Film & TV

Review – War Horse

Adapted from the prolific play of the same name (which is itself adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s much loved book), Steven Spielberg’s World War One epic gallops out of the blocks but tails off dramatically in the second half.

Ye Olde England. The year is nineteen-o-something. A quaint, rural village in Devon gazes on fondly as a drunken man (Peter Mullan) purchases a horse inadequate for his farming needs, at a price that jeopardises his family’s livelihood. After being berated by his wife (Emily Watson), his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes a shine to the animal and eventually rears him into a fine steed, developing a strong bond between the two of them.

Flash forward a few years and war looms. The call to arms is nation-wide and horses are not exempt. To Albert’s great distress, the animal is carted off to be ridden by moustached men into battle. At this point we are introduced to the characters of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddlestone) and Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch). They are two of the finest young(ish) British actors working today, and that shows. Their presence is very notable; together they produce a few of the film’s finest scenes.

Unfortunately, the narrative is juddered by war at this moment, sending us sprawling through several different plot lines encompassing a variety of characters. We see the war from the perspective of the German infantry, some French farmers, and others. The issue is, none of the characters ever replicate that brief dynamism sparked between Hiddlestone and Cumberbatch (a partnership that I would love to see again on screen).

As the film trundles on, it begins to feel rather flat, meandering towards its telegraphed conclusion. It’s not dull or tiresome, but it lacks the levels of interest found in the earlier chapters.

The cinematography, while saccharine and filled with simple colouring, is apt. It fills the entire film with a soft-focus and warmth, capturing a mood that is also replicated in the sweeping score.

Visually it may be pleasing but it also verges on the obvious. Take for example, the majority of the characters having piercingly blue yes. Whether this is CGI, contact lenses or remarkable casting, it is thoroughly evident — the point being the innocence of the men, the youthful soldiers who fight the conflicts. To quote a Katherine Hinkson poem, “smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns,” and the film just about captures that ideal. However, while War Horse may be a war critique, it is not a deep or interesting one. After all, it’s primarily a movie for kids, and as such the real horrors of conflict cannot be depicted in a way that is remotely fitting.

Not only are the eyes on show an alarming shade of fluorescent blue, they also always look to be on the verge of tears (see header image). This, I suppose, is preparation for the presumed inevitable waterworks at the denouement. The problem for me was that I didn’t cry; it was too blunt an instrument. The film clearly expected the audience to well up and as a result lacked the subtlety or immersion needed to make that happen.

War Horse is a decent exponent of a Spielberg film, but ultimately it’s not up there with his best. Most cinema-goers will enjoy it, and it certainly doesn’t feel its 146-minute runtime, but it’s neither deep nor lasting. I expect it to fall short at the major awards.

Tom Grater

Film & TVFilm Reviews

Tom is a budding film reviewer, hell bent on providing informed opinions on the latest movie releases to those who need them, whether they like it or not.
2 Comments on this post.
  • Alex
    15 January 2012 at 10:57
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    What a truly ridiculous film, every time the trailer comes on in the cinema I can’t help but laugh. Firstly, cavalry – although used in the First World War – were generally regarded as outdated death traps. You only have to read ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ to realise horses will lose a battle against machine guns & artillery.
    Moreover, it’s just a horse, sorry if I’m being a bit cold hearted, but the idea that someone would willing go & fight in one of the harshest wars in history for the sake of a glorified pony is quite frankly laughable.
    It would seem that Speilberg has once again created a vomit inducing, whimsical farce of a film, which is as insulting to your intelligence as someone trying to explain to you what a horse is. It’s basically the cinematic equivalent to LSD, initially you feel as if you’ve been transported to a magical place full of wonder, only to then realise something isn’t quite right with this picture. And then afterwards you get this terrible crash back to normality, where the sugary sweet outlook you once had has been crushed by the cold, unflinching glare of reality & immediately regret ever doing it at all.

    • tomgrater
      15 January 2012 at 14:34
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      What an utterly redundant comment. Do I gather correctly that you have yet to see the film? Please refrain from making sweeping statements without the appropriate knowledge to back them up.

      “It would seem that Spielberg has once again created a…” Are you serious? If you open up a paragraph with that then you’re instantly invalidating your argument.

      Take for example, your first paragraph – if you’d have seen the film then you’d realise that the point you make is in complete agreement with what happens in the movie. How did you manage to ascertain that the film suggests that horses will win a battle against machine guns and artillery? Frankly, baffling.

      Forget Spielberg’s film, your comment is insulting to your intelligence, and to mine.

      (Also, your final sentence alarms me a bit, “the cold, unflinching glare of reality”? I’d advise looking at the following link –

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