I have a particular interest in World War I, so War Horse was destined to affect me emotionally regardless of the plot. It was perhaps the most tragic war in human history with the most severe loss of life (10 million casualties!) and yet it lives constantly in the shadow of its younger, more popular brother. Sure, Germany was ultimately held responsible, but that's primarily because they lost. No flashy villains like the Nazis or the kamikaze pilots. Just machines guns mowing down scores of soldiers barely out of the trenches (on both sides) sandwiched between long days of exploding shells and little to no forward movement. Intense. If any of you have read All Quiet on the Western Front you know what I mean. It's one of the only books that made me sob uncontrollably. Some of my favorite war films are World War I films.
Starting from when the horses were pulling the guns up the hill, I was utterly transfixed. The battle scenes, with their sharp contrasts and flashes of light, took on an almost black-and-white quality. The horse rushing through the barbed wire, the soldier walking in silence across the pockmarked landscape to save it, the enemy soldiers with the barest thread of shared humanity holding together a tenuous peace between them...this is good stuff, and like Brandon points out, classic filmmaking. I don't know how anyone can see these things and not be moved. Now think about the bright colors in the beginning and then end of the film. Too gaudy? Perhaps. But not bright enough to overcome the darkness of war.
Sure, it's a Hollywood film. But don't be fooled by the meaty steaks Spielberg's throwing to the mainstream filmgoing public. Spielberg knows what he's doing, and there's much more to War Horse than meets the eye.
I could say more about what I liked about the story apart from the battle scenes, but that impressed me less. I mean, it's all good stuff, but meaty mainstream steaks--which are delicious, but too much can give you a heart attack.
Since you liked my glasses analogy, Brandon, there's another one you're free to start using as well.