Oscar Blindspots: War Horse

Before we get done with 2021, I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2011

“They don’t make films like that anymore” is a well-recycled line. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is one of those old-fashioned-type films that run on complete commitment to earnestness, despite that commitment stretching the realms of realism.

The true star of the film is Joey, a brown thoroughbred horse in Devon, England. At auction, Joey is bought by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), who brings him home to his farm, despite needing a working horse. Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) trains Joey and gets him to work a plow that saves the family farm.

Following heavy rain that ruins the family’s crops, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the British army, to Albert’s dismay. Throughout World War I, Joey encounters a cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston), a pair of German deserters, a young French girl and her grandfather, the front lines of the German artillery machine, and into no man’s land. With the war raging, will Joey survive, and will Albert be able to ever get him back?

Spielberg has no grey area when it comes to his characters. Everyone is either a fine, upstanding person with a pure heart (and who loves Joey), or they are evil and refuse to treat the horse with the humanity it deserves. There is no winking to the camera or sarcasm. Everything that transpires is treated with utmost sincerity and earnestness. If at any point, this wasn’t treated as gospel, it would come across as satire.

That earnestness isn’t necessarily a good thing. The fact that eight million horses, donkeys, and mules died during World War I is completely glossed over. With that knowledge shielded, Joey is treated as a high-ranking general when placed into a dangerous situation. For every character, war, life, death, and duty are all secondary to the potential of saving this single horse. Joey’s health is even placed above the health of humans in many cases.

To the film’s credit, the politics and morality of the war itself are never discussed. This also allows for both sides of the war effort to be directly involved with Joey’s journey. That black-and-white morality even transfers to the German side of the battle. Unfortunately, every “good” character eventually sends Joey on to the next journey with a “my dog is now living on a farm in the countryside” mentality. The absolute earnestness could be viewed as naivety, but as long as it works out in the end, the journey is viewed as worth it.

The cast is chalked full of British character actors either before they hit it big or in small roles. Mullan, David Thewlis, Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, Gerald McSorley, and Liam Cunningham all pop up for brief moments only to leave just as quickly as they arrived. Emily Watson and Buckens are the only women in the entire film and are given very little characterization.

Irvine has the largest role of any human and he is more of a vessel than a character. Albert becomes enamored with Joey the moment he sees him and their trust is the most crucial relationship in the film. Albert doesn’t grow as a character. When the film ends, he is pretty much the same person at the film’s beginning. This film isn’t about the people.

Joey is infused with personality. He is wildly intelligent, unendingly powerful, and always knows what to do. Joey’s growth is more about trust. His natural power and heart were always there, but his trust in whoever has him as well as other horses are paramount to the film. The film utilizes a combination of real horses, CGI, and animatronics and it is all seemless.

The film is a visual treat, with the bright, sunny fields of Devon juxtaposed with the dark dreary trenches. The cinematography feels uncomplicated and the editing tells a cohesive story without doing too much. John Williams’ score can be a bit overbearing in the quieter early parts of the film, but it settles in nicely as the action turns towards the battlefields.

I can’t say War Horse is the most riveting of experiences, but the craft and sentimentality are worth watching alone. For a Steven Spielberg film with six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, I’m not sure there has been a film so forgettable as soon as I was done watching it.

Next week: Ashgar Farhadi makes his most well-known film with marital drama A Separation

All Oscar Blindspots

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