For a male weepie, “War Horse” doesn’t shy away from what it is. Most such films hide behind a veneer of sports or other manly pursuits in spinning a tale designed to reduce every guy watching it to sobs.
But Steven Spielberg’s new drama has all the ingredients: fathers and sons struggling to relate, brothers caught up in conflict, soldiers trading kindness amidst the bloodletting, gentle grandfathers and, especially, boys and their beloved animals.
Tears, commence being expertly jerked.
(This is not to imply that women won’t weep at it; I’m sure they will, in bucketfuls. It’s just this is the rare weepie specially designed to stimulate Y-chromosome tear ducts.)
What “War Horse” does not have is a romantic component, and for that I am grateful. It’s so tiresome to sit through Hollywood movies that seem to throw in a love interest for no reason at all other than brazen demographic appeal (see “Captain America: The First Avenger” for an especially egregious example).
Despite its nearly 2½-hour run time, the movie does not dally unnecessarily on pitching unneeded woo or anything else.
The titular horse is Joey, the finest thoroughbred in all of England, who was bought for a princely sum by a broken-down old drunk of a farmer (Peter Mullan). Alas, as a result of shelling out 30 guineas for the dappled colt, the farmer does not have the money to pay his sniveling landlord (David Thewlis), who desired the horse for himself.
Of course, wiry thoroughbreds are not terribly useful for plowing fields, but the farmer’s headstrong son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), insists he can train Joey to pull a tiller. This sets off the first of many great love affairs, with Joey the perpetual object of affection.
World War I arrives, and Joey is sold off to the British cavalry, breaking Albert’s heart. Luckily, the lieutenant who purchases the horse to be his personal mount (Tom Hiddleston) is fine and upstanding, and promises to honor Joey with the same affection Albert did.
Alas, many things go awry during wartime. Over the next four years, Joey finds himself changing masters frequently, with prospects that rise and fall with the capricious whims of war.
For a time, he is under the charge of a kindly teenage German soldier (David Kross) and his underage brother. Later, he comes into the embracing arms of a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her wise, nurturing grandfather (Niels Arestrup).
But Joey also gets conscripted into toting massive cannons, a duty where most horses only last a month or two before collapsing and receiving a merciful bullet. And he becomes trapped in the horrors of the trench war — a nightmarish landscape of mud, barbed wire and blood.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis — which also draws inspiration from the Broadway play that won a raft of Tony awards earlier this year — hits all the expected beats. But despite these rarely arriving without much surprise (one knows exactly how the film will end the entire way), they still hold a rapturous emotional pull — assisted by John Williams’ stirring score of lush strings.
Visually, “War Horse” is quite arresting. Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, intentionally strike an audacious note, composing scenes of suffused color and almost painterly beauty. The effect is theatrical, with the artifice of the visuals drawing the movie out of the grim reality of war and into something like fairy-tale lightness.
Because, ultimately, “War Horse” is a children’s movie, or something very much like it, it appeals more to the senses and the heart than the mind. Eventually, one has to choose whether to submit to its blatant, wonderfully sad manipulations. I’m glad I did.