This week from Touchstone Home Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated historical epic War Horse is available in a four-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack virtually erupting with special features. Although the movie is beautifully shot and has an impressive cast, its sentimental commentary on the endurance of hope and innocence in times of war isn’t only trite and redundant, it fails to register on a purely visceral level as well.
Set during the First World War, War Horse is the chronicle of a thoroughbred stallion, purchased impulsively by an aging farmer and town drunk (Peter Mullan) with an unrealized strain of tortured poetry in his soul, who admires the horse’s beauty, but unfortunately doesn’t have much practical use for it once it’s been formally declared his property. In the tradition of many a squishy, adorable family film, the farmer’s adolescent son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), develops a special friendship with the horse, which he names Joey. Deeply in debt and struggling to hold onto his livelihood, Albert’s father must eventually resell Joey to a military officer in preparation for impending large-scale conflict with invading Germans. When Albert is notified by mail that the officer who purchased Joey is dead, the boy enlists in the army, determined to find and retrieve his beloved horse.
The film follows Joey’s exploits as he is repeatedly sold, traded, and rescued by people engaged in the War on all sides, and in virtually all capacities – from a pair of lowly French foot soldiers, to a jam-making berry farmer and his granddaughter sequestered in the French countryside, to a mud-caked and desolate German cavalry slogging through the War’s final, desperate stages. The horse’s journey is meant to symbolically create a thread of humanity and innocence tying all participants in the war together, but instead it eclipses the lives and motivations of its human characters with empty metaphor, obscuring the emotional reality of war with glossy, windswept sentimentality that feels dishonest, vapid, and predictable. Worst of all, the sentimentality itself doesn’t stick – none of the characters or themes are developed enough to encourage emotional investment, and the result is a heavy-handed, overlong period drama that looks aggressively picturesque, but fails to evoke emotion or express anything substantial.
The Blu-ray’s special features are as maudlin and self-congratulatory as the movie itself, but at least they are informative about the filmmaking process. The one minor highlight of the disc is a special feature on sound design, which is pretty short, but actually does a great job of illustrating why sound design is important, and how it works from a creative perspective. I also liked the parts in the gratuitously hour-long making-of documentary where they interviewed Benedict Cumberbatch for like twenty seconds at a time, but other than that, the special features consist largely of people congratulating Steven Spielberg on his accomplishment for 80 minutes. War Horse is a technically accomplished film, but two hours and forty minutes is a hell of a long time to just stare at slick, well-composed images. The film doesn’t just lack profound meaning – it lacks convincing characters, emotional resonance, and worst of all, it lacks sincerity.