One line review: War Horse sure was a movie that I watched.
War Horse was a strange beast of a film. Superbly made and and gorgeously filmed, the film flows effortlessly from setpiece to setpiece as it follows the life of a horse named Joey through the events of the first World War. Despite the technical proficiency though, the film left me almost totally cold. I felt next to no connection with the film’s characters, or with the horses - and given the setting and intent of the film, I can’t consider that anything other than an unmitigated failure.
The intent of the novel on which the film is based was to explain the shared horror of WWI. The experiences of soldiers fighting on both sides of the conflict, the families caught in the crossfire,the colossal waste of life resulting from war. I didn’t feel that this message was sufficiently delivered on the screen. Certainly there were notes of it throughout - flashes of insight, moments where characters made the audience feel what they were going through, but they were fleeting and far too few. Given the film’s structure as a chronicle of Joey’s circumstances as the war begins and progresses, I never felt that the narrative really had a strong motivation carrying it forward. There’s no (or very little) character to the horse himself, and there’s certainly no character arc for him to follow. His situation is rarely within his own control, and when it is, he runs blindly into another situation that is outside his control. He’s a horse, written to be a horse, and even with the little hints of personality they provided him to distinguish him from the other horses, he is still just a horse. This left the film feeling like a string of events that happen to Joey, a chain of coincidences that neither develop the character nor leave the viewer with any genuine investment in the events of the film. Human characters are introduced and then dropped again too quickly to be meaningful. The experience simply feels hollow.
The one thing the movie did leave me with though, was a desire to see Spielburg tackle a much more serious historical drama set during the first World War. I’d like to see him do for the WWI what he did for WWII with Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan remains one of my favorite films because of how expertly it captures the horror of war. The film terrifies me and evokes in me a respect and great sadness for the sacrifices made by the soldiers that fought and died. It connected me to those experiences in a way that, being born long after the war myself, I would not have otherwise had. I have felt for a long time now that WWI deserved a similar treatment. Given the extent to which it is removed from our generation in time, and how overshadowed it has been by the history of WWII, especially in Hollywood, I feel that it’s important to have a modern film that helps us to understand the Great War, and to remember the soldiers that gave their lives in such a tremendous and terrible way. War Horse was not that film.
On the whole, there’s nothing essentially wrong with War Horse, but it failed to move me in any significant way. I can’t call it a successful film, but its technical execution is top notch. There are worse ways to spend the cost of a movie ticket.