War Horse (2011) Review

Spielberg is back, and he’s ready to play on audience’s heart strings with a cinematic showcase of some of his best talents.  War Horse is classic Spielberg: sweeping vistas, epic story with a backdrop of war, and most of all, an open heart.  This story about a horse changing hands during the first world war melds the horror of conflict with the best of humanity.

We begin at the beginning, over an emerald landscape in Ireland as the young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches what will become his future horse, Joey, being born.  When his kind but alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at auction by bidding dangerously high against his own landlord (a moustache twirling David Thewlis) it puts the Naracott family in dire straits.  Joey isn’t a stocky plough horse, he’s a thoroughbred, and they need to plough and harvest the field or they will lose the farm.  After Albert emotionally bonds with Joey, and trains him to plough, they nearly save the harvest.  But it isn’t enough, and Ted is forced to sell Joey to the military in order to rescue the farm, despite Albert’s tearful objections.

The rest of the film is the journey of Joey as he keeps switching owners by the hand of fate.  He spends time with the English, the French, and the Germans, becoming the Forest Gump of the horse world, seemingly popping up everywhere.  It is a tribute to Spielberg that he does not paint “the enemy” in broad caricatured strokes of evil.  Rather, the English and the German soldiers become relatable characters entrapped in a conflict not of their own creation.  Both sides spend equal time in the miserable mud and cold, hunkered down in attempts to avoid bullets and gas.  Joey’s presence brings out the best in everyone, and serves as an excuse to exercise these poor souls’ suppressed compassion.  The story shows that this horse, and the love of animals in general, makes human beings better people.

In fact, in what could be the best scene of the film, a German and English soldier work together on the battlefield to help Joey through a life-threatening problem.  A scene of cautious overtures by sworn enemies may seem hard to believe in the hands of a lesser director, but Spielberg makes it a believable, touching moment that audiences will remember.

As strange as it sounds – this horse is a terrific actor.  As well he should be – over fourteen of the best horses Hollywood has to offer played him.  But for most of his close-ups he was played by a horse named Finder.  Finder seemed to respond to his human actor counterparts – making eye contact, responding to voice and touch, and expressively vocalizing his “horse feelings” for lack of a better word.  He’s a natural and joy to watch.

Spielberg films War Horse in an old-fashioned style reminiscent of classics such as Gone With the Wind.  Colors are vivid, with the sky a brilliant turquoise blue painted with blindingly white clouds.  Landscapes are shot with a full sense of depth and color in images that could pop straight out of a storybook.  And fans of Spielberg, if you are familiar with his signature “reaction shot” – you will see plenty of expressions of amazement and wonder on actor’s faces in just the first twenty minutes.

War Horse’s  biggest weakness is related to its strength – an old-fashioned Hollywood approach.  There are few surprises here, and nothing exactly “edgy.”  It is a Hallmark card of a movie, with stunning images and a sweeping score meant to evoke a different era of movie making.  Though parts of the film are moving, it is not quite a tearjerker.

Nonetheless, War Horse is a gripping tale that sticks to the basics and finds at its heart a portrayal of how compassion lifts everyone higher.  Such a lack of cynicism can be shocking and alien in today’s films, and it’s certainly a pleasure for an artist such as Spielberg to explore themes of compassion across such an epic backdrop.  It’s not just a horse – it’s an opportunity to feel something and believe in something greater than one’s self.  For that, War Horse is worth it.