I am not sure what the limit is for the amount of personal interest one is willing to invest in a story about a horse, but I feel two and one-half hours exceeds it by a comfortable margin.
Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is a beautifully photographed, classically told story that is regrettably weighed down by schmaltz and its own hefty duration. Though the film has moments of grandeur, its overall effect is tiresome.
The story follows a thoroughbred named Joey who is reluctantly sold to the British army at the outset of World War I. Throughout the war, Joey traverses both sides, witnessing the horrors of combat as well as the humanity of the combatants, until he once again crosses paths with his owner.
“War Horse” is filled with broad cinematic gestures, from silhouettes against the sunset to dramatic crane shots of vast panoramas to sentimental close-ups backed by the swell of an orchestra. It is additionally saddled with broad themes, such as friendship, war and hope.
Unfortunately, these gestures and themes are so broad they verge on impersonal. One cannot help but get the feeling this film is a compilation of several others built around the same broad gestures and themes.
Spielberg’s film is by no means a failure, as it does have a handful of poignant moments, but it certainly does overestimate the ability of a horse to carry an entire feature-length film. (Anthropomorphism only goes so far.) And the film also has, perhaps, too hopeful a vision of war and humanity.
There is a photograph from World War I that I remember distinctly. It depicts a dead horse in a tree, placed there by the aftermath of an artillery shell. It is a disturbing image that highlights the absurdity and destructiveness of modern warfare. For “War Horse” to place so much sentimentality on the survival of one horse seems like folly. Millions of men were consumed by that war. It does not make it any better that a single horse was returned to its owner.
Devin Vaughn, a former Princeton resident, resides in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.