The movie tells a sentimental story but refuses to contend with World War I's horror in a serious way
War Horse, Steven Spielberg's maudlin epic that opens in theaters on Sunday, tours World War I's Western Front through the eyes of a a hoofed conscript. Joey, the beloved plow horse of a Devon teenager named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), journeys to front lines with the British cavalry, hauls weaponry for the Germans, and finds a temporary home in the French countryside. While the occasional scene keeps tabs on Albert as he fights in the trenches, Joey is Spielberg's star and guide.
To hear Spielberg tell it, though, War Horse isn't about war.
The director made this point loudly at a recent press junket, where he spoke about his approach to War Horse's source material, a children's novel that was later adapted into an award-winning play. Asked a few questions about World War I and violence in war movies, Spielberg let fly:
"I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first World War. I didn't know very much about it. And I also don't consider War Horse to be a war movie. This is not one of my war movies. This is much more of a real story between the connections that sometimes animals achieve, the way animals can actually connect people together … To me it's much more creative to not show it than to show it. It's much easier to show somebody's arms and head and legs getting blown off than it is to do it in another way. I really was challenged by that and enjoyed trying other ways, to not just earn a PG-13 rating but to make this appropriate for families to see together."
Watching War Horse, you can see what he was talking about. Spielberg conveys violence without depicting it: an officer charging into battle juxtaposed against a rider-less horse leaping over entrenched German guns, a pair of deserters executed at the precise moment a windmill blade hides their bodies from camera's view.
But this is part of the problem with the film. War Horse so wants to be family-appropriate that it loses sight of what it is: a war movie. At no point does it consider as anything more than textual asides the horrid conditions of trench warfare, or the endless ruck marches, or the enveloping fear that comes with foreign occupation, despite placing itself squarely within each of those environments. Instead, Spielberg opens up his lens, shoots the land that surrounds war's devastation, and concerns himself with Joey's next stop. Once Joey and Albert fall into each other's orbits, their story of reunion almost justifies set piece after set piece that merely nod toward war. Yet it falls flat. If Joey's meant to connect people, and these people are shaped by the war around them, how can War Horse expect to reasonably depict them without an honest portrayal of that war?
Now, it's unlikely that the guy who recreated Normandy and all its visceral horror—using scenes that saw more than a few arms, heads, and legs are blown off—thinks his previous war epics were creative failures. Rather, Spielberg's interview answer seems like a polite way of saying, "I'm Steven Spielberg. I made Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. When I make a war movie, trust me, you'll know it." His directorial approach to War Horse, though, rings hollow. He may have taken pains to shun the gruesome facsimiles that are common in the genre, but he still leans on wartime conflict to draw out the best and worst aspects of each character. In this vision of WWI, a brave mounted officer (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes an arrogant, anachronistic cipher for the pitfalls of romantic warfare. Others, while also staring down the barrel of weapons, reveal heretofore-unseen courage, viciousness, and cowardice. War Horse introduces all of them as blank slates or dry archetypes, only to shape them—with varying degrees of success—according to their grim experiences. So while Spielberg rightly suggested that gore and violence are not necessary components to this particular movie, he still chose to include characters molded by their involvement with war. And those? They turn up in every war movie.
An old Francois Truffaut adage goes, "There is no such thing as an anti-war film." Perhaps there's also no such thing as a film that includes war and isn't also about war. By engaging the topic of war, as Spielberg does, he implicitly says something about it—even if he doesn't mean to, or if he intends to focus elsewhere. In this case, War Horse pits industrialization against tradition, tanks against horses, shown in Joey's evolving role as cavalry, pack horse, and sentimental icon in the trenches. The movie also questions the merits of nationalism through the use of a German foot soldier (David Kross), who fights to keep his patriotic younger brother (Leonhard Carow) off of the front lines. His story is brief, but resonates skepticism well after it concludes. These issues, while troubling and grim, are central to the war Spielberg tours in War Horse. Joey literally sprints past them.
We catch glimpses of the war too, when Albert's hometown friend (Matt Milne) panics inside the trenches, or when Joey maniacally runs through coil after coil of barbed wire. But Spielberg uses cinematic polish to wipe away anything too difficult or grisly. The truth is that movies like War Horse can be feel-good and grim, inspiring and suspenseful. To do so requires a director willing to challenge us about our uncomfortable histories—as Spielberg did with Empire of the Sun—rather than plumb conflict for the sake of dramatic tension. That he doesn't reach those creative heights again is disappointing.
Contrast War Horse's disintrest in its own war with Spielberg's demonstrated World War II fetish: He explores Semitic revenge in Munich, American exceptionalism in Saving Private Ryan, and the plight of Polish-Jewish refugees in Schindler's List, to only name of few of his World War II films. When Spielberg says that War Horse is not a war movie, it's easy to compare it to his other work and agree. After all, the movie looks nothing like his "real" war movies. Nevertheless, War Horse must be considered a war movie because of the role World War I plays in dictating its every step. It's also a coming-of-age story, a period piece, and a love story. Spielberg's refusal to own up to that complexity, though, reveals more about the movie's flaws than any label ever could.