War Horse is pro forma Spielberg: grand-scale, tug-at-the-heartstrings storytelling, fitted out with vigorous action set pieces, majestic landscape shots, and swelling music (courtesy of John Williams, as usual). A WWI saga set in England and France, it’s a more lavish and romantic war film than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan; Spielberg gives us some grim battle scenes near the end of the film, both in the trenches and in the hell of No Man’s Land, but overall the tone here is serenely heroic rather than brutal, and it’s more Rupert Brooke than Wilfred Owen, if you know what I mean. (Gone With The Wind and John Ford also appear to be influences here.)
Based on the Tony Award-winning play of the same name, the film follows (Black Beauty style) a thoroughbred named Joey from his birth in the Devon countryside and his rearing at the hands of a stubborn-headed farmer’s son to his sale to the British cavalry in 1914 and his eventual reunion with his master, who also has seen action in the trenches. The film’s structure is episodic: Joey rides into battle with a British officer, whereupon they’re taken prisoner by Germans and he becomes the property of two young deserters, and so on. Ingmar Bergman once said that human characters are always interesting, animal characters seldom so (it was one of the reasons why he disliked Bresson’s Balthasar), and while Spielberg coaxes an impressive performance out of the several different animal actors who play Joey, it’s the people in the film who bring it to life. A sequence in which the horse falls into the hands of an elderly French jam-maker and his young granddaughter—who must then hide him from marauding German soldiers—is enchanting stuff, and a exchange between two young men from opposite sides of the trenches (they’ve both crept out into No Man’s Land to disentangle the horse, caught in a mess of barbed wire) is classic Spielberg: a moment of absurd, human tenderness set against an epic backdrop. The influence here seems to be Renoir’s Grand Illusion, the ultimate statement on how war and nations divide men who might otherwise be comrades.
The film as a whole could use more of the gentle humor of that exchange; Spielberg is more sparing than usual here in doling out the kind of wit that has helped his best films from becoming too soggy. While the unabashed sentimentality of War Horse is well-handled and highly entertaining, as a whole it could use more dimension, more depth. It’s a handsome film, but it feels slight. When Spielberg is gone, will we remember this as one of his best? Will Academy voters even remember it in a few months’ time?