“War Horse” begins with Albert (Jeremy Irvine) watching the birth of a colt in rural England.
The youth’s fascination with the horse drives him to try and befriend it, unsuccessfully. Some characteristic of the horse seems to attract special attention. That attention comes next from Albert’s father (Peter Mullan).
In an ill-advised bidding frenzy against his landlord, he buys the colt at auction instead of a workhorse more suitable for plowing. Now under the threat of being evicted from his farm, the father vows to raise money by plowing an unworkable section of the farm. Albert takes up the task of breaking and training the horse he names Joey.
With the coming of war, Albert’s father sells Joey to a captain after storms destroy the crops Joey helped to plant. Transported to the front at the beginning of the fighting, Joey’s cavalry unit sees World War I become a mechanical, modern war where cavalry is useless against machine guns.
As the conditions of the war get worse, Joey pulls a medical wagon for the Germans, he falls into the hands of a sickly French girl and her grandfather, returns to the German front pulling cannon and finally comes face to face with a mechanized tank. In terror, Joey dashes across no man’s land and gets bound up in barbed wire.
Close to the end of the war, Albert is finally old enough to join the army and as found himself in the trenches, still searching for the horse that he trained. His experiences are effectively clouded over by the fog of war. The limited view of the war presented, effectively presented the brief, horrible experiences of the trenches without dwelling on the horrible gore.
There is not much that is subtle in “War Horse.” Emotions are so deliberately placed and stirred on demand, it is obvious what you are supposed to feel and when. The ups and downs end up being fairly exhausting and would be very unappealing to anyone that doesn’t like having their emotions played with.
The lack of an evident star helps to keep the human cast closer to the background, as does the small amount of screen time that cast has. In some places, the human characters are little more than plot devices to get Joey where he needs to be. However, Joey does not take on any fantastic or overly human characteristics. Instead, throughout the movie, the horse stays a horse. It is the interactions around the horse and happenstance that certain characters are drawn to the special qualities of Joey that make the story. The vows and promises of those characters are sometimes kept and sometimes not, but the horse survives and moves on.
“War Horse” is engaging, if emotionally exhausting, experience. The heavy hand of the Steven Spielberg’s direction is ever present and will please fans as much as turn off detractors. For someone that likes characters, there are plenty of interesting characters, but their brief appearances leave little room for expression. The story as a whole is predictable, but between beginning and end there are twists that should keep viewers interested.