War Horse opens with a man buying a horse at auction for more than it’s worth, and more than he can afford, because his foolish pride won’t let him lose. This, despite the fact that the sum he puts down is likely to cause him to lose his home and farm. It ends with a man buying the same horse at auction, and declaring that he will not lose, even if he has to sell his house and farm to keep bidding. He does so, because his daughter loved the horse, even if only for a short time.
If you’re a fan of film, there’s a lot of work that opening and closing can do, and the statement of the competing viewpoints (and that of the young lad at different points in his life) deliver fairly decent depictions of what we’re after as a “story,” and do it with a good deal of charm.
There’s a lot that happens in between, but the film has little else to say beyond wild platitudes and postcard truisms. You’ll get what you can from the beginning and end, and anything else you’ll put up with by way of a certain spin on cute, fantastic scenery, and the sleight of hand efforts of a master filmmaker. That, or you’ll fall for the syrupy goo offered up through what is ultimately cut-and-paste from early war propaganda films, with a horse in place of the All-American everyman with the teeth so bright they make a little ping noise, and a bent toward the similarities found among all those unfortunates who are caught up in war, no matter what side they might be on.
Though certainly passable entertainment, and a well-crafted film in a variety of ways, at the end of the day, War Horse is one of those films that rides high on a wave of critical and public acclaim that has at its foundation the general idea that to say anything bad about it is the political equivalent of kicking a puppy.
Spun together like an attempt to craft a folk tale, our horse in question first plows a field that not even an actual work horse could manage, mainly by the sheer force of will of the young boy who doesn’t want his rather nutty father to cut his losses and kill the horse. This allows the horse to live long enough to befriend said boy, and thus hang around long enough for the military to conscript the horse for a decent enough amount of money that our home won’t be in serious danger. Thus, we have lazy days spent in trees playing hide and seek with the horse, so that we can be sufficiently sad when the horse is taken away.
This puts our horse into position to lead a charge against a post of Germans, and miraculously survive when a score of machine guns lay waste to the entire British force. This then puts our hero in the hands of the Germans, who use him to pull the hospital wagons, which leads to further adventures, and the butterfly effect way in which he manages to be passed around through a wide variety of points of interest. From the G.I. hiding in a small farm behind enemy lines moments, to the slave labor camp, you’ve got just about everything covered here.
It’s all delivered with the most brilliant of panoramic views, the most doe-eyed of young, German lads (who are German enough to seem very similar to non-Germans, and not German enough to be confused with that rat bastard German in charge of moving artillery), and a soundtrack that could convince you to sign for a timeshare all on its own. It is possibly the feel good movie of the year, and it’s an undeniably safe choice for entertainment, but the depth is all pretense, and “feel good movie,” is more and more widely viewed as the flaw it is.
Like many Spielberg films, its effort is by way of broadest common denominator, and its most positive quality is that it looks amazing. Even I can’t deny that it has its moments of fun, and at the very least puts a great deal of grandiose fun into a somewhat clever spin on war in general, but most of what you’ll see serves best as a showcase for greater moments in other films. Those with trench truces are too numerous to mention, as are those with Germans searching houses for people (though somehow this one makes Christoph Waltz’ opening scene in Inglourious Basterds stand out), and those with even a passing cinematic history behind them will get little out of the film that is ultimately more than a wash of emotions other films have actually brought to bear.