The handsome, soppy War Horse allows Steven Spielberg, now in his mid-60s, to check a few more items off his bucket list. The director of Saving Private Ryan makes his World War I movie, borrowing from the anti-war works of Lewis Milestone, notably All Quiet on the Western Front. He continues his reverence for John Ford, with a particularly obvious visual homage to The Quiet Man that bookends the film. And, ever the rank sentimentalist, he fashions his takes on Black Beauty and The Black Stallion with a story about, yes, a boy and his horse.
Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a soddy, snockered farmer in pastoral Devonshire, England, needs a plow horse to save the family farm but instead squanders 30 guineas on a feisty foal, later named Joey. Reared by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), Ted's son, the half-thoroughbred turns heads by tilling the farm's rocky pasture, but once the turnip crop is washed out on the eve of the First World War, Ted sells Joey to the British army over Albert's teary objections.
The four-year odyssey that follows chronicles Joey's stint on the French front, beginning as mount for a captain (Tom Hiddleston) in the English cavalry and continuing with other adventures including harsh service in a German artillery unit where exhausted equines are regularly and brutally put out of their misery.
Spielberg adeptly captures the transitional nature of the Great War, one of the last fought with horses and swords. During a mounted cavalry charge through a German encampment, a British commander responds to the sound of machine gun fire from a nearby tree line with a look of stunned horror. Spielberg's depiction of trench warfare and fierce slogs across muddy battlefields is far less bloody than Saving Private Ryan, but it still effectively conveys the war's brutality. Eschewing any overt nationalistic bent, War Horse hews to its mission to demonize war, not people.
War Horse is held together by a glue of Spielberg schmaltz that's easy to stick with until it fosters a series of false endings and tidy contrivances. However, even the sappy slow spots are varnished with exquisite art direction and Janusz Kaminski's brilliant cinematography. War Horse is a strikingly beautiful motion picture in the most classic sense, unaided by 3-D or other visual accouterments of our age. It is the work of an august filmmaker who shows he still has a thing or two to teach the new generation.