I was right there alongside the title horse, captivated from opening frame to the close of the film. It wasn’t until the lights came up in the theater that I had the distinct feeling that I had been manipulated by the best. Steven Spielberg knows how to speak to audiences; he is a master at drawing the chosen feelings from his audience members. The problem with this effective method in the case of War Horse is the point behind it. We can all understand the point of a difficult film like Schindler’s List or even Saving Private Ryan, just like we can understand the viewing enjoyment of E.T. or Jaws. But where does War Horse fit in? It has little to say about war beyond the abuse of animals, and there is little enjoyment to be found with so much abuse to the animals dominating the storyline.
Although there are human characters within the storyline, the only constant throughout the film is the silent protagonist. This horse is first bought by a farmer, despite being better suited for a more luxurious lifestyle as the horse of a rich man. The initial friendship between a young man and this horse sets the backdrop for the remainder of the film, during which the horse is put through dreadful scenario after another in the battles of World War I. The horse’s name is Joey initially, but he changes owners so often throughout the war that names become insignificant.
War Horse is based on the Tony award-winning Broadway play, fully realized in the cinematic mind of Spielberg. There are some magnificently sweeping moments of cinematography which make it difficult to imagine this story onstage. Then there is the overwhelmingly manipulative melodrama which appears inexplicably at every turn of the film’s storyline. This would be much easier to accept in theater, where a certain level of disbelief suspension is required to begin with.