Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is a grand, sweeping, lush and magnificent movie. It’s filmmaking that self-consciously recalls a John Ford epic, such as The Searchers or The Quiet Man. If only it were as good.

See, this story of a brave thoroughbred horse and the lives of the people he touches before and during World War I is meant to be a majestic audience-pleaser that harkens back to the days when studios released epics as often as television studios now produce reality shows. And War Horse will no doubt please audiences that miss big epics and only know how to feel emotion when they hear a big swell of strings.

But here’s the problem. War Horse does best when the horse—named Joey by his first owner, Albert (played with “gosh golly” enthusiasm by Jeremy Irvine)—is the center of attention. Unfortunately, humans get more screen time than Joey, who’s by far the most interesting character in this mismatched hybrid of family saga, war drama and storybook tale.

Albert’s father, Ted (the reliable Peter Mullan), is typical of many humans in this story: He’s stupid. He’s a no-good drunk who runs a rented farm. He buys Joey at auction. Ted outbids his landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), for the horse, and—gee, think this’ll cause tension?

Ted’s wife, Rosie (a so-so Emily Watson, but she has little to work with), is angry, but not so angry. She enables each dumb decision he makes. Albert, their kid, is plucky and determined, and he trains Joey to obey commands and plow a field.

Life is tough, but bearable. Then the war breaks out. Ted sells Joey to a kindly British Army captain who promises to return Joey at the end of the war if he can. He ends up dead during his regiment’s first charge into German lines.

Joey is taken in at turns by two brothers volunteering in the German army in France; a French girl and her grandfather; a German soldier who—against his will—has Joey haul heavy artillery; and finally, a Geordie serving in the British army (Toby Kebbell) who saves Joey from barbed wire in No Man’s Land.

This film has no real surprises, as Joey’s fate is predetermined by a screenplay designed to wring maximum emotion from a movie staple: the animal in peril. It sometimes works, largely because Joey is so expressive and the situations are devastating.

For example, watching Joey become caught in barbed wire is heartbreaking. The Geordie, seeing the struggling horse, comes to his rescue from the trenches. A German soldier aids his Brit counterpart, reluctantly at first.

The two work together with German wire cutters to free Joey, talking about the bad conditions in the trenches—rats, etc.—as they go. The scene has the right amounts of humor, pathos and tension with a mercifully unobtrusive camera and no music.

If only Spielberg trusted his story enough during the rest of the film. Instead, we’re treated to huge camera moves—most of them unnecessary—oppressive orchestration, treacly close-ups and frequent bloodless violence designed to reach and affect as many people as possible during the holiday movie season (though Spielberg still kills as many men as Cecil B. DeMille). The resulting mishmash makes a mediocre film. Too bad. The horse is great.


War Horse

Directed by Steven Spielberg

With Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson

Regal Stadium 14
146 min.