‘War Horse’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated December 12th, 2014 at 9:22 pm,

War Horse Movie Jeremy Irvine War Horse Review

For anyone willing to invest in another rich and evocative Spielberg historical drama, there’s no doubt that War Horse is sure to deliver one of the most compelling film experiences of the year.

Only days after releasing the kid-friendly film, The Adventures of TinTin, Steven Spielberg returns with a heavier (and very much NOT kid-friendly) dramatic offering, War Horse – a World War I drama based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo (which also inspired a stage play from Nick Stafford).

While many film fans tend to most fondly remember Spielberg’s lighthearted sci-fi and action-adventure titles (such as E.T. and the Indiana Jones series), many of the Oscar-winner’s most celebrated works have been hard-hitting period dramas. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List were recognized by the Academy as well as other awards organizations and, despite violent historical narratives, also drew tremendous numbers at the box office. Has Spielberg managed to once again blend evocative and entertaining period drama in War Horse? Or is the film too dismal and emotionally manipulative to actually move audiences?

Fortunately, War Horse succeeds at offering a compelling look at multiple facets of World War I – as the titular war horse, Joey, encounters a number of different people (each with their own intriguing relationship to the war) throughout his travels. The War Horse story begins when Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) suddenly becomes the young owner of an untrained and unruly horse. The pair form a tight bond – as the stubborn animal helps Albert beat the odds and save his parents from financial ruin by plowing a rocky patch of dirt behind their farm.

Despite their victory, as the European countryside becomes a staging ground for World War I, Joey is effectively enlisted in the British army – acting as the battle horse for Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and leaving Albert (too young to fight) behind. Nicholls is only the first of many people (and subsequently stories) that Joey touches as he traverses one of the most horrifying human conflicts in history. The vignettes are masterfully woven together, and despite jumping from person to person, successfully balance Joey’s experience with the overarching effect the war is having on people from all walks of life (a farmer and a young German soldier, among others).

War Horse Movie Joey War Horse Review

Joey the ‘War Horse’

That said, the marketing for the film (coupled with the children’s book source material) might lead some moviegoers to think that War Horse is a mostly lighthearted and inspiring adventure suitable for older children – which, for anyone familiar with the stage adaptation that inspired Spielberg’s movie, would be a mistake. There is a huge difference between having scenes of animals and people in peril in a children’s book (or portrayed by puppets in a stage play) – and having live human and animal actors in the same situations in a very realistic-looking film. For casual audiences, War Horse may actually be one of the heavier and more challenging films of the year – as the World War seemingly destroys everything in its wake (soldiers, innocents, and animals alike). The heavy tone and heart-wrenching moments don’t detract from the overall success of the film, but for sensitive viewers, it’s important to note that the War Horse marketing definitely makes the movie look significantly lighter than what actually plays out onscreen.

The unrelenting tone is almost certainly intentional and actually helps to ground audiences in the horrors of World War I. However, there’s no doubt that each of the vignettes can be exceptionally draining – especially because the terrible deeds of man far outweigh any moments of levity. The director does manage to imbue a number of the characters with enjoyable and lively personalities (even in the face of the dangers at hand); however, even the most hopeful and cheerful of the War Horse personalities are ultimately overrun by the overarching war machine. As a result, the film can at times come across as a continuous descent into increasingly horrifying human experiences.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of lighthearted moments as well – mainly due to the success of the equine actors coupled with some inspired performances from their human counterparts. Joey exudes a tremendous amount of personality, especially considering the character is actually a composite of fourteen different horse performers, and provides interesting and believable reactions to the various scenarios portrayed onscreen. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski make use of the horses to great effect – whether to showcase the majesty and beauty of the animals at play or to juxtapose the horror that befell working animals in the early days of mechanized war machines.

War Horse Movie Tom Hiddleston War Horse Review

A scene featuring Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls in ‘War Horse’

Despite featuring an equine protagonist, the War Horse story is still largely about the human condition in World War I, and Spielberg lined up a compelling roster of talent to play off of the Joey character in a myriad of different dramatic opportunities (detestable and sympathetic alike). Jeremy Irvine is competent in the lead role as Albert – even in spite of a few hammy and overly eager moments in his performance. There’s no doubt the actor had a stiff challenge ahead of him in selling the emotional bond between Albert and Joey – and Irvine does his best with what he’s been given, even if Albert is still the least interesting character that Joey interacts with throughout the film.

Once the film gets rolling, War Horse moves at a brisk pace as Joey collides with a one intriguing character, and subsequently talented performer, after another – most notably Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls. It’s an especially intriguing opportunity for fans who don’t remember Hiddleston from any of his pre-Loki work (which included a lot of TV movie roles) – since Nicholls allows the actor another opportunity (next to Midnight in Paris) to showcase his dramatic chops as a compassionate, charming, and emotive character. Spielberg also rounded-up a stable of international talent, young and old, to headline roles in each of the subsequent vignettes including French thespian Niels Arestrup and German actor David Kross, among countless others.

War Horse offers a number of memorable moments both tragic and profound. However, even the most inspiring moments are wrought with the horror of the war at hand, and as mentioned before, the movie is not a particularly cheerful onscreen experience and we would not recommend it for children.

That said, for anyone willing to invest in another rich and evocative Spielberg historical drama, there’s no doubt that War Horse is sure to deliver one of the most compelling film experiences of the year.

If you’re still on the fence about War Horse, check out the trailer below:

[poll id=”241″]

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below:

War Horse is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5

TAGS: War horse
Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to Gravatar.com and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. I’ve never understood why the marketing for a film would differ from the reality. Who beenfits? Those who might like it for what it is get turned off, and those who see bevause of the marketing get disappointed because it’s not what they thought it would be.

    Personally, I’m glad this sounds like a serious, heavy drama. That’s the kind of movie I like. The trailers make it look like another Seabiscuit- corny, cheery, boy-and-his-horse sort of ‘uplifting’ heart candy.

    I loved Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. If this is in that vein, then I’m in. Otherwise, keep the uplifting montages and happy triumphant endings.

    • Well maybe they were looking to capitalize on the Christmas weekend, and mostly families go out to the movies during that time, so they just lightened the trailer a bit in order to put folks in seats. IDK…but I agree it is unfortunately misleading, it’s better families know at least in some brevity the nature of the film’s content.

      • a1d2h. Here! Here! Thought this was a story very different from what was portrayed. Felt pretty sick watching my teenage daughter cry through most of it and she’s pretty tough most of the time. They didn’t want people to know the nitty gritty cuz they’d have had a lot less attending. It was much more brutal and insensitive than I would have ever wished to see.

        • Hey, welcome to the real world. Masking the truth about our past and unforseen future, only leads to ignorance of reality.

          Your daughter and you need to watch more movies about the men and women of this country who died so you can sit here and cry about the truth.

  2. Seems like it’s a pretty good movie year! If the funds are right I’ll check it out this weekend.

  3. I found this movie to be like spielbergs other war movies. Its not his worse movie but defenently not close to his best. I did have some cheesy boy to horse moments but spielberg did say this wasn’t a war movie it was a movie about a boy and a horse. But the more I sat through it the more the war movie comes out. It has spielberg written all over it. A lot of people will really enjoy it. I just found it the same old same war movie I’m not a fan. But still a pretty good movie to watch.

  4. I’m still gonna see it… can’t wait.

  5. Despite Munich being his last great film and the disappointment of Indy IV – Spielberg is still the master from which everyone else has to follow – Cameron, Nolan, Del Toro included. Only Peter Jackson can come close to matching his ability of merging together successfully both story and spectacle.

    • Munich was a great film?

    • Scorcese….

  6. I went to see this anticipating it to be a lighthearted Christmas release film to end a very lovely day. Instead we were confronted with a movie which made most of the women in the theater cover their eyes through a lot of the film and children leaving. I think Steven S has accomplished another feat in movie making, how to stay one step above the law for animal abuse. Yes war is ugly! Yes the close and up front personal encounters one has with the horrible acts of war were there for all to see. But never would I have spent money on seeing such a brutal, unrelenting film as this. Horrible experience! Really ugly and deceptive marketing. Do not take your children nor your wives.

    • Sounds wonderful! Just my kind of movie.

      • Motmaitre,

        Out of context your comment is fine – but within the context of having made it a reply to someone who was so negatively affected by the film is incredibly insensitive (and I’m about the most anti-“politically correct” person around).


        • Agreed Vic, but with sites like Screenrant there’s really no excuse to be surprised by misleading marketing campaigns anymore. The information is out there. It’s not hidden.

          Look to the reviewers, not the studios, before seeing a film.

          • Well said.

          • Also…it’s a movie about one of the most brutal and best known conflicts in history. How lighthearted can it be?

    • Leave you wives at home? What is this, the 1950s?

      -A Wife

  7. I don’t really understand the big deal with the marketing. I saw the preview and figured it would be a yarn and that’s exactly what I got. I personally don’t understand how someone would say that the violent part of the movie was bad. I really wouldn’t even call it violent, at all. The “violence” was no longer difficult to look at then the fight scene in a cartoon. And I’m a woman.

  8. I would say young people around the ages of 11 or 12 can handle the subject matter (if they’re the more mature type). As for the violence, you’ll see worse–i.e. more graphic and bloody–on prime time television. The battle scenes are intense, but “Saving Private Ryan” lite. No severed arms or exploding bodies here.

    Overall, despite some tough scenes involving horses and men alike suffering, “War Horse” is a beautiful, wonderful film.

  9. I thought the movie was great…and I don’t like “war” movies. The story was about a horse and the people and places it touched. The setting and time period was during a war. I thought it was interesting history and the violence was nothing compared with the trailers of the advertised upcoming movies presented prior to the movie. Beautiful cinematography and kept me spellbound throughout the film. In fact, first time in a long time that people in the very packed theatre were not talking.

    • That’s because they were all sleeping. This movie was absolutely painful.

  10. To all sensitive types out there,

    Well no, this is addressed to people who are on the fence about seeing War Horse because of the violence. Most, if not all, of the violence occurs after the camera cuts away, or instead some object blocks the view of the violence from the audience. For a war movie, most of the war deaths consist of soldiers running, getting shot, and falling down, completely bloodless.

    To compare this to the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is just ridiculous. There is no comparison. Spielberg dialed it back tremendously for this film. Sure, I’m a 21-year-old male and may have a thicker skin than the middle-aged female audience, but if I had kids they would see this film years before they watched Saving Private Ryan.

    However, I will say this about the violence. What was Spielberg trying to prove by showing what little violence he used? That war is hell. For every living thing. Add to that, the movie is about the horse, so naturally, if you build up all this rapport with the horse, you need to show him in his roughest moment (including letting the audience see it, rather than cutting away like every other violent instance in the film). There’s no flesh-ripping, no decapitation, and heck, the horse falls victim to his injuries in a shadowed shot, so you can’t see anything except the general shape of the horse in motion. The audience gasps because that’s the animal we’ve been rooting for the entire film.

    So a mismarketed film? Maybe. But PG-13 is pretty clear. If, as a parent, I saw that, I wouldn’t rush to the theater with kids in tow and then complain about it later. No offense, parents.

    • The actors in this film were not trying to ‘Americanize’ their accents. They were simply using the west country rhotic dialect which sound heavy and with a drawl similar to American and Irish accents.I remember when I was young mistaking a Devon Woman for an American as it was so different to anything I’d heard in my Northern English town. The authenticity of the accents is one to applaud.

  11. An amazing movie and a must see. this was true, and if your too squeemish to actually sit down and watch it your running away from a big reality check here. it definitally gives you a greater respect for animals and humans alike which were forced into battle. its a heart-renching movie, and thats just what i liked about it.

    none of the horses characteristic were too out of proportion.. some horses get mad when you seperate them from their buddies, feel sad when their friends pass away, will act out in shock and actually do crazy things like jumping off a tank if that badly affraid and cornered, and they alwayssss remember the people that have been good to them in their lives. only cheesy parts is how “joey” volunteers himself to pull the heavy artillery or when he shows the other horse how to pull a carriage.

  12. Hectic, horrible but redeemed with some tenderness!

    Joey had aright to be confused by caring and sadistic humans.


  13. This movie was painful beyond description. I am a fan of Spielberg’s previous war films, especially ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but War Horse was a big disappointment. The story line was replete with illogical offerings – for instance, at the end, why was the horse auctioned when an officer had offered to ship it back to England as his own? And no farmer would plough a field 90 degrees to the contour – you are just asking for the rain to erode the topsoil away. And why would you shoot a horse in the middle of a hospital – the thing weighs half a ton – how are you going to move it when it’s dead? Doh! The scenes showing the Germans being brutal to their horses were just gratuitous – artillery units looked after their horses much better than that – they didn’t simply drive them to death.
    I am not a brutal realist – I am prepared to suspend reality for the sake of enjoying a good tale. But this movie was just sentimental clap trap and it pained me to have to sit through it. Don’t waste your money.

  14. I didn’t know much about this film going in aside from the words Spielberg and “great”, well it was all Spielberg but it wasn’t great by a long shot. Manipulative, treacly, and predictable were the words that came to mind throughout the film. The early scenes on the farm were just one Kodak moment meets Norman Rockwell after another. The lighting was over done and the scenes overly sentimental, and the story was frankly quite lazily constructed and drained of human emotion.

    I don’t consider myself a huge movie buff or scholar, so for me to see all of these things can’t be a good sign.

  15. Terrible sucker punch. If I could give it half a star, I would. My husband is in the doghouse for taking me into this sick, manipulative melodrama. I wanted to kill myself by the end. I actually had to leave the theatre for 15 minutes during the movie. I was angry at being manipulated by the music and ridiculous, overdone lighting/scenery/closeups of moist eyes etc. I loved Private Ryan and Schindlers list btw. This was just lazy.

  16. As a horse owner, this was very misleading. I did enjoy the film and I considered taking my young nieces (rated pg-13 I know I know) but I did not expect a film like that. I thought it was great and Ill probably buy it once its released but it was misleading. Dont take children or even teenagers. I am always one to push reality towards teens but this could easily be too graphic. I found myself tearing up hours after the film, however I didnt cry during.

    When the horse ran through the barb wire, my skin was crawling. As a horse owner, I know what that does. I didnt need to see blood, flesh and whatever else. It was a great movie in my opinion but misleading and dont recommend it for younger viewers.

  17. This was a very sad movie to watch. to see horses use in that way in the war.I have horses to my self but it’s hard to see men laying down there life so we can be free. the horses should be remeber to for there part and HELP!in the !War to. IT bring to life what hapens to people and Horses it just opens peoples eyes that horses are just like us. if you seen this move you will see that too. War is not a good word anyway you put IT!.

  18. I just got home from the theater. I got dragged to this movie, so suffice it to say my hopes weren’t up, but WOW this movie was hokey. Splendid if you enjoyed this one, but this dragster had me begging for the credits. I can’t pin it down… to me it was terribly written, terribly acted, wonderfully executed. The only up this movie has for me is the sound. My god if only I had closed my eyes it would have probably been worth the 8 dollars.

  19. I saw this movie yesterday and found it upsetting to say the least. Yes, I did know it was set in war time but I thought the battle scenes were as horrible as Saving Private Ryan. I spent the majority of the time cringeing and trying not to cry out loud. OK, the ending was touching but I kept thinking OMG, now what’s going to go wrong? A friend wants to know if I would recommend it for her 11 year old son. I just don’t think so. I was absolutely drained

  20. I thought I was the only one who prayed for the credits to roll. Cheesy, not even close to realistic. What horse volunteers himself to work? As a horse person, this was really insulting. If you’re reading this, save your money and soul. Terribly written, poor acting, Spielberg, what happened? 1/2 a star.

  21. WATCH THIS MOVIE! I am fourteen and I love war movies, and this movie is the closest to reality. I have seen Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Tora Tora Tora, Letters to Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, Europa Europa, Shcindlers List etc. I tried to hold in my cry cause it was so sad; this is one of the few films that made me cry. My dad usually doesn’t like movies, but he said he thought this was one of the best films he has ever seen. I read a review that said, “Spielberg is saying ‘War is not a good place'” Well Spielberg is right and I was like in my mind “Are you saying war is a fun and happy place? Damn reviewer doesn’t know war and he should shut the f*ck up!” Ending note people war is emotional. Also, it is probably boring to you (the fight scenes I mean) because it is not World War II *SPOILER* Though in the end it is a bit cliche, but seeing the horse die or go to another owner would have just made me cry non stop *SPOILER*.

    • To say that War Horse is close to reality is just a ridiculous statement, and borders on being an insult to anyone who’s ever seen action. But you’re only 14, so I suppose your perspective is understandable.

  22. watched warhorse on new years eve, was pretty brutal movie both because it was was over the top, as if a horse could have survived all that.
    Gave audience a glimpse of what life was like for many during the war and made me immediately glad that I wasn’t alive until after the war.
    The only good thing about the movie was that it ended, after all if I had to sit there longer whilst alfie(?) and joey went to see the old man’s granddaughter and they all lived happily ever after I would probably have farted out a far worse review than this. I feel bad for anyone that had to go through life during that period but certainly don’t ever want to see a reminder of it on the big screen again. Basically should have ended when the horse hit the wire fences end of story. Horse is a mangled mess and ur telling us that a couple of wire cutters and he’s good as new. not even going to mention the bit about the englishman and german as that never would happen in real life and if it did then why didn’t the war end with a handshake and beer! What was worse was that you got my mom crying over it, which as you know can start a landslide, thank god I just had some dust in my eye Eh! certainly wasn’t the movies fault although it might have been if it went on any longer. More amazing was the bit of entertainment awaiting us upon exiting the theater. Interesting story that.

  23. I think some horses in the theater gave it two hoofs up, or maybe just one couldn’t really tell.

  24. Great storytellers have a way of revealing the epic without forcing it on us. This film failed to do so. How am I supposed to appreciate the epic heroism of the subject with the film prodding and lecturing me about it? That’s just bad storytelling.

    When we talk about the horrors of war, where are we going with the discussion? Is the horror significant or meaningful? Or is its real purpose to provide a backdrop to the epic awesomeness of the subject? A film that pretends to care about the horrors of war for the sole purpose of advancing its ham-handed epic aspirations fails on a moral level in my book.

  25. The stage adaptation was so much more interesting because of the puppetry involved. Even watching War Horse on stage, one is struck by how hollow the story and characters are. And that’s where the movie fails, IMO, as well. It really fails to flesh out Joey’s “owner” and his family. The characters come off as cardboard cut-outs, which might work if the character of Joey was strong, but unfortunately, little is done to give the viewer the perspective of the horse. I think it fails on a lot of levels. I think Scorcese shows with Hugo that he is indeed head and shoulders above the rest of the directors in the crowd this year.