War Horse is a victim of really awful marketing. The trailers for the film made it look like a bucket of cheese with piles of sickly-sweet sugar on top. As people have been putting it recently, they made the film look like a parody of a Spielberg picture. And yeah, it’s just like that. The music informs the audience’s emotions, the writing is somewhat manipulative, it should be an absolute mess. But somehow, it isn’t. Somehow, it is more than the sum of its parts. Not much more, but still, there’s something there that you don’t expect to be. Now, this movie didn’t touch my heart or make me weep over the senselessness of war. Spielberg’s already made those movies; he didn’t need to do it again. This was nothing more than simple Hollywood entertainment, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything greater.
There is one scene late in the film that has garnered a lot of flak for being “unrealistic”. I’ll just say that it involves two soldiers from opposing trenches working together to do a good deed. “That would never happen!” “It makes a mockery of war,” people scream. But guess what? That sort of thing actually happened, and on a much larger scale than the film presents. It was the Christmas truce of 1914, in which German and British soldiers got together on Christmas, called a brief end to the fighting in order to get together and celebrate. There was even a great movie made about it called Joyeux Noel, which I highly recommend. I’d bet that it was this event that inspired the story. The message of the film is that, amongst the senseless violence of war, there are people. There are good people and bad people on every side, and war brings out both extremes in people. Yes, this is sometimes shown in a cheesy way, but at least it is there. Most films today don’t even bother with themes.
Also of note, and something that I’m disappointed they didn’t play with more, is the old British notion of war. When the war begins, Joey the horse is taken by the British army to fight. We see the Brits practicing their charges by way of a game, something that corporation retreats might do as a team-building exercise today. Their first attack is meant to be a surprise. They want to charge a German camp while the Germans are resting. The horses fly forward, their riders shouting and holding out their swords. But the Germans win with guns. There’s a particularly effective moment where Spielberg uses the image of riderless horses to completely get an idea across. He is such a talented visual storyteller.
Anyway, as I was saying, the British have no concept that their plan wouldn’t work, that the Germans would “cheat”. To them, war should be “fair”, but of course, it isn’t, and those soldiers learn that lesson the hard way. I was reminded of the opening scene of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in which an older general is awoken to find that a brash, young lieutenant has begun an assault without his knowledge. The general protests, “But the war starts at midnight!” War Horse only dallies in the themes of that film, and with not nearly the brilliance, but it is still worth pointing out.
At the end of the day, I’m glad that it was Spielberg who made this movie. It seems tailor-made for him. You’ve got everything that he usually puts in his movies, right down to the bad father-son relationship that permeates the film. Who else would have directed the film so well? I can’t think of anyone who could have done it. War Horse has its problems (it is way too long, for starters), it still resides somewhere in the middle of Spielberg’s work. Not phenomenal, but certainly not terrible. It is comfortably acceptable, and in the context of Spielberg’s body of work, that’s a comfortable place to reside.