Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup
Rating (US): PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
146 minutes

Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a modern epic about the inspirational journey of a horse named Joey, as he whinnies his way miraculously through the emotional ravages of World War I, touching the hearts of just about everyone along the way.

Beginning in a small country town in England, we follow our equine hero from his first clumsy canter across the idyllic Devon countryside, in the company of his best friend and trainer Albert, to the bloody trenches of France, where he engenders a spirit of hope among the hopeless. War Horse is everything an uplifting film about the unlikely survival of an infantry horse in the First World War should be, cheesy and melodramatic but sincere and entertaining nonetheless.

A memorable scene from War Horse sees our heroic horse stuck in the middle of no man’s land, with nowhere left to run. Seeing the animal looking helpless and pathetic, twisted and tangled in barbed wire fencing, soldiers from both sides raise the white flag and work together to free the poor beast.

With a nod to a famous WWI story – in which German and Allied soldiers apparently called a temporary ceasefire, swapping their rifles for a football to play a game of Soccer in no man’s land – Spielberg poignantly captures the gooey essence at the heart of the story. In this horrific environment, the soldiers allow their humanity to shine through. In spite of the mud and sorrow of the Somme, united for a common purpose, they are briefly allowed to remember their dignity.

Review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes suggested that War Horse is vintage Spielberg in terms of scale, spectacle and tone, calling the movie, “Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg’s customary flair.”

The battle scenes are powerful and delivered with a delicacy born of a filmmaker gifted at framing pain and suffering in a very personal way. No other director of his generation can touch Spielberg when it comes to memorable set pieces. Behind his greatest critical accolades, his most popular commercial successes, lies a keen eye for a good story and a sharp mind able to assimilate it in a way that’s interesting and entertaining. Spielberg stands unmatched in the field of war-torn coming of age tales and War Horse bears the indelible mark of that considerable experience.

In an interview with Digital Spy, fledgling movie star Jeremy Irvine describes what it was like going from playing a tree with no lines in an amateur theatre show, to working alongside one of cinema’s legends. “He’s so kind and generous with his time. My first day of shooting, the first shot I ever shot, was me getting off the ground after falling off Joey, and he’s down in the mud in this field in Devon, showing me how he wants me to get up, and this is Steven Spielberg!”

The central relationship between the horse and his boy is Spielberg’s lucky horseshoe and proves genuinely affecting in places, appropriately reminiscent of E.T. However, although the pace of the story sweeps us along in its wake, we find ourselves dragging our feet from time to time. The over-long run time is partly responsible for this and, while the impressive cast is all on song, the dialogue isn’t pitched at the same emotional key as the drama it describes, and so the script occasionally feels out of tune, hitting a bum note here and there.

Despite putting up a brave front, War Horse gets stuck in a bit of a narrative no man’s land, caught between a beginning which is heartfelt if sentimental, and an ending which takes too long to arrive and underwhelms when it does. A cross between Black Beauty and Saving Private Ryan, it leaves us with a feeling that is warm and appealing though tinged with bemusement.

War Horse is entertaining enough to hold and reward our attention (to varying degrees) for the duration, but not engaging or satisfying enough to bear repeat viewings. For me, it’s a three star effort. Enjoyable, but I’ve no intention of enjoying it again. As a cynically gifted (or is that giftedly cynical?) To paraphrase Dr Johnston’s remark about Northern Ireland’s most famous landmark, The Giant’s Causeway, War Horse is regrettably “worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...