The great tactical advantage of men on horses doing battle against men who are not came to a gruesome end during World War I—a monumental change in technology that is shown in all its tragic majesty when a British cavalry troop charges bravely into the midst of a German encampment and are summarily mowed down by machine guns. It’s a triumphant bit of filmmaking, but such sequences don’t set the tone of War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s uneven adaptation of the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. Even as the film provides ample evidence of Spielberg’s talent behind the cameras, it flounders and wallows in the sentimentality—some of it jarringly contrived—that it is the director’s signature flaw. But when it comes to capturing horses in action, War Horse soars, and almost literally, as in a climactic sequence when the title horse, a thoroughbred named Joey, is maddened by combat and escapes at full gallop, crashing through barricades and tearing through barbed wire. The intensity of the cinematography is such that you can almost hear Joey’s equine version of “I’m getting outta here if it kills me.”
But Saving Private Black Beauty this isn’t, which turns out to be unfortunate, since Spielberg’s stated aim of not making a war movie is at odds with the fact that much of it occurs within the horrific confines of trench warfare, and indeed, it is most moving when showing the contributions of horse conscripts, such as hauling heavy artillery until they dropped in their tracks. But that’s after Joey’s earlier life being raised on a small farm in the English countryside. His owner is a troubled drunkard (Peter Mullan) who puts the fine-boned animal to plow, to the dismay of his loving caretaker, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the farmer’s son. Though the farmer’s cruel rampages while under the influence are meant to be redeemed by the revelation that he drinks to numb the pain of an old war wound, the unbelievable unpleasantness of Joey’s farm existence is a downer from which the film never recovers (apparently, Spielberg was trying to graft on a remake of How Green Was My Valley). David Thewlis as a villainous landlord and Emily Watson as the farmer’s doting wife are wasted in this unfocused set-up. Before Joey can die under the yoke, he is requisitioned by the cavalry, and Albert can only hope that his beloved horse friend will survive until he is old enough to enlist and find him.
Joey’s tour of duty takes him across the battle lines of Europe, and includes an idyll with a French jam maker and his granddaughter, an interlude that exposes the ungainliness of trying to make an all-ages, hope-filled, antiwar statement of brotherly respect without borders. The more than half a million British horses that were killed in the conflict deserved better.