War Horse is a mess. By the time the movie ends, after it’s lengthy 2 1/2 hour runtime, you aren’t sure what you’ve just seen and worse you won’t care as much as the movie wants. Whether it’s the mediocre acting, the ridiculous plot, or the fact that the main character is a horse (and his name is Joey) War Horse fails to rise above it’s above-average self (I immediately apologize for that first link).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is its structure. After the first act of the film, in which Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey up and the film tries to establish the emotional connection between the two (more on this later), the film becomes less one coherent story and more a series of somewhat unconnected scenes throughout World War I. For the most part we follow Joey through bits and pieces of the war (with scenes of what Albert is doing also interspersed). The events are very segmented, so instead of feeling as one entire, all-encompassing story it is more like a series of vignettes mashed together to show the different sides and struggles of the war. The vignettes of course focus around Joey and/or Albert so they are much more focused and entwined than say Paris, je t’aime, which are literally just short films with the only common denominator being the city of Paris (if you have no clue what the movie is then don’t worry about it). What makes this different from other war movies, which some could argue are fairly similarly structured with each other, where they go from battle to battle (and usually just on one side), is that Joey actually changes hands six times within the movie (from Albert to the Brit Army, to the German Army, to a French Family, to the French Army, back to the British Army and then there’s the end). By Joey being used by different groups of people so many times the audience is never allowed to become accustomed to the characters that use/take care of Joey, which basically means there is very little emotional connection for any of the human characters not named Albert. Clearly this tactic helps Joey (and to a lesser extent Albert) remain the two main characters in this movie while making sure the audience empathizes with those two most. Whether this actually helps the movie or not isn’t clear but because this is probably the most interesting aspect does not bode well for the rest of the film.
Unfortunately the structure, while different, is also a hindrance. Because Joey careens from one faction/family to another it is often confusing trying to figure out how much of the war has been fought and how much is to come. Much of Joey’s time is not spent in actual battles which certainly does not help to decipher how much time the movie has spanned (although this may be deliberate as an overall commentary on war and how it is perceived to be never ending until it does end). The fact that the movie spans the ENTIRE war, from the beginning to the end, is also a detriment as there is just too much to fit in with too little time.
The fairly lengthy first act (basically 45 minutes or a third of the overall movie, which is far and away the most time spent on any one segment) on Albert and Joey building up their relationship (and in fact, unfortunately this still feels rushed) any subplot that revolves around Albert’s family and their farm is completely dropped once Joey is sold to the Army. Just as the audience is becoming invested into Albert and his family, the audience is thrown into a completely different situation and it comes as a shock. Not to mention that with so much time spent in the first act there are some other segments that probably were cut due to time constraints, which may have made the movie’s timeline a bit easier to follow.
Even though the writing’s structural choices are distinguishable, the actual dialogue is pretty bad. There are multiple hackneyed (not to be confused with hackney, although Joey is a good example of that for most of his scenes) lines and ideas – such as Albert’s dad promising to pay back his debts, with interest – and generally uninspiring inspirational moments (more on this later) – when Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddlestone, who also is in the Oscar nominated Midnight in Paris) tries to reaffirm Albert of how great a horse Joey is, despite him only having bought Joey five minutes earlier. Of course a movie with the main character as a horse helps with the poor dialogue as Joey is a horse, of course. Aside from the best scene/segment in the movie (in which Joey is caught in barbed wire and is helped by a British soldier and a German soldier), most of the dialogue is utterly forgettable and/or can easily be picked from previous films or literature.
The directorial themes go hand in hand with the hackneyed writing. War Horse is filmed and directed much like a sweeping epic style movie from the pre-color days. There are many shots that seem akin to something you would find in black and white 70 years ago. While this is an interesting idea it comes off as being a bit stilted. The movie doesn’t quite evoke enough of that previous style while also being different enough to feel foreign from today’s style. It suffers from the same sort of affliction The Artist does, according to our own Mr. Templin. However this is not the biggest directorial shortfall.
For a movie that is specifically about a horse and building a relationship between that horse and its owner, the emotionality that is supposedly there between Joey and Albert is never truly felt (at least it wasn’t by me). This is where the first act feels too short (even though once the entire movie is viewed it seems too long for the reasons mentioned above). The audience sees Albert spending copious amounts of time with Joey within the first 45 minutes, but the relationship is more told to the audience than shown. Each minor quibble is resolved incredibly easily (in fact when Albert teaches Joey to come to his whistle it only takes three tries until success) and this ends up hindering the audience’s empathy for what Albert is supposed to be feeling. The movie relies heavily on the investment in Joey’s fate but because the audience isn’t allowed to have their relationship with Joey through Albert fully mature War Horse ends up having to force feed sympathetic moments in hopes of the connection finally being made. Nothing better describes this as the scene where Joey runs into town from his family farm to try and stop his father from selling Joey to the army (this is the same scene where Capt. Nicholls ends up telling Albert how great a horse Joey is). By the time Albert has reached his father it is too late and Joey has been sold. As Albert is pleading with Capt. Nicholls to return Joey (through “tears”) he tries to volunteer to go to war, even though he is only sixteen. Instead of connecting with Albert it seems the melodrama is ramped up so the audience can try and be wrapped up in this emotional scene but instead it comes across as somewhat shallow because the audience was not allowed to feel what Albert felt throughout the first act. Sure we can see that Albert cares a lot about Joey but in the end something is lost in translation between the audience and the movie and becomes a hindrance to the entire endeavor.
Ultimately War Horse bit off way more than it could chew. It should be commended on being above average when, in all honesty, the movie should have been much worse. If not for the high production values in regards to recreation of the time period in sets, props, and costumes, as well as its well done battle sequences, War Horse would have been a shoe-in as a member of a “10 movies for $10” movie compilation that you might find at Wal-Mart. There are probably a few great movies within War Horse but when they are all mashed into one movie the end product becomes nothing better than a hair above average and a shade below good. War Horse simply tries to do too much and is unable to become great because it becomes too weighed down by its lofty goals.