s list 2. ET – The Extraterrestrial 3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind 4. Saving Private Ryan 5. War Horse     

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Honestly, I’m with you on the sentimentalism and again your post was good (I like the addition of the top 5 list), but you need to stop insulting Ben’s stance – it makes your comment feel much more petty and makes me want to gloss over it. Some people don’t dig it…it feels forced to them and that is fine. Let’s spend time time talking about why you like it…what other films/or directors do you like you are fond of sentimentalism?

  • Gareth

    Spencer if Mr Rendall takes on Spielberg he takes on me. Its like insulting a member of the family to me. It was not a balanced review and full of lies, hatred and a pathetic attempt to gain some sort of accliam for the critic who gave the film the worst review. As I said I am sure he made his mind up he would slate the film before he even went to see it. Well done Mr Rendall and the like, the box office takings is looking like the worst since AI so your work is done. I would like to come around and poke about at the Library he works at to see if he does everything meticulously but I doubt that he does. Spielberg has more talent, ability and achievements in his little finger than Mr Rendall does in his entire body. If you are prepared to write such a review you cannot be surprised when Spielberg’s army of fans come to his defence as Spielberg is hardly likely to give him the time of day. And I you feel I am being disrepectful to Mr Rendall , well , yes, I am and I haven’t even started.    

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    **
    ** Gareth if you don’t want to respect other people’s opinions that is fine, but as I said feel free to do it elsewhere. I’m sure there are other sites out there that better correspond to your feelings.

  • Gareth

    Spencer. Fine, just don’t expect critics who have achieved nothing to rubbish people’s labours of love where they have input 1-2 years of their lives with no come back. If MacGuffin can’t handle this, it says more about you than me.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    It is fine if you want to defend a movie, we’re all for people sharing their feelings…but we don’t attack people. Ben didn’t attack Spielberg personally and it isn’t fair to go after him. If you can’t separate your critique of the film from criticizing Ben, than this isn’t the right fit as a community for you.

    If you want to break down why the film is great and why people should check it out, I’d be happy to see it. But you can’t attack Ben…that is the bottomline. Just as I would defend you if anyone attacked you personally.

  • Frompage2screen

    I often like films that everyone hates, and sometimes hate films that everyone loves. Just take a review for what it is. A personal opinion of someone who has seen a film. . . . 

  • Brandi

    Gareth, by this argument no one should ever evaluate another’s work at all. If you believe that it is fine, but it seems a bit odd to then spend time on websites dedicated to doing so. I’ll also add: Mr. Spielberg does not need your near-obsessive defense. He is doing just fine on his own.

    It seems quite mad to keep responding to your vitriol, but then it is a personal pet peeve of mine when one argues the way you do, and this site is *our* labor of love (and we don’t get paid millions like Mr. Spielberg). Please go away.

  • http://twitter.com/Clintersaurus Clint Shaw

    *cough*troll*cough*

  • Brandi

    They’re so hard to ignore…

  • http://twitter.com/Clintersaurus Clint Shaw

    My only hope is that he’s actually stressed out by Ben’s review.  Scrolling through this was an entertaining ten minutes though.

  • Gareth

    A nice ” rounding of the troups ” from the MacGuffin hacks. This site is deplorable. Not only does it have totally incompetant critics it has an attitude of , if someone says something we do not like, lets call the office and get the other hacks to belittle him. I am not stressed Clint, sorry to dissapoint you, I Just like to fight a corner when I feel an injustice has been done. Now, isn’t it time you got your Facebook friends to get on the site and defend ” your mate ” Ben ? I also notice Brandi and Clint have not commented on the film or my remarks , just come on the site to abuse me, so , not only a shamles of a site, a hypocritical one as well. Well done ! 

  • Frompage2screen

    Ahh Gareth. You honour me by classing me with the MacGuffin folk. I myself am a reviewer, a film fan of 40 years so far. I love film with a passion and just to state the fact. My alltime favourite film just so happens to have been made by Spielberg, I am a fan of his work but even I am open enough to not quite like a film even though its made by a director that I admire. 
    With regard to your increasing insults toward this site and the people who feel confident enough to air their own opinions, I would suggest that you possibly start your own site, where your opinions are the only thing that people can read, and that you perhaps block anyone else from disagreeing with you. Just a suggestions. Its a shame though, Im sure we would all agree (well you might not) that a good debate about film is why we come on sites like this and the need to start breeding insults, well thats a shame. come on Gareth. Debate, join in, or just leave. But lets curb the slanging matches

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    I appreciate the support by everyone, but Gareth is right, it is not fair to begin to criticize him.

    That being said, Gareth if you are interested in “playing by the rules” we’d be happy to have you as part of our community. That being said if you aren’t interested you can either leave or we’ll block you (which I would prefer not to do). The choice is totally up to you, but I hope you would prefer to join the discussion.

  • Gareth

    I would like to apologise to Mr Rendell. I totally disagree with everything he says but my comments went too far.   

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Thank you Gareth, we are happy to have you as a member of our community.

  • Gareth

    This side of the pond , the 5 newspapers I got gave it 5,4,4,4 and 2 stars so 19 out of 25. It may resonate more with English viewers I guess. Spielberg deserves credit for sacrificing box office in the USA by casting unknown actors for authenticity and that is the mian reason I think, that it has tanked, relatively speaking in the USA as US audiences tend to demand high profile names in their big budget films.

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Overall it definitely has done pretty well critically, but you raise an interesting question of why it hasn’t done well at the box office. It appears to be doing sluggish worldwide: http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=warhorse.htm

    I don’t know if this is because it came out during one of the most competitive times of they year and got lost in the shuffle, if Spielberg split his potential audience by also releasing Tintin at the same time (which has made a ton of money), or if by not casting Hollywood stars it hurt the return. Though I will say it does have some people are gaining quite a following the states: Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Thewlis.

    Maybe there is a culture element that is lost on US viewers, that is an interesting point.

  • Gareth

    Spencer

    War Horse has smashed its was to the top of the UK Box Office with takings of
     £ 4 000 000 more than doubles its nearest rival. It seems to be being embraced far more positively than in the USA. 

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    I’m not trying to imply it wasn’t doing well, I’m just saying in comparison to Tintin it is not as well worldwide doing well.

    Tintin and War Horse have both made about 69 million the US (eerily similar how close their grosses are), but worldwide $340 million ($25 million in the UK http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=tintin.htm) and War Horse has made $85 million ($4 million in the UK http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=warhorse.htm).

    I just wonder if Spielberg had spread them out a little more if War Horse would’ve done better.

  • Gareth

    I think what it is Spencer is that Spielberg was on a hiding to nothing with this project. Anyone that has seen the stage how, which by all accounts one of the best theatrical shows of all time will always find the film a let down. Not because it is not superb imo but that a film could never have the emotional punch and intimacy of a live , one off performance in front of their eyes. Thats why it is wrong and indeed futile to compare them. The showing I saw 75% of the people were over 70 and I suspect this subject is still close to their heart, Most of them probably still knew or had relatives who died in WW1 and there are no films about this shameful period anymore and Spielberg deserves full credit for bringing it to the attention of younger audiences and older audiences wanting to show their respects,  as he did with Schindler’s List and that why I am so upset that Ben rubbished the film in the way he did and tarnished those memories. As he is young I will give him the benefit of the doubt but my local cinema is increasing showings from 3 to 4 showing at the weekend to cope with demand. It is a runaway succeess this side of the pond and has had some fantastic reviews.    

  • Gareth

    And I think this piece is breathakingly stunning. One of Williams best pieces imo.

     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfVlragakS4

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    I’ll have to check out the play if it ever in my area…sounds pretty neat.
    I hope it picks up in terms of business worldwide…so it can give studios more incentive to tackle the subject matter again. I do think a different release date would’ve helped it be more successful though – at least in the US I think there were too many films coming out this winter, I think several films got lost in the shuffle.

  • Gareth

    Spencer

    I am delighted War Horse has wiped out the opposition in the UK.

     Its a shame the USA audience did not take up on it. I think in 5 years this film will be held in very high regard.

    Its one that will grow and grow in time imo.

    Gareth

  • Gareth

    Where is Allen’s rebuttal Spencer ? I saw it for the second time yesterday and appreciated it even more as did the whole audience, it was very well received. Its a soild 9 out of 10 for me. I can only think the USA audience do not relate to it and do not relate to the fact it is a tribute to the Men and Horses of WW1 as they sat this one out until 1918, 8 months before the end.  

  • Spencer Fornaciari

    Perhaps I misspoken it in calling it a rebuttal (since it wasn’t just about that film), but Allen talked about it in his top 10 of the year as an honorable mention and discussed how it was a strong year for Spielberg. You can read that here: http://www.MacGuff.in/macguffin-spotlight/top-10-of-2011-allens-picks/4/
    You can also see Ed’s comment at the top of the comments thread sharing his appreciation of the film too. The film definitely had its share of supporters on the site.

  • Gareth

    War Horse stays at Number 1 for the second week at the UK box office with takings of over £ 3 200 000, nearly treble the film in second place.

  • Gareth

    Close to £ 10 000 000  pounds taken in 2 weeks at the UK box office. It has been a massive success here. shame it stiffed in the USA. Also a shame MacGuffin holds Spielberg in such contempt. He is your finest director. Appreciated far more in the UK.

  • Gareth

    6 Oscar nominations.

  • Gareth

    Just to update you. War Horse is still number one at the UK Box Office for the 3rd week running taking nearly 13 and a half millions pounds in 17 days. It is hugely appreciated and loved in the UK. Shame you disregarded it with such disdain. Maybe Brits have better taste in films than you Yanks !