Anti-War Horse plods through epic

. May 2, 2012.
ReelAnnArbor

There are only a few things wrong with the new film “War Horse.” It’s not a war movie and it’s not about a horse. It’s actually an anti-war movie with a horse used as a device to take us from one side of the conflict to another.

The action takes place during World War I. We’re thrust behind trench warfare lines, first with British and then German forces and finally amidst French civilians trapped in the battle zone. We get there by following the escapades of Joey the horse, who is conscripted into the British cavalry, captured by the Germans and then ridden off by a pair of youthful deserters onto a French farm.

Joey, and his equine colleagues, are ridiculously human in their reactions. When one of Joey’s horse buddies is forced into a task so onerous it would take his life, Joey shakes his mane and charges forward, as if to say, “Take me, I’ll die in his place.”

Once, in movies like “Spartacus,” human beings were so noble they were willing to die for the friends they loved. Now, animals have taken their place.

The humans are, well, a bit challenged. They charge into machine gun nests with bayonets fixed on their rifles, shoot boy soldiers who shy away from the battlefield, and steal everything they can from a helpless old man and his granddaughter, including their pots and pans. A French butcher even tries to get his mitts on Joey.

Another oddity about this “war movie,” is that unlike previous Steven Spielberg epics, there’s not a lot of gore. People die, but bloodlessly, like they did in 1950’s westerns. While there is a scene of a bombed-out trench, and a hospital full of wounded and bandaged soldiers, the doomed mostly fall down artfully on the landscape. The one harrowing scene takes Joey into no-man’s-land, a strip of earth dividing the combatants, in a desperate attempt to escape the crazy humans. He leaps over soldier-filled trenches and runs directly into barbed wire. He’s hopeless entangled and wounded by the barrier until one German and one British soldier appear and cooperate to free him.

There’s not a lot of subtlety and plenty of emotional manipulation in this movie. Obvious lessons are detailed one after another.

After his touching WWII epic, “Saving Private Ryan”, I expected more from Steven Spielberg. The message of the film seems to be wars are really bad, the people who fight them are doltish clods who just go along to get along and animals are our moral superiors.

It says something about the recent quality of movies that “War Horse” was recently nominated for a “best picture,” Golden Globe from the Hollywood Foreign
Press Association.