Movie Review: War Horse

(l to r) Joey the horse and Albert (Jeremy Irvine)

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Three years ago, 20th Century Fox released the supposedly heartwarming movie about a beloved family pet, Marley & Me. When it turned out that the last thirty minutes of the movie dealt with the dog’s prolonged death, animal-loving adults and children alike were stunned and upset, unexpectedly forced to contend with a Christmas Day suddenly turned maudlin.

Fast forward three years, and it’s a re-gifting of a whole other kind. Once again, major studios (Dreamworks and child dream-factory, Walt Disney ) are releasing something special just for the holidays, and once again the movie is being trumpeted as the stirring family entertainment for all to see. “The tale of the boy and the feisty colt he never stops believing in.” Cautionary PG-13 rating notwithstanding, let’s be blunt: War Horse is nothing short of the equine Schindler’s List.

That said, if you’d rather swap a white Christmas for a blood red one, and hold out no ho-ho-hope for ultimate peace and joy, then perhaps a widescreen viewing of hordes of young men being bayoneted and/or gassed, and legions of horses dropping dead from abuse, their spindly legs buckling in the oozing mud as officers whip the life out of them, may be just the Christmas ticket for you. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to pick up Sophie’s Choice, The Killing Fields and Old Yeller on the way home.

This pony tale, taking place in the 1910s, depicts a poor family in the English county of Devon. The alcoholic father (Peter Mullan), distraught by his own travails in the Boer War, is unable to provide for his wife (Emily Watson) and strapping son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). In a desperate move to save the family farm, the father sells Albert’s beloved colt Joey to the British cavalry as they prepare to charge into WWI. Albert is grief-struck and, doing his best Daniel Day Lewis from The Last of the Mohicans, swears to Joey, “Wherever you are, I will find you.” But since the boy’s too young to enlist, we’re going to have to wait a few years, the film trampling over many of Joey’s subsequent doomed masters, before Albert can keep his promise.

If Spielberg wants to make a bloated film, with a protracted opening cinematic swoop over the hilly farmlands of the English countryside, the orchestra swelling beyond all dramatic reason, so be it. If the filmmaker chooses to examine the atrocities of equine exploitation during WWI, the animals facing artillery, poison gas, freezing winters and disease, caught up in barbed wire, forced to haul eight-ton Howitzers over steep terrain, their deaths numbering between four and eight million, who are we to object? And if this horse opera, intermittently told from Joey’s point of view, reminds us of other stories (Black Beauty, anyone?), then fine. But to blindside an audience, blissfully unaware of the mind-numbing brutality about to gallop straight at them during the season of love and joy? Neigh, Mr. Spielberg, neigh!

Horse sense doesn’t always prevail. Such as in a mawkish scene that hews to an iconic other, as Emily Watson stands in stark outline against a deepening orange-red sky. We half-expect her to raise a clenched fist to the heavens, a carrot crammed between her bony fingers, swearing in an Scarlett-tinged accent, “As God as my witness, my horse will never be hungry again.”

Further, it’s puzzling when Spielberg devolves into Disney territory as Joey – gleaning from afar that his horse friend Topthorn is too ill to lead a team of horses in the harness – tosses his mane, rears up and giddily skips up to the front of the line as a willing replacement. Shouldn’t he have also sprouted animated wings, turned pink and flown away, à la My Little Pony?

Speaking of cartoons, while Watson and Mullan manage to find some realistic moments, other characters are depicted in flat stereotypes — such as the noble British commander, the greedy landlord, the kindly grandfather, etc. And unfortunately, the film leans on newcomer Jeremy Irvine … whose performance is more akin to a wooden soldier than not.

To be sure, the cinematography does indeed sweep. But then again, so does my neighbor, taking a broom to her porch on a daily basis. Like I’d love to tell her … you can only sweep so much.


Rating on a scale of 5 road apples: 2

Release date: December 25, 2011
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
Based on the book by: Michael Morpurgo and the stage play by: Nick Stafford
Cast: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 146 minutes


About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes ( Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.


  1. Tony says:

    Did you miss the title? It’s called WAR horse. Not Disney-family Horse. The trailer showed it running through the trenches. I knew what I was going to see. If anything, I thought it was a very censored view of war. The color red was not seen in the battlefields.

    As for it being released at Christmas, is there a rule that we must view it in that light for the duration of the season? I saw it 1st January. I wasn’t looking out for Santa.

    • I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment.

      It wasn’t just the misstep of trumpeting this film for family holiday viewing. As my review discusses, my negative criticism was aimed at the flat characters, the bathos, the bloat and the sentimentalized manipulation.

      But hey … that’s what makes horse races!

  2. Fully says:

    I don’t have any kids, but I can see what a blindside this movie would be. It’s a very schizophrenic film, as you pointed out…going from near Disney, to almost Saving Private Flicka territory.

    I probably liked the film a little better than this reviewer, but it had some wince-worthy moments. Besides the GTTW homage…the “German and English meeting in no mans land to co-operate to remind us of how we are all human” was trotted out again and I almost said “Really?” out loud in a crowded theater.

    It did tug my heartstrings. But I felt like a cheap date afterward.

  3. S. Mamonn says:

    A movie so bad, so mawkish, so cliche-filled, I was moved for the first time to submit a review. Spielberg took snippets of every great–or at least iconic–moment in every movie ever made, then blew them waaaay out of proportion, backed them with horrible, swelling soundtracks and dared us not to guffaw. Is he serious? The only thing he missed was having the young French girl show up with Grandpa to claim the horse, fall in love with Dudley DoRight and live happily ever after. And, OMG, the ending wasn’t even a good rip-off of GWTW. More like Saturday Night Live.

  4. Cathy says:

    Once again, thank you for this. As an animal lover, I think I have better ways of spending the holidays than traumatised and haunted by images of cruetly. As per usual, I’ll take your advice and avoid this. Your recommendations are always gold.