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Movie Review: War Horse

December 25, 2011

Upon watching a trailer for War Horse a few months ago, my first thought was, “I will never be able to see that movie.” I’ve heard that many grown men have been reduced to openly sobbing while watching the play (that used puppets, for God’s sakes). How on earth could I make it through the movie version directed by Steven Spielberg? Face it, when he wants to, Spielberg knows exactly how to rip your heart out. Watching an animal protagonist suffer through the horrors of war hardly gives the viewer a fighting chance at composure.

However, muster up some steely resolve and pack the tissues or you will miss out on one of the most beautifully filmed epics of the year.  War Horse features a strapping horse that embarks on a sad journey; passed from owner to owner after he is sold to the cavalry during World War I. As the steed finds himself thrust into one unfortunate circumstance to another, Spielberg gets to show us several different aspects of the war. We see the consequences and sacrifices of war on the battlefield, in the civilian population, and of course within the massive population of horses recruited to serve in the war in some capacity or another.  The horse (named Joey) provides for a unique storytelling opportunity.

Joey falls into the hands of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his poor family in rural England when Albert’s father, the town drunk, loses a bidding war with his landlord.  Consequently, the family finds themselves upside down with a horse unable to do the grueling work necessary to sustain their farm. It falls upon Albert to train the Thoroughbred to plow a field, or the family loses everything. Albert painstakingly trains Joey, the two bond, and against all odds they manage to till the field, shocking the entire village. Despite their triumph, Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry behind Albert’s back, and the two are separated.

Joey becomes an officer’s mount, a workhorse, a pet, and a throwaway destined for death over the course of the war. A magnificent black horse named Topthorn shares many of his adventures. Meanwhile, Albert has enlisted in the war, and we see his experiences from the battlefield. Albert and Joey come maddening close to reuniting while they are living parallel lives.

Spielberg has sanitized the visceral gore that was so pervasive in Saving Private Ryan, but we still experience the horror of war. Particularly disturbing are the scenes showing the aftermath of an attack. There is a giant field littered with dead horses and soldiers. It’s sobering enough to get the point across. It’s also very hard to watch later scenes in which we see how disposable the workhorses were. If they stumbled on the job, they were simply put down and dragged into mass graves.

The cinematography is stunning. Early scenes capture the sprawling English countryside with rolling acres of green, cobblestone cottages, and blue skies. War scenes are drab and washed out, and many take place at night. A stunning sequence involves Joey making a break for it, only to become hopelessly entangled in barbwire. His silhouette wrapped in the prickly wire is highlighted against a moonlit sky. Stunning. The next morning, one British and one German soldier meet in the middle of no man’s land (the name given to the wasteland between the two army’s trenches) to free the flailing horse. It’s a rare light moment, and shows that the two soldiers are essentially the same, even though their countries oppose one another.

The most breathtaking moment is when the British army bursts forth from a field of tall wheat to charge the Germans.  Hoofs thunder as they approach the tree line, and suddenly many of the horses no longer have riders. The horses continue running into the forest, with stirrups and reins flapping in the wind. It’s a wonderful moment of filmmaking, and the visuals are what this film will be remembered for.

It’s obvious that Spielberg tried to make this a family friendly film, but it is fairly intense.  It is a beautiful story about a man and a horse that I believe will become a classic. The human cast is good (Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Niels Arestrup) but the real star is the horse. It’s one of the best performances by an animal I’ve ever seen.  A soaring score from dependable John Williams accentuates the dramatic and the quiet moments.

War Horse was first a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982. It was adapted into a stage play in 2007. Now Spielberg has made one of the most memorable animal movies of our time.

Rating 4/5 Rated PG-13. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Lee Hall, Curtis Richard Curtis (screenplay). Based on the book written by Michael Morpurgo. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Niels Arestrup.



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