Warning: Spoilers

Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy and Tom Hiddleston (still from War Horse courtesy of warhorsemovie.com)

War Horse, directed by Spielberg and scripted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, faces the challenge of illustrating the horrors of war through a horse’s eyes. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book and subsequent theatrical adaptation, the film follows the titular horse, Joey from his birth in the Devon countryside, to the muddy trenches of the front lines in France.

It is a cinematically beautiful film, courtesy of longtime Spielberg cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, but there are too few moments when the audience truly feels like they’re seeing events through the horse’s eyes and the humans are too thinly or too stereotypically drawn to effectively provide a window into the WWI experience.

Unlike Spielberg’s previous war films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, War Horse seems to gloss over the reality of war. WWI being the turning point from wars fought on horseback, to the industrialized warfare that carried on through the twentieth century, and now being replaced by an even more detached form of battle in the twenty-first with unmanned drones leveling attacks in faraway lands. It’s a family-friendly version of The Great War, where no one bleeds, and a boy and his horse will be reunited at the end.

Relying on the audience knowing just how doomed so many who fought were is the biggest error the film makes. While there is an admirable effort to show those affected: Young officers drawn from the upper-classes who made their charge, swords drawn and with God and Country in their hearts, never knowing they were literally outgunned by the German forces. The young conscripts who fled the fight. The civilians whose homes and farms were decimated by both battle and the constant pillaging to feed armies. The infantrymen in the trenches who had no personal investment in the war, but who fought and died anyway. The film offers fleeting glimpses, but never gives the characters a chance to be more than props to the message, “War is bad.”

The first forty-five minutes establish the relationship between Joey and Albert (Jeremy Irvine) but weigh the film down in a mawkish, bucolic atmosphere. The sub-plot of an alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) who recklessly purchases Joey, and the threat of losing the family farm to an arrogant landlord (David Thewlis) would have benefitted from a ruthless hand in the editing room and allowed for expansion of the more directly relevant scenes of the war. Emily Watson, as Albert’s long-suffering mother, is tragically wasted in the sequence.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and Joey (still courtesy of warhorsemovie.com)

Tasked with illustrating the blithe valor and nihilistic realism of a cavalry composed of men who were more used to playing polo than being at the sharp end of history, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and Patrick Kennedy deliver lean, quiet performances that seem out of step with the rest of the film. For fifteen minutes, War Horse is a film about a war that nobody really won.

In one of the most economical sequences in the film, the English officers’ journey is shown as mundane tasks imbued with swaggering bravado, a rousing speech to, “Be Brave, fear God, honor the King,” and poignantly, the cavalry’s charge intercut with German soldiers at their guns, and riderless horses galloping into the forest. Unfortunately, it isn’t until the final reel, that we see that economy again. As Joey confronts a German tank, the change in the meaning of a cavalry division from horse to armored machinery is writ large, but the horse’s desperate run through the trenches and barbed wire of no-man’s land is beautifully brutal. The denouement of the film plays out much as the audience expects, even without a familiarity with the source material.

There is a sense of War Horse as paint-by-numbers filmmaking. All of the parts are well-made, but they don’t quite blend together. What should be a stirring homage to a generation of warriors that are all but forgotten, instead feels like a deliberate attempt to manipulate the audience. Instead of reining in the obvious emotional cues and trusting the gravitas of the narrative, Spielberg pulls out one too many tropes and cliché shots. With a final shot that is oversaturated in more ways than one, Spielberg undermines the homage and sense of historical significance he intended.

War Horse is a a beautiful film and successful Oscar bait, (judging by recent nominations) but it’s not the great film about The Great War, that it should be.