Tragically uneven and an ultimate disappointment.
Like it or not, War Horse is a profoundly disappointing film, particularly since it is directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg. Though it obviously tells a wondrous story about a horse fighting for its own survival during the human carnage of World War I, it nonetheless feels like a movie that was originally destined to appear on the Lifetime Channel on T.V.
For some strange reason, Spielberg has peppered the film with a continual corny group of largely one-dimensional villains and heroes. Despite your love for the threatened horse, Joey, it is almost impossible to decide who you truly love or hate. Regardless of one’s basic reactions to the film, War Horse is sadly immersed in that ultimate contradiction.
As a student of history, I have spent a considerable time over the years reading about World War I. No matter how you slice it, it was an unmitigated disaster largely resulting in the elimination of an entire generation of young men in Europe. The leaders of all European countries acted like functional idiots, and the end result was the tragic deaths of millions of young boys on battlefields that made no sense.
Additionally, I have had the pleasure of physically touring many of these fields, including Verdun. Hundreds of thousands of boys died at Verdun charging each other out of dreary trenches onto undefended fields where they were viciously wiped out by machine guns and mustard gas. I have always felt that if there truly was a God viewing developments on Earth, He or She would have shaken his or her head and simply abandoned mankind out of complete disgust in 1918.
Nonetheless, despite its weaknesses, there are a few brilliant moments in War Horse. In particular, there is an extraordinarily moving scene where Joey gets hideously trapped in barbed wire on a field between the Allies and Germans as he tried to flee for safety. He is soon forced to collapse in pain in what appears to be his certain death. What follows is a remarkable depiction of a temporary truce where an Englishman and a German combine to save Joey. Quite honestly, it reminded me of the Joyeux Noel (2005), a marvelous film depicting a moment in World War I where the Germans and French fraternized on Christmas Eve and temporarily got to know each other before being compelled to resort to untold brutality.
Though I recognize that it probably dances on the edge of a cinematic sacrilege to find fault with War Horse, I can only say that it pales in comparison to Spielberg’s two gigantic movies about World War II, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993). Both of these films succeeded by showing small, average people trying to survive on a bit of decency, and Spielberg could have made War Horse infinitely better had he simply not lost his way.