Movie Review: War Horse

by Scott Manning on December 26, 2011

War HorseSteven 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.


  1. Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 103. []
  2. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944), 308. []
  3. Ibid. []

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 KarieAnn December 26, 2011 at 5:59 PM

I’m torn!!! I love horses and I’m a history enthusiast.
I’ve been waiting for this movie to come out, and enjoyed your review. After reading this article to my husband and teenage son, we had a great family discussion regarding the use of horses in war from the 20th to 21st century. (I’m the only one of the three that holds such a degree of affection for the horse.)
I plan on seeing the movie in the theatre. My son will probably wait and rent it.


2 Scott Manning December 26, 2011 at 6:01 PM

KarieAnn, I would venture to guess that you are the target audience for this movie. You will not regret seeing it in the theater!


3 Ken January 2, 2012 at 5:25 PM

Well I wish I had read this before seeing the movie. Scott is right–there is more horse than war in this movie. Alot more! If you can make it through the “getting to know you” portion of the film that focuses on a boy and his horse, then the rest is more tolerable. That said, the whole thing could have been about 20-30 minutes shorter.


4 Richard Williams April 2, 2012 at 11:16 AM

Hey Scott – nice review. I believe the DVD is being released today. I’ll be watching some time this week. My daughter, son and daughter in law a big “horse people.” My son works as a farrier. Can’t wait to see it.


5 seabee April 27, 2012 at 2:26 PM

The 2 areas that would have some historical interest and accuracy about “Warhorse” is
uniforms-equipment-weapons and trench fortifcations.British army trench construction was dead on right with planking boards both nailed vertivally and horizontally.Trench depth looked about the standard 8-9 feet with shallow dugouts for command and communication.German trench construction was also accurate.Germany spent most of WWI on defense so they built defense in-depth as shown in the movie with bricks and cement.Command/communication dugouts were also concrete.The changes from beginning of the war from caps/picelhaubs to steel helmets in the movie indicating the war is getting longer and more dangerous is interesting.


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