What on earth has happened to Steven Spielberg? Despite large amounts of negativity surrounding War Horse, I was firmly of the opinion that anything the legendary director had to offer was worth taking a chance on and seeing in the cinema. Now I’m not so convinced.
After not releasing a film since 2008’s widely derided Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film which even The Beard himself seems content to blame on best friend George Lucas, Spielberg has returned with two high profile releases in the last month. The Adventures of Tintin was underwhelming aside from a handful of spectacular set pieces, but with War Horse he delivers such a contrived, pathetically sappy piece of fluff that I honestly have a hard time deciding whether the films is meant to be taken seriously, or is in fact some kind of bizarre parody. Spielberg has always teetered into an over-reliance on sentimentality, yet in this latest film he turns the attempted heart string pulling up to eleven, and what we end up with is a completely phony and unauthentic set of vignettes all tied together by our hero: Joey the wonder horse. It feels like one of those ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ stories that you would never believe if it didn’t really happen, with one key difference: this story isn’t true. It didn’t really happen. And so, I never believed in any of it for a second.
War Horse takes the entire first act to build up the character of Joey, who we’re told to believe is a special horse for some reason which is never really made clear. Perhaps ‘told’ is the wrong word to use. OK, we’re beaten over the head with how special this horse is. Following the outbreak of World War I, Joey is sold to the military, in the care of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), to be sent to the front to aid the war effort. Given that WWI is likely to remain the last time horses were widely used in combat, there is potentially interesting stuff here, but after a moderately engaging 20 minutes or so Joey winds up in the hands of two German army deserters. Odd choice, but perhaps Spielberg will allow something to develop here. No, 20 minutes later and our two Germans are out of the picture and this increasingly infuriating horse finds himself being taught how to jump by a young French girl. And so we go on, with stories beginning all over the place, only to be abandoned in quick succession. One thing is constant however, which no-one in the film seems to be aware of: this horse is a frighteningly bad omen, and each new person who comes across Joey and immediately falls for his plucky charm is living on borrowed time. But, luckily for Joey, after spreading misery and death throughout Europe there’s always another poor soul waiting in the wings to take up the reins. I’ll stress again, I just don’t know how to take this seriously.
War Horse is going to be remembered as one of the worst films in Spielberg’s catalogue. It is a movie which abandons all logical cause and effect narrative in favour of simply having things happen without reason, in a glaringly deliberate attempt to enamour audiences to this horse. Spielberg tries to work audience emotions like a twisted puppet master, commanding us to feel on cue, but it is my sincere hope that viewers are smart enough to realise when they are being manipulated. I’m sure Spielberg still has interesting movies to make (fingers crossed for Lincoln later this year), but War Horse comes up lame from the opening scene, and I wish someone had the good sense to put it out of its misery with a bullet to the head.