War Horse | Film review
Having delivered his trademark action flick (this time animated, with The Adventures of Tintin), the still-prolific Steven Spielberg delivers a very different work of cinema with War Horse, a sweeping epic that looks and feels very much like old-school Hollywood from start to finish, from the gorgeous location shots to the narrative arc to the hefty themes. War movies can be tough to watch (including two of Spielberg’s most respected films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), but the director takes pains with this forebodingly titled film to introduce the costs of war in a rated-PG-13 manner that avoids showing actual moments of grisly violence, while at the same time not shirking from their horrors.
The tale—a fable, really, given the almost magical effect our equine protagonist has on the humans whose lives he touches—comes from a 1982 young-adult book. Written by Michael Morpurgo (former Children’s Laureate of the United Kingdom), War Horse lay dormant for years until suddenly bursting back into popular culture in 2007 with an acclaimed stage adaptation in London (now Tony-lauded and still running on Broadway), which in turn inspired the film. It’s not hard to recognize the allure of the story, which is—make no mistake—very much Joey the horse’s, even though it’s told from the perspective of the humans around him. But no other character gets more screen time than Joey, born with a distinctive white burst on his forehead.
In fact, that’s how the film begins, with Joey’s birth in the lush, expansive English countryside, early in the 20th century. The story’s primary human, farmer’s son Albert Narracott, quietly witnesses the horse’s arrival on the planet; soon afterward, his father—the alcoholic, proud Ned—buys Joey at auction for more money than the struggling family can afford. This sets up a very familiar conflict between the moneyed class and the working folk, drama given an anchor by the excellent Emily Watson as Mrs. Narracott. And the captivating newcomer, Jeremy Irvine, delivers a soulful performance as wide-eyed, almost-too-noble Alfred.
Although the first third of the film focuses on the drama within the family, fate has much more in store for Joey than the struggle to plow, sow and harvest. When World War I descends, our hero soon gets conscripted by the British Army. We won’t spoil too much—let’s just say that, as a result of the war, Joey really gets around (even ending up with another name, Francois); so too does Topthorn, his BHF (best horse friend), a handsome black stallion. (In case you're wondering: Fourteen different horses portrayed Joey, with four playing Topthorn.)
Some people will surely grumble about the story, which hinges very much on how much you care to suspend your disbelief about the intelligence and heart of a horse. That’s why I label the story a “fable.” Your mileage may vary, but I was more than happy to go along for the ride.
Of course, every parent naturally must consider their children’s sensitivity level, but in terms of what we actually see on the screen, the film is less violent than plenty of video games and cartoons. On the other hand, because this is live action and because Spielberg shows us the consequences of war-driven violence, War Horse will probably have a stronger impact. Overall, it’s safe for most kids ten and up, as long as you’re prepared to have some deep conversations about the world we live in.
Powered by the gorgeous cinematography of Janusz Kaminski (a frequent collaborator of Spielberg’s), the film’s visuals drive home the deathly price of war without having to show Private Ryan–level brutality. The gorgeous, color-drenched shots of countryside that establish the film’s initial mood slowly give way, during the course of 146 minutes, to bleak, gray expanses. About midway through, at the conclusion of the first battle scene, Kaminski’s camera slowly pulls back, giving an ever-wider perspective on the aftermath of the deadly attack (an echo of Gone with the Wind’s famous crane shot, of Scarlett O’Hara seeing countless wounded and dying soldiers in Atlanta).
If anything in War Horse strikes a wrong note, it’s not its treatment of violence or the almost-manipulative emotion-tugging (although the film goes over the top in its final two minutes, sadly venturing right into into Saccharine Land). Late in the film, the class-based antagonisms return, emphasizing an unfortunate, overly pat division between the characters. Aren’t foxholes supposed to be the world’s great equalizers? This bit of classism mars War Horse, where the German soldiers are portrayed more even-handedly than the wealthy Brits.
In the end, though, this is a stunningly crafted and beautiful work of art, one that manages to be its own paradox: a family film about war.