War Horse (2011)

Greg Says: They just don’t make them like that anymore

Title: War Horse (2011)
Rating: 9/10
Date: 3 January 2012
Recommendation: See it in theaters
Helpful: 5 out of 13 found this helpful.

It’s 1914 and young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine, “Live Bites”) is the son of turnip farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan “The Fixer”). His father makes a fool-hardy purchase of a thoroughbred horse (Joey) to be used as a plow horse. The animal is spirited and clearly unique amongst its peers for its beauty and strength. The landlord threatens to foreclose on the farm unless Ted brings in the turnip crop in the spring. Albert and Joey defy all odds and plow the rocky field to the cheers of on-looking villagers. However, the crop fails and to pay the rent, Ted has to sell Joey to the British army as the onset of WWI requires horses for the cavalry. Albert volunteers, but at the tender age of 14 he is turned down. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, “Midnight in Paris”) promises the boy he’ll take care of Joey. But he can’t keep his promise as he is killed in his first battle and Joey falls into the hands of the Germans. And we’re off as Joey is passed from one owner to the next through the duration of the war.

If you’ve ever seen the classic epic films of the 1930’s and 1940’s you’ll get a sense of what you’re in for when you go to see “War Horse.” Think of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “The Quite Man,” or “Gone With the Wind.” The scenery is vast and lush. The story spans years. The characters grow through their interactions not only with each other but with the times they are in.

Spielberg has a lot of experience filming battle scenes (“Saving Private Ryan”) and none of it is wasted here. The battle scenes, especially those involving the horses, are exquisite. One thing that is of interest is that we never see anyone actually killed. We see all the events leading up to the death, and the events immediately after, but I don’t recall anyone being killed on-screen. Perhaps Spielberg was specifically trying to avoid a strong comparison to his earlier work.

Joey, the horse, is painted as a beast with immense heart. In some other director’s hands the horse would be a mere vehicle to tell a story. It is too often that an animal turns into a caricature: Either drawn too thinly to be empathized with, or so broadly such that it is a cartoon (see most Disney features from the seventies). But here, Joey is a fully developed heroic character. Joey cares about his owners as they also care about him. We come to recognize the sacrifices Joey makes in favor of those around him and we cheer in his successes and wither in the face of his perils.

This is a coming-of-age story. In fact it is a collection of coming-of-age stories with Joey knitting them together as the thread of a quilt. We witness young Albert train Joey, then save the farm, then lose his beloved animal. Then Joey goes on to serve the Captain who puts too much trust in his friend and senior officer. Next he escapes with two German boys. And he tries to learn to jump fences with a little French girl. And so on.

It is also the story of a loss of innocence, not so much for Albert and the other young people Joey’s life touches, but for Europe and the entire world. The war starts in 1914 with the British cavalry charging, swords drawn, only to be faced with automatic guns. Then, as the war progresses (and Joey’s journey progresses), we see ever more advanced military armaments: machine guns, mustard gas, and long range artillery. By the time the war is over in 1918, the state of the world has gone from quiet, warm and organic to cacophonous, cold, and mechanized.

If I might have any complaint, and I have scarce few, it is that the ending to the story is also borrowed from the 1930’s classics. Without spoiling it for you, I will only say that this part of the screenplay seemed to have been given the least amount of attention. I had a hard time suspending disbelief and accepting that these events could really have happened

So, for a movie filmed in the classic style with all the action of “Saving Private Ryan,” and heartwarming animal love of “Old Yeller,” yet told with a certain eye toward the innocence of those early movies, I heartily recommend you “see it in theaters.”