'War Horse' Movie Review (2011)

War Horse movie review
Jeremy Irvine in War Horse
Photo: DreamWorks Pictures

Without hesitation Steven Spielberg lays on the schmaltz and he lays it on thick as War Horse is one scene of calculated manipulation after another. Sometimes it's the "golly gee" performance of first-timer Jeremy Irvine. Sometimes Spielberg simply takes things too far in his attempt to humanize the horse at the center of the story. And then there's the story's transparent narrative as each and every turn in the story is foreshadowed, sometimes two hours in advance. As a result War Horse is so sentimentally sappy it's almost dripping off the screen and it doesn't get better with multiple viewings, it just numbs you even more.

War Horse
Grade: D

War Horse"War Horse" is a DreamWorks Pictures release, directed by Steven Spielberg and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. The running time is .

The cast includes Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Tom Hiddleston, Niels Arestrup, David Kross, Rainer Bock, Nicolas Bro, Robert Emms and Johnny Harris.

Opening just prior to the First World War in the small English town of Devon, we are introduced to the Naracott family of farmers. Ted Naracott (Peter Mullan) is a drunkard and he's made his way to town to buy a plow horse when a beautiful thoroughbred captures his attention. Despite the fact it's a horse that would be useless for his needs, and if he were to buy it he wouldn't have enough money to pay his landlord (David Thewlis), he decides that horse will be his. Oh, and what do you know? He's bidding against said landlord, but he'll be a monkey's uncle before he lets that man get the best of him and away he walks with a horse he doesn't need and 30 guineas less than he had when he woke up this morning. Rent be damned.

Ashamed, Ted returns home to be greeted by the stern look of his wife (Emily Watson) and the wide-eyed astonishment of his 15-year-old son Albert (Irvine). I'm sorry; I forgot to tell you about the opening scenes in the film where Albert sees this very same horse take its first steps in this world. To think it would ever end up in his possession would be crazy talk, and yet, here he is. But there's a wrinkle, Albert's mother isn't so keen on keeping the equine until Albert promises to train him, "I'll do it mum. I'll train 'im real good, I will. You'll see." Of course she caves and Albie begins his relationship with Joey the horse, training him to take the plow collar and come to him when he mimics the hoot of an owl. It's Screenwriting 101 folks and if you don't think these story elements will come back later on in the film you'd better guess again.

And then comes the further emotional manipulation of the audience and it's done in such a way it's almost galling. In a scene after Ted doesn't have enough money to pay rent on their land (because he bought the wrong kind of horse), he decides he's going to shoot the horse if it won't do what he needs it to do. It's at this moment he actually grabs a shotgun and points it at the horse. What happens next I won't say, but we have now reached the point where we are looking at what may be one of the most ignorant human beings I've seen in a movie, and that's saying something considering the entire population of Devon seems to come out just to see if ol' Joey will plow the family's rocky field. Yes, it's quite clear this is a town lacking in both intelligence and things to do.

Soon plowing fields is the least of the town's concern as Europe goes to war, a turn of events that actually helps save the Naracott's farm. Albert's father ends up selling Joey to a British Captain (Tom Hiddleston), who not only promises he'll return Joey to Albert after the war, but is also quite the accomplished artist who spends time sketching the horse in his spare time. You know, so he can send the pictures back to Albert and show him how magnificent his horse is doing. And with that we have now met the first of a series of gooey gumdrop characters to come into Joey's life and there are many more to come.

Over the course of the war Joey falls in and out of possession, first landing in the hands of two escaped teenage German soldiers as one brother (played by David Kross) tries to save his younger sibling. Next he finds a caring touch with a young French girl who just so happens to be afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, but that only lasts for so long as Germans come knocking on her grandfather's door and take Joey off to become a member of the German army. Here we find Joey will be tested as he's one of many horses assigned to pull heavy machinery in a not so subtle attempt at symbolism. All of this culminates in a climactic scene most will be talking about without realizing it's a scene that could be plopped down in the middle of any movie and be just as effective. It's one thing to be manipulative, but the blatancy of it is incredibly frustrating.

When it comes to War Horse, I don't think there is any way you can be down the middle. You are either going to love it and be moved to your core or you are going to eventually get to the point I did and want to yell at the screen, "For the love of God, just give the kid his horse!" Sentimentality is either earned and comes as a result of honest storytelling or it comes by manipulating the story to ensure the greatest impact with the audience, War Horse is the latter in spades.

I won't discount the fact Steven Spielberg, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are master storytellers when it comes to using direction, framing, score and composition to their fullest effect. They know exactly what they are doing, be it the scraping of a horse's hooves through the muddy turf or the stark and plastic amber horizon seemingly ripped from the timecode of Gone with the Wind, and while this kind of filmmaking turns me off in a big way, I can't ignore the fact they appear to have made the film they intended to make. Fact is, it's just not for me.

From the outset it felt like War Horse was working on me as Williams' grandiose score played over the lush country hills and Joey's mother lay in the grass, preparing to give birth to the life we would follow for the next two-and-a-half-hours. It's a romantic notion and Spielberg is putting on the moves early and often, I would just prefer he bought me dinner and a drink before he assumed we were going to take our relationship to the next level.


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  • Trent

    You sir, are not a critic. Again, "sappy" isn't a valid argument to dub a film bad. To dub a film bad, it needs horrible screenwriting and terrible acting. You're not a critic, you're a blogger who likes being picky. You like garbage like The Change-Up, but hate War Horse? Yeah, nice try

    • dre

      And you, sir, are doing life wrong.

      • Trent

        Oh obviously, i must if Dre with the lazy beard told me i am. Sappy is not a valid excuse for a critic to use. It shows he didn't pay attention to the story and acting and focused on "My god, how sappy is this?" And then he feels entitled to be called a film critic.

        • dre

          Saying the film is sappy is alluding to poor execution of the material. So yes, it's a perfectly valid critique (not an excuse). A critic accusing a film of being sappy also doesn't mean attention was not paid to the story and acting. It just means - added up - the critic felt the story and acting lended itself to sappiness. Your attempt to insult the critic was baseless. But thanks for noticing the beard.

          • Grissom

            @Trent Dude, calm down. First off, this is his opinion. The sappiness of the film affected the story for him. It doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate the effort put into it (do you, Brad?).
            Me personally, i find the story a weird fusion of Marley & Me and August Rush, but i felt it conveyed it's story, the acting was pretty good, music top calibur and the art direction a lock for an Oscar.

            @Dre That is a mighty fine beard.

        • MKing

          News flash Trent, sometimes people don't like a film. Its called an opinion. Brad has been running this site since 2003 and is a member of the BFCA, which is a legit critic organization. I think most of us can agree that Brad is more than just a blogger. As for the film, I'm sure I'll see it because its a Spielberg movie, however I wouldn't be surprised if Brad was completely spot on.

        • Kyle

          Brad actually does critique things and even makes a positive note of the technical sides of things.

          To pull a quote: "I won't discount the fact Steven Spielberg, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are master storytellers when it comes to using direction, framing, score and composition to their fullest effect. They know exactly what they are doing....I can't ignore the fact they appear to have made the film they intended to make. Fact is, it's just not for me."

          I would say that Mr. Brevet should absolutely feel entitled to call himself a film critic as he is a better writer than many other critics I read. I'm surprised you feel entitled to call yourself a film review reader as you obviously did not read this but simply saw the word sappy and got cranky because Brad didn't like the movie as much as you. Relax.

    • Snicket

      You act like he was the only one who disliked it...News flash! Film is subjective.

      • MKing

        Brad will not like a film if it is bad. If you listen to his podcasts, you would know that his grades don't mean anything. You have to read his reviews. I don't think anybody is a prophet however, I respect Brad for running IMO the most unbiased movie site out there besides IMDB. I disagreed with Brad on his Sherlock Holmes review, doesn't mean I'm gonna accuse him of not being a critic.

    • http://them0vieblog.com Darren

      At the risk of being juvenile, neither, sir, are you.

      I like the way that apparently it's not valid for Brad to like The Change-Up better tahn War Horse, even though he very clearly has his reasons. I disagree with him, respectuflly, but he makes his points far more succinctly than you do.

      How would you define a critic, and how does Brad fall short? I'm fairly sure quite a few of those you would probably deem legitimate critics have used "sappy" as a criticism.

    • Bob

      Since there seems to be little science, or other testing method, involved in your critique, other then seemingly limited perceptual and literal ‘opinion,’ and I guess, without knowing you, or your other movie “opinions” we should conclude the opposite of what your opinions are from now on; D = A and so on – which is what 95% of the real critics are saying about War Horse. Of course this is just my opinion – base on some facts-of-'life.'

      • dre

        Testing method? Bob may I borrow your monocle when you're down ol' boy?

        • Bob

          …a dangerous method indeed.

  • Randy

    To me this movie sounds like it doesn't get to the point quick enough and you have to endure all this sadness and b.s to get to the story.It sounds boring and an unnecessary use of emotion to get the audience involved. I believe that calling it "sappy" can pull someone away from the movie or bring them in depending on what they prefer in a movie.

  • http://fortheloveofmovies.wordpress.com Abe M

    I have had no desire to see this after seeing a trailer for it, and was afraid that it would be raved about and I would feel guilty for not seeing it. I'm just really tired of movies set up like this, blatant emotional manipulation, and while I wish the film was different and better, I am glad it is "sappy" and bad, because I really didn't want to have to see it.

    • Lisa

      Totally agree Abe. I saw the trailer last week for the first time and could not believe how manipulative it felt. The music, the soaring music! Turned me right off. I too am glad my initial feelings are being vindicated. Thanks Brad!

    • Lisa

      Totally agree Abe. I felt so manipulated by the trailer and the horrible melodramatic and sappy score that I am super glad my initial reaction is being vindicated! Thanks Brad.

  • Winchester

    It's Oscar Bait like the trailers said it would be in virtual neon.

  • Highland

    Look at all the Speilberg fan boys crying over a review. He doesn't have to give it a good review just because "Speilberg" made it. Just like what Snicket said, film is subjective.

  • Highland

    Spielberg***(just noticed I spelled his last name wrong)

  • dre

    @ Grissom... you, my friend, have fine taste.

    The funny thing about Trent's complete overreaction is I have a feeling I'm going to really like the movie. I hope my reaction isn't the same as Brad's. Hell, we disagree about movies to varying degrees all the time. But I'm not going to personally attack him for his opinion (at least not to his face... more cowardly like).

    • Grissom

      Is the fine taste part sarcasm?

      And yea, i know people who flip when someone doesn't like a movie. I said i didn't like Bridesmaids and i got blacklisted. I never call out someone solely based on their opinions. I'm a Christian and my friend is an atheist. Who cares, i don't religion rule my life, why would i let my opinion of a film do the same?

      • dre

        Not at all. If you like my beard, you are A-OK in my book.

        • Grissom

          I wonder what Brad will think when he sees the comments are just jabs at him and acclaim for your beard.

          • dre

            That's the internet for you!

      • MKing

        Same here, I wasn't the biggest fan of Bridesmaids either. It felt like it dragged.

  • Minas

    Just out of curiosity, Brad. Do you really like ANY Spielberg film? Or just this year these films weren't your cup of tea? I haven't seen your reviews of older Spielberg flicks and i am curious. Your current reviews have valid arguments and i respect them although i am a big Spielberg fan.

    • Grissom

      Spielberg has his ups and downs like all directors. Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, E.T., Saving Private Ryan are all classic masterpieces. The Lost World, War of the Worlds and 1941 were his weakest in my opinion, but he probably does like Spielberg.

      • Grissom

        and The Terminal. Not something you see Spielberg doing.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I really like Spielberg's earlier work all the way up to Catch Me If You Can with misses in-between, which any and all directors will have, but since then he hasn't done much to impress me.

      • Grissom

        Maybe Lincoln will turn all that around.

      • Minas

        Ok, covered! The 00's were not his best decade but i think that A.I. and Munich are great and very underappreciated films.Thanks

      • zlaja

        What about Minority Report. I think it's his best movie of the last decade.

        • Grissom

          That's the great thing about Spielberg: He's ambitious. Not many directors are like that. So he will take his skills across different genres: sci-fi, war, drama, adventure. But he also learns where his expertice runs out. Rom-coms, comedy. With War Horse, he kinda melded war with romantic drama and the result was a stack of pancakes, with sappy maple syrup leaking all over the plate and onto your clothes and hands.

          • Grissom

            I can't believe i just compared a movie to a stack of pancakes.

  • Grissom

    In oter news, my gut feeling was right: Brad and Laremy didn't like War Horse. But i wouldn't go as far as a D.I would say C to C- to give it credit for it's music and other aspects, other than sap.

  • dre

    I laughed really hard at "prophets" Wow.

    • Grissom

      I just hope Daniel Plainview doesn't come to my house and bash in my brains with a bowling pin

  • Liathach

    Brad, Devon is a county, not a town.

    Spielberg plus Richard Curtis was always going to equal a sentimentality overload...

  • Connor

    It didn't look that good to me anyways. I wonder if it is gonna get the best pic nomination.

  • mfan

    Why can't it be the landlord's son's horse? Pandering to the audience is a little maddening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Roggio/1487010008 Alex Roggio

    I totally expected this after that mind-numbingly sappy trailer.

  • Jamaica

    Oddly enough. Extremely loud and increadibly close is exactly the same way.

  • darnoc62

    tis is the first ever spielberg film that ive not even wanted to go n see let alone have no interest in

    the trailer merely makes it seem like some grandiose equine version of lassie

    the stage version of the story is a smash hit in london n has been for several years as the horse is played by a form of puppet n its a theatrical experience that many are moved by

    to me it seems that experience completely disappears by becoming a film

  • goavs

    It seems to be the season of disappointing films

    I haven't seen War Horse or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but they seem to be disappointing critics, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was kind of a waste.

  • http://davidcamponfilm.co.uk David

    I fail to see how every criticism levelled at 'War Horse' here isn't amplified a hundred fold for the awful 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'? How come Daldry's manipulative slop gets a pass and Spielberg's gets slated? At least 'War Horse' is technically proficient!!

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      The differences are clearly explained if you read both reviews.

    • Dsimolke

      I'm inclined to agree with David here. Not saying the movies didn't affect you in different ways, but they both manipulate emotions in the same oscar-baity fashion to be honest. The differences you talk about that "are clearly explained" really just say how one affected you and one didn't, without providing much reason other than "it's done in such a way." I'm not sure if that necessarily gets the job done. That's obviously not the extent of what you say, but it would be the most realistic summary. I would just think that maybe you can include the fact that the only thing that really separates the negatives/positive of these two films is a person's inherent, subjective-emotonal response to them. Because viewing them objectively, there's really no defining difference in what they do. Viewing them that way, I didn't really care for either. I can't help but be curious as to whether or not the "Stephen Daldry can do no wrong" buzz/factor had a hand in your Extremely Loud review. Hype effects me too my friend, it can be hard to separate at times. At least you do have Belmondo as your profile picture on here, so your clearly someone to be taken seriously. I love the site. (No sarcasm whatsoever in any of this. I don't know if it could accidentally be taken that way).

  • http://topyxyz.wordpress.com Topy

    Wow, Brad. After giving an A+ to Extremely Loud, the "D" stood out a bit more.

  • Jasmine

    I do not like this mob-mentality towards Spielberg's films which are being subjugated to incredibly harsh standards. War Horse is one of the best movies of the year and I personally felt The Adventures of Tin-Tin was the best animated movie of the year but both are being terribly maligned due to the sudden bandwagon against Spielberg's movies.

    War Horse was certaintly not a D-grade movie especially compared to other movies that were reviewed on this site that had higher scores. A D-grade is reserved for among the worst of the year. A D-grade movie has to fail on almost every level. I felt War Horse excelled on almost every level. I am sensing some anti-Spielberg hysteria. Eastwood, Scorsese, Terence Malick, and all of the iconic directors are being judged hypercritically compared to other directors.

    Hugo, The Artist, ELIC, and the majority of other contenders could be mislabeled as "sappy" but what they really have is sentimental value that I feel is quite authentic. I cannot comprehend why some of the press is throwing the word "manipulative" around. Every emotion or throught you feel is an authentic reaction to the story, events, Joey's journey, and Albert's compassion/love. I do not understand this backlash and it is mind-boggling.

    I would encourage everybody to see War Horse and actually read some positive reviews too before passing judgement.
    I thought it was phenomenal and in another league together when compared to the overhyped frontrunners like The Artist.

    • Lisa

      Ah but that is the beauty about all forms of art, people are going to have different opinions, thoughts, feelings and reactions. People will not always agree. No vendetta, just opinion.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

        Thank you for such a diplomatic response Lisa.

        • Lisa

          No problem Brad. I am a fan of diplomacy and your site. I agree a lot of the time with aspects of your reviews, but not always and that's okay, I still enjoy reading your thoughts. I like talking about film and this is a good place to do it.

          • Brady

            After reading everyone's back and forth's, I'm stickin' with Lisa on this one. Honestly, in the end, the only opinion that matters is our own. One shouldn't have to feel so compelled to prove anything to Brad or anyone else on here. Take a deep breath, folks. See this movie or Extremely Loud, or none of the above, it's always up to you. This review just happens to be how Brad felt.

  • Jasmine

    My first post did not violate guidelines of the site yet it was removed. I didn't attack anybody but disagreed in a civil manner about the movie. I also gave a brief review and offered some points about the sentimentality argument against the film. Why was that considered threatening enough to be removed? There is a difference between being diplomatic and being sycophantic towards people on this site. You can write your reviews and visitors on this site will also offer their opinions which might differ from your own.

    People are allowed to disagree with Brad's reviews and I have read far worse comments in the past but my analysis of War Horse criticism which was mainly focused on the film itself was deleted. That is not fair censorship especially I said nothing that crossed the line.

    This specific post was directed at Brad Brevet and I know this one will be deleted also but you need to get the message. What you did to me was wrong. You can't just delete comments from people who disagree with you and get into a discussion why, especially since it was completley civil.

    You also seriously need to compare your standards and grades of different movies before trashing a movie so badly that tons of people won't see it. A D-grade and C-grade towards both of Spielberg's latest fine film efforts reeks of bias and imbalanced criticism for me. If the site continues to be unfair with comments, then I will make this known about this site to others.

    • MKing

      What comment did you previously post that was removed? I'm asking because there is a comment posted by you about mob mentality on Spielberg that has not been deleted. I don't care about anything else except that the comment you speak of might still be hear.

  • Lewis

    First of all, anyone who dismisses this film as "sappy" needs to get their hearts checked. War Horse, while not Speilberg's best film, is certainly his best in six or so years.... since Munich. yes, it does ring tears from the audience, but its "sap" isn't manipulative...IT'S EARNED. the story at its very core is undoubtedly an emotional one. the journey the horse takes fills up most of the narrative, and at times, it's quite fascinating, brilliant, and moving. you don't feel the 2 hrs and 26 minute running time oddly enough, and I think that's a testament to the film's power. War Horse is a throwback to old fashioned filmmaking and storytelling. It's what cinema is all about. Strange that the "blogger" of this site would unfairly criticize this film yet give accolades to Drive by defending it as "pure cinema." It's quite the contrary. Give War Horse a second viewing, and don't be surprised if its uplifting ending and subtle anti-war themes win over the Academy. It might just win Best Picture, depending on how corrupt the Weinstein Brothers choose to be in promoting their The Artist.

  • richard729

    I'll give this movie which should have been called War Nag a great big Neigh!

    It would be one thing if it was just a sappy tear jerker but even that was lost when the horse, Joey, got tangled up in barbed wire in no-man's-land between the German and British front lines. All this happened after an intense slaughter and carnage which included horrific machine gun fire and a mustard gas attack. This left one wondering if "the war to end all wars" was just a footnote. So, two bitter enemies, one from each side, preposterously meet in the middle and get wire cutters from the German troop onlookers, haters of the British army but ostensibly lovers of horses. All's quiet on the western front for a few moments and Joey, after being untangled from the barbed wire, is returned to the British soldier after the toss of a coin decided which one of the two ends up with the horse.

    Oh yes, the British soldier at one point compliments the German by telling him he spoke "good" English and the German replies, "Yes, I speak English well." Now there's one for the grammarians to chuckle over.

    The ending came, mercifully, when Albert returned home riding Joey. It reminded me of the Three Amigos when they were sitting around a campfire surrounded by a smiling coyote, owl and rabbit before bedding down for the night. Joey, Albert's mom and dad all embrace in a smarmy reunion.

    I was really disappointed though that the Aflac duck didn't show up at the end as he did in the earlier scenes. Now that was sad.

  • Alex

    Have just seen this and it was pretty average. Not D standard but definitely in the C range. I don't think it will get nominated for Best Picture - call me crazy but I'd put The Ides of March ahead of this now.

  • Lewis

    again, you can't be cynical with films. the blogger of this site's review seemed to have a pre-disposed bias against the film for some reason. For example, the criticism levelled at the fact that Joey's first owner sketches in his spare time. I think this is a brilliant nuance to the man's character. Great detail. There are many more like these in the film.

  • McKirsty

    Personally I like reading Brad's reviews not because I expect to agree with them, but because they make me think about what I've watched and aspects I may have missed - simple as that.

    I've got to say though, as much as it's to be expected and no doubt I'd make the same mistake about the US, I did have a giggle about the 'town' Devon - it's like me referring to the 'town of California'! It is full of beautiful sleepy countryside villages where little drama happens, and many people love that.

  • Grissom

    To the whole issue of war Horse/Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close problem:

    Extremely Loud allows time before throwing a sedimental feeling to you. War Horse suffocates you from the opening credits. Though, granted, War Horse wasn't "D" bad (i gave it a B-, cred to story and atmosphere), it was just very emotionally manipulative to the point you don't want to feel sad. You couldn't care less if the horse makes it. It transforms itself into a charity case.

    • Rob

      I saw War Horse on Christmas Day and have not stopped thinking about it. I never paid attention to the horses as they fell in past films, in war, but I rooted for this horse, for the black horse. I love animals and I think anyone who does will remember this film long after they see it. I was was bored with Tree of Life, thought Midnight in Paris was just ok, Owen Wilson who I like was just did not seem to fit the role, The Help I loved, The Decendant was just okay. I am just an ordinary person, not a film critic. It seems it is rare when the film critics and the average movie going public agree. I loved, loved, loved War Horse, as did my family.