Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is a different type of war movie that focuses on animals instead of people. The following are some thoughts with no plot spoilers.
The most important aspect is the main character–the horse. Although there are people in the movie, the horse gets the most screen time. The movie works hard to focus in on the horse and capture emotion. The approach is successful some of the time while the most grueling scenes involve the animal struggling or appearing hurt. Although it does not cry, you feel for the pain it suffers. As such, anyone who loves horses will love this movie. If you are one of those people, do not even bother reading the rest of this review. Just go see it.
There is a decent amount of war scenes, but the actual fighting is minimal. Spielberg does a good job of depicting some gruesome aspects of war without showcasing the carnage. The movie leads the viewer up to impacts and then highlights the aftermath from a distance. Do not expect a Saving Private Ryan type of experience. This is a horse movie, not a war movie.
For the rest of us non-horse lovers, there are some things to consider. Surrounding the entire movie around a single horse is an interesting approach, as few of us tend to consider the lives of horses when it comes to war. I recall talking to a horse enthusiast at South Mountain who quoted a figure of 1.5 million dead horses because of the American Civil War. World War I saw roughly 16 million horses called to action and after four years, roughly 8 million of them died.1 One of my favorite bits of trivia is that the largest import to French ports during the war was horse fodder.2
Ironically, the emphasis of horses in war is both the movie’s strength and weakness. The scenes of horses pulling artillery indicate that the world was far away from mechanized warfare during this war. However, in the backdrop of these scenes are not more horses, but numerous trucks transporting men. This is baffling, as most men, equipment, and supplies moved by train, foot, or horse drawn carriage during World War I. The latter two were the most common. The necessity of the horse continued through World War II. Consider that during the First World War, Germany procured roughly 1.4 million horses, but in the next world war increased that number to 2.75 million. Most of these died.3
The large numbers are meant to drive home the point that although the movie does a great job of emphasizing the existence of horses in war, it does a poor job of emphasizing their importance. Without exaggeration, the armies of World War I could not operate without horses. The movie missed an opportunity.
As for the human actors, they are non-consequential. The “main” actor is reminiscent of Charlie from Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory–too damn innocent and naive to be believable. The way the movie focuses on the horse, the emotions of the humans become secondary such that the viewer feels very little for their plights.
My recommendation is see it now, if you love horses. Rent it, if you are a history enthusiast.