Beginning shortly before the beginning of the First World War, War Horse follows the life of a horse named Joey, raised and trained by teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) on his father's (Peter Mullan) farm in the Devon countryside, before being sold to the British Army in 1914 when war breaks out.
Joey's story takes him through a wealth of settings, from his beginnings as an unlikely plough horse in Devon through to wartime France at various stages of the war. It's a journey which allows Spielberg as director to create some beautiful and captivating sequences. The cavalry charge beginning in a French cornfield is particularly memorable, as is the scene which sees a terrified Joey hurtling through both British and German trenches before becoming stranded in the middle of no man's land.
Unfortunately, the cinematography of these scenes can only be appreciated in isolation. Structurally, the film is decidedly unsatisfying, with Joey's story moving too hurriedly from one set of human characters to the next. No sooner do we feel settled in Spielberg's decidedly chocolate box vision of early 20th Century Devon at the start of the film than the director moves us on to a new set of characters. Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls, Joey's next owner, is undoubtedly one of the film's strongest characters thanks to the talented actor's performance, but we simply aren't afforded the time to get to know him well enough to truly invest. It's a pattern which happens again and again until the film's conclusion thanks to the plot's rigidly episodic structure. It's a source of constant frustration: other enjoyable talents such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Toby Kebbell receive just enough screen time for us to want to get to know them better, before being snatched from under our noses, thereby building up layer upon layer of unsatisfying and underdeveloped character arcs.
Tonally, the film ranges from the stark realism of the battle scenes, to the heavy-handed sentimentality of much of the final act, to - perhaps least satisfying of all - the ill-advised and amateurish humour generated by a meeting between a British and German soldier in the middle of no man's land, united in their desire to help the injured Joey. In the end, War Horse ends up as a film which never manages to develop fully, and doesn't have a strong or consistent enough script to prop it up. With a running time at least half an hour too long and a host of British talent that deserve meaty roles to sink their teeth into, but end up with extended cameos at best, it's a film which ultimately puts style over substance. Aside from a few directorial flourishes from Spielberg, War Horse ends up as a shallow and mediocre melodrama.