Millions of horses died in the Great War. The image of those enormous and elegant, muscular and lithe bodies collapsing, terrified, cut up, scattered, tangled in wire, rotting across muddy European plains alongside the unfathomable numbers of human dead and dying is a very powerful, poignant one. It isn’t difficult to understand how storytellers would be drawn to it. I haven’t read Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, so I can’t attest as to whether or not it works on its own, but as adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, adapted into something that doesn’t feel much like a children’s movie (except that it feels naive and oversimplified), and adapted in such a manner that the horse is no longer the centre of the story (and instead fills that centre with corny stock characters), War Horse is astonishingly hollow, simultaneously mechanical and sentimental, faux-innocent, and thus secretly cynical. In short, it brings out the worst in Steven Spielberg, whose direction of actors has never been more leaden (he gets what I can only hope will be the worst, most strained and artificial performance the normally great Peter Mullan will ever give), whose camerawork has never felt more thoughtlessly money-coated (he seems to need a crane just to shoot inserts), and aesthetically droopy (there’s a closing day-for-dusk shot that has to be seen to believe how ugly it is). It may be the nadir of Spielberg regular John Williams’ long career of composing wildly over-animated scores; every time anyone so much as smirks it’s like E.T.’s flying past the moon.
Perhaps Spielberg felt that War Horse would be a return to past glories; after tackling Normandy, he could now sink his teeth into the Somme (from the Holocaust to The War of Worlds, nothing seems to charge the elder Spielberg’s batteries like colossal, senseless death counts). Indeed, Joey, the thoroughbred-turned-plow horse-turned-war horse, becomes something of a Private Ryan. Everything stops, literally, to tend to him. Brits and Germans meet in the middle of a corpse-strewn battlefield and band together to rescue Joey from a lonesome, slow demise. A field doctor stops attending to a glut of agonized wounded soldiers just to help Joey. At some point, the magical aura surrounding this horse and the way it prompts everyone to ignore all else becomes, arguably, kind of offensive.
It doesn’t help that the horse is just, you know, a horse. There’s nothing all that cinematic about him. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński have no special way of rendering him charismatic. I adore horses, but just sticking one in front of a camera doesn’t make me instantly teary-eyed; the fact is, their allure, the particular nature of their features, isn’t easily captured on film... But really, I’m just struggling to make sense of why War Horse is such a dud. I think rather than generalize or theorize I should just say that this is one of those pictures where, scene-by-scene, over the course of its grueling runtime, you’re sort of baffled by all the small, wrote, bad choices that slowly accumulate: the lame comic relief (a goose), the forced emotions, the speechy dialogue. Spielberg, so much more at home with lighter material (E.T., Catch Me If You Can), has gone to war once more, and this time he really got creamed.