In the early chapter of the epic War Horse, it seems as if Steven Spielberg is up to his old spiel, a sin or a gift, depending on one’s take on his work. We have the kindly but overblown John Williams orchestral score, a dramatically anemic and smug narrative style, and a WWI-era melodrama replete with an evil landlord (David Thewlis, a virtuoso of all things evil). Will our sweet and determined young hero train his thoroughbred horse to plow the fields and keep the family farm in the English countryside? Insert yawns and eye-rolling.
Fast-forward to the film’s final chapter, and you might find yourself convinced that War Horse could be Spielberg’s masterpiece, at least in the family-friendly blockbuster department, and certainly one of the greatest horse-as-protagonist films ever made. In this close encounter of the equine kind, based on a children’s novel and stage play, the sometimes mawkish but visually stunning tale follows a horse through various scenery and tragic historic settings. The horse in question, a mute but wholly empathetic character, is the vehicle through which we experience the horror of the Great War, and the resilience of humanity in adverse situations.
One of the film’s virtues, in fact, begins once the story — as well as the horse — heads into battle. Spielberg once again shows his special flair for dealing with the subject of war, with its horrific realities in the mud and blood and the irony of the decorum of soldiers. A few scenes here seem destined to sear into the collective cinematic memory: a battle of swords versus Gatling guns; scenes portraying the grisly meaninglessness of trench warfare; a meeting, nodding directly to All Quiet on the Western Front, in which foes meet on the battlefield in an effort to save an embattled horse.
In the end, War Horse is an epic with a surprisingly sturdy and profound arc, in spite of its shamelessly sentimental asides, and a film that reminds us that Spielberg is at his best when dealing with family fare. He’s a masterful craftsman rather than an artist, as such, and knows how to push the right romantic buttons to appeal to our inner child. With his latest, even the less horse-inclined among us are duly served with tear-stung emotionality.