Steven Spielberg, for all of his virtues regarding craft, vision, and storytelling ability, is a coward. Perhaps the greatest coward of all, given his near-fanatical devotion to the sunny side of life. Who else among us, when faced with the monumental slaughterhouse of the Holocaust, would choose instead to focus on the few lives that were saved? Or, while scanning the blood-soaked horizons of World War II, would damn the torpedoes and ask us to stand tall with a single manís obsession with having lived a good life? And then thereís the incomprehensibility of slavery, reduced to a mutton-chop filled courtroom of musty declarations. Or a tale of lesbian awakening, sanitized in favor of slapstick, applause lines, and Oprah Winfrey slappiní white bitches. Now, at long last, the Master has tackled the Great War, perhaps the one conflict in human history so bizarrely byzantine that no two historians agree on its cause or consequence. And yet, for all the millions of lives lost and complex political machinations, it stands to reason that Spielberg would strip it all away in favor of a boyís love for a horse. Not just any horse, mind you, but a super horse. One that just might be the resurrection, given its endless trials by fire. And it damn well better be a Christ substitute, lest we have that moment of clarity whereby the entirety of our 146-minute ordeal is reduced to a clunky tale of zoophilia.
And yet, even had our hero Albert been transformed into some sort of Edwardian Mr. Hands, War Horse would still be Spielbergís most self-indulgent mess of sticky sentimentality; a film so off-putting and saccharine that I hated it from the very first frame. To be honest, I also hated it on the drive to the theater, and perhaps ever since the first time I saw the trailer, but Iím always willing to have my expectations violated. Instead, about the only thing violated was my cinematic sensibility, and perhaps my naÔve insistence that Spielberg could choose a project that didnít believe a handshake between a father and son wasnít somehow more life-affirming than being gassed, stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned and living to tell the tale. At bottom, Spielberg is continually refighting the pains of youth, and while a sane society would cast out anyone so inclined to slot barbarism on a lower rung than distant fathers, we, apparently more enlightened, bestow Oscars on such saps. And here, with this fatal injection of fructose, he just might win another, as if the highest expression of artistic virtue is a boy of 1914 vowing to the heavens that when 1918 arrives, he will find his prized steed amidst the dizzying death house of Europe. Millions of men and horses went to the meat-grinder during those years, but here, with a laser-like focus, we can forget about them all, for we have one of each, both strong and attractive and bound by the fates only a hack screenwriter could provide.
Curiously Ė or perhaps not, given the provocation to hang oneself that defines them both Ė thereís the strong scent of Forrest Gump throughout War Horse, only the thoroughbred is the feather this time around, floating and neighing from battlefield to barn, changing lives with but a flash of teeth or hoof. He is first brought to Albert by an auction, though the purchase is quickly regretted by Albertís father, who is just the sort of man who, because of pride and drink, is about to lose the family farm. But just as a disgusted dad is about to put a bullet into the horse (named Joey), Albert swears by the angels that this beast will, in fact, plow the field and produce the crop that keeps the landlord at bay. Itís a scene of majestic power, unless of course youíve actually seen a movie or two and are no longer moved by tsk-tsking neighbors walking away, only to return when the horse up and does the job to a soaring John Williams score. Still, the joy is short-lived, as war comes to England, and a desperate pop sells the horse to the military. The soldier who buys Joey swears by those same angels to bring the horse back to his true owner, even if, well, he dies during the warís first battle. Thankfully, two plucky German kids find the horse and, rather than see it (and Joeyís companion horse who exists only to die later so that Joey might live) destroyed, they go AWOL, hiding out on a French farm.
Now if I told you that War Horse threw in everything but a sickly girl, Iíd be lying, as the horseís next encounter is with, you guessed it, a sickly girl. Before her appearance, however, Spielberg goes full-throttle pussy and, during the German boysí execution for desertion, uses a conveniently timed windmill blade to block the moment of death. Yes, even now, when Stevenís kids are approaching 30, the weepy old fart canít kill a child onscreen. Itís the same impulse that caused him to re-edit E.T. by replacing guns with walkie-talkies, and the very one that will ruin the fuck out of the upcoming Lincoln. And so Joey comes into the little girlís orbit, and the moment we hear she is not allowed to ride a horse because of her fragile bones, we know that she will in fact ride, like the wind and into the sunset, if necessary. Only her ride is directly into the enemy camp, and once again, Joey floats along the waters of his destiny. And while the soil stinks from the rot of horsemeat, Joey is taken under the wing of the one kind German soldier who sees only love in the eyes of this snorting giant, and thereby saved for another caretaker, who just happens to be the guy who will make sure this horse steps by thousands of dead and dying human beings to get precious medical care.
Before that, however, Joey runs like lightning, through trenches, over tanks, and hell, into the sky like Elliott and his alien. Despite not being shot in a no manís land that had a 99.7% mortality rate, the horseís journey is interrupted by barbed wire. And so he waits, struggling to gain his freedom, until such a time that he is noticed by soldiers from two opposing sides. Waving the white flag, the British and German men meet in the muddy mess of no manís land to free the horse, and thank the stars the German speaks English. They bond, peeling away the trap, and when wire-cutters are required, a dozen are thrown up from the trenches, much to the thinking-manís dismay. But the audience roared with delight, so who am I to challenge Spielbergís unmatched talent for cheap pandering? Donít you see? When the guns fall silent, even for a moment, these two men chat and joke like old friends. And so would they be, were it not for this blasted war. Itís a clip of gut-wrenching silliness, but exactly the one weíll see come Oscar night. Sure, the pretty brown horse had the power to erase borders and artificial divides among fighting men, but can the little bugger win the peace? Perhaps a sequel will see Joey shipped to Paris for the negotiations. Maybe President Wilson can feed him a carrot as he gallops through the Hall of Mirrors or something.
At long last, Joey comes home to Albert, though not before one final brush with death. You see, Joey is badly wounded, and the doctor wants him shot. A gun is cocked, put to the head of the horse, and then, a sound. Youíll know it well, as itís the same sound we heard when Albert was training Joey to be a good boy. The horse turns. Again, that call in the darkness. Albert is still blindfolded, what with his encounter with mustard gas, but he knows his horse is near. The gun again. The call. Holy shit, the horse begins to walk towards the light. The crowd of men parts like the Red Sea, though this is not enough proof for the brass. Kill the horse, they cry, until Albert proves it is his horse by describing his markings. But the markings are covered! Kill the horse! No wait, let me wash away the mud. Blast it all, it IS the horse! The boy speaks truth. Blessed Jesus, I once was blind, but now I see. Only before man and beast can lie together forever in love and good tidings, Joey has to be sold one more time in order to come full circle with another auction, a collection among the men, and the return of the old man whose little girl so loved the horse for so brief a time and is now dead. Albert returns to the farm, riding atop his one great love, and the sunset bleeds John Ford from every last pore. Father and son reunite, love redeems, and all is well. It is 1919. Peace is at hand. Thank God Almighty thereís nothing around the corner to tear this pair asunder.