Rearview Mirror: “War Horse”

“War Horse”? More like “Why Horse”!

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2021. I’m so happy you’re here.


Not being the church-going types, my family had, before COVID, a Christmas Day tradition of going out to a movie, and if there was a new Spielberg in theaters, as there often was, we usually saw that, because it was usually unobjectionable. That’s how I saw The Terminal (forgettable), Lincoln (good), Bridge of Spies (unnecessary, but had its moments), and The Post (an unforgivable waste of on-screen talent). But none of these movies elicited in me as strong a reaction as did 2011’s War Horse, one of the first prestige movies I remember vehemently denouncing. I came out of the theater livid. Millions of people died in World War I and we’re supposed to care about a horse? The horse doesn’t even care about the war! It has no idea what the plot of the movie it’s in is (also one of Forrest Gump’s many sins). Like, at one point he’s a horse for the Germans. 

And why was it so long? I found the title vaguely ridiculous, and for a while repeated “this war horse is a war horse” in a broad British accent, which I thought was, like, really funny. I still think it’s kind of a bad title—it reminds me of The Rural Juror. The movie lacked everything I like in movies. Nothing unexpected happened, there were no jokes, there were no love stories, and I didn’t even learn anything. It was literally just a horse goes to war and comes back.

At the time, you may remember (though if you don’t, all the better) that War Horse was also a wildly successful play, which I saw the following spring on Broadway (well, at Lincoln Center). The play’s main attraction was the enormous puppet playing the horse. Well, there were people inside doing the actual “playing,” it was really more of a multi-person costume, but theater has a weird hard-on for puppets that I’ve never understood (though the puppet was not the most objectionable part of Annette, which says something). Anyway, the on-stage production of War Horse certainly had its moments, but once you’ve seen and appreciated the horse puppet…there’s still two hours of the play left. The puppet doesn’t get better. You just…watch the puppet go to war and then come back. Well, at one point the horse makes a friend, so there are two puppets. I thought it was boring.

The movie lacked everything I like in movies. Nothing unexpected happened, there were no jokes, there were no love stories, and I didn’t even learn anything. It was literally just a horse goes to war and comes back.

In the play and the movie, I liked exactly one scene, and it was the same scene in both: the horse, Joey, gets caught in some barbed wire while running across No Man’s Land between the German and English trenches (Joey can do everything but jump over stuff), and one soldier from each side helps cut him free, putting their differences aside and finding common ground in the humanity of the horse. It’s touching, and though the movie takes place in 1918, it made me think of the 1914 Christmas truce, one of the only romantic moments in the bloody, gassed-up war. Good scene, 10/10, no notes.

In the decade since, my staunch anti–War Horse stance has led to arguments with two of my closest friends, both of whom maintain the movie is good. My friend Zoe, who is literally studying film for her Master’s degree, chewed me out over text, writing that Joey is “A METONYM OF A BRIGHTER WORLD.” I think the more apt term is “symbol,” but fine, Zoe, we’ll use your word.

So, as 2021 draws to a close, I sat down to revisit the movie, confident that I would not find it a misremembered masterpiece, since I don’t remember anyone talking about it for the last 10 years (except when I fought with my friends), and if it was nominated for Oscars, I don’t remember and I won’t look it up. And it turns out I was…mostly correct.

War Horse is too long, not very original, full of clichés and obvious foreshadowing, and, ultimately, about a horse. It’s also kind of a kid’s movie. Even the Germans are painted a bit sympathetically—young, scared boys who didn’t have a choice in whether to enlist, trying to keep their friends alive. It’s based on a novel for young readers, who often find animal protagonists helpful in complicated stories (hence, Pixar), and it’s meant to be a family film, so, OK, I forgive it that much. Kind of. The moral is “Don’t give up hope” (and also “Be nice to horses so they save your life”), which is pretty reductive unless you’re a kid, but without depicting any violence the movie would be tantamount to a lie about war. It’s rated PG-13, and I don’t know how to solve that small quandary. Can you make a war movie for kids? Spielberg tried.

Now, when I say the protagonist is a horse, that’s a little facetious. The protagonist is the horse’s owner, and the movie plays out in a series of almost-vignettes, with Joey being the connective thread. Wherever he goes, he inspires mercy, because he’s a very special horse, yes he is. They talk about how special the horse is a lot. Whether the horse is actually special…I guess I don’t know how a regular horse would act in any of the given situations, so it’s hard to tell. I never felt particularly strongly about the horse during the movie, except in certain scenes when it got “scared,” because the actual horse on set must have been scared. Spielberg used very little CGI in this flick and, I dunno, I don’t like to think of horses being scared. I like animals. I’m still thinking about Jean and Jorts.

The moral is “Don’t give up hope” (and also “Be nice to horses so they save your life”), which is pretty reductive unless you’re a kid, but without depicting any violence the movie would be tantamount to a lie about war.

With an open heart and an open mind, I can see why other people like this movie. That’s not the same as saying I like it. It provides a comforting narrative about the preservation of innocence and the ultimate triumph of the pastoral idyll. That’s not a message I’m particularly interested in exploring, and given that Spielberg has made so many other, better movies about the tragedies, heroes, and nuances of war, I find War Horse completely unnecessary. But that scene with the barbed wire is good, no two ways about it. In fact, the last 30 or so minutes of the movie works well, given that we have something clear to root for that the movie can actually accomplish: the reunion of Joey and his owner. But the first 40 minutes, before the war starts, is treacly, and the past war stories aren’t much better. And, yes, on two occasions it is explicitly stated that the character driving the scene is more interested in the well-being of the horse than of humans.

I no longer find the movie deeply objectionable, but I can’t recommend it to, well, anyone. Especially when this exists. FL

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