By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
A horse is a horse, of course, unless a cinema virtuoso like Steven Spielberg is holding the reins. Then it can become a four-legged symbol of what he enjoys dramatizing: resiliency, loyalty and innocence threatened by turbulent times.
Spielberg's sturdy and somewhat stodgy War Horse is all that and more, with the director indulging his devotion to past masters like David Lean and John Ford, whose sweeping yet personal epics are referenced in each frame. It is gorgeous cribbing, slavishly shot by Spielberg's go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. But the movie also becomes little more than an expert retrospective of old school styles.
There are echoes of Ford's How Green Was My Valley in the opening furlongs of a remarkable horse's dash through World War I. Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) lives a poor but noble life with his parents, Ted (Peter Mullen) and Rose (Emily Watson), on a failing farm in a rolling English countryside. Shopping for a plow horse at auction, Ted pays more than he should for a spirited thoroughbred Albert names Joey.
Young man and horse quickly become intuitive friends, with Joey responding to Albert's owl whistle and pleas to get those stony fields plowed before it is too late. An early happy ending approaches until England enters the war, and horses like Joey are bought as cavalry steeds. Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he'll return Joey if at all possible.
The horse's odyssey winds through no man's land trenches and battlefield charges, with Spielberg keeping an eye on the family friendliness of the tale, so there are no Saving Private Ryan bloodbaths. He uses acute visual representations of the war's toll: horses running past German soldiers after their riders were mowed down unseen by machine guns, an enveloping cloud of poison gas. More wrenching are the brief shots of horses recently killed in combat, knowing Joey could be next.
Joey is captured by Germans and forced to haul heavy artillery, and finds his way into the custody of a kindly old man (Niels Arestrup, the movie's top human performance) and his dying granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens). Spielberg yanks heartstrings, as he has been known to do, but this segment is sluggish after the battlefield action.
Meanwhile, Albert enlists in the Army, hoping to be reunited with Joey anywhere. Knowing Spielberg wouldn't end this movie any other way doesn't prevent War Horse's finale from earning tears and cheers. As usual, composer John Williams strikes perfect notes of triumph and tragedy whenever necessary and beyond.
War Horse takes time reaching its full emotional gallop with a late sequence combining man, beast and barbed wire. Yet it remains a technically magnificent ride throughout, and a checklist of visual influences from All Quiet on the Western Front to Gone with the Wind. Spielberg's heart has always been his best attribute as a filmmaker, seldom expressed more eloquently than through a mute animal in this machine of a movie.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.