Monday, January 2, 2012

Love: War Horse

When I was small, I loved animal films with an unbridled enthusiasm.  Don't pretend you didn't.  Like most kids desperate for a pet of their own, I was fascinated by films highlighting the bonds between humans and animals.  Give me a Black Beauty or a Cheetah and I'd watch it five times in quick succession, leaving behind sketchbooks like crudely illustrated menageries.  I still love animals, but as the years have gone by my interest in their cinematic exploits have lessened.  Strings of sappy dog movies and depressing environmental fare have left me believing there's something to that old "never work with animals or children" line.  Depending on the species, the films tend to come out like carbon copies of the last successful outing, and everything I'd seen on War Horse appeared desperately schlocky. Everything about it seemed custom made to illicit heart wrenching emotion: a noble beast, the dregs of war, death, suffering, and families torn apart.  I mean, damn, Steven Spielberg, feeling transparent much?  It shouldn't surprise you that War Horse is in many ways the horse movie you might expect from Spielberg.  It exists at a cross section of his 90's and 00's specializations in a state of elegant confusion.  War Horse is an overtly sentimental ball of flaming family cheese in one moment and a brutal, beautifully photographed expose on the horrors of war in the next, but, in all things, the horse is always the magnificent (though occasionally far-fetched) center, the skies are open wide, and we find ourselves believing perhaps in spite of ourselves.

I will echo that old refrain: if you think War Horse is a movie about a horse, think again.  What it's really about is war and all the vast canyons of physical and emotional damage it leaves in its wake. The horse is merely the recurring character in what amounts to a short story cycle of small atrocities. It draws, in a sense, from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty to give us sweeping stories of an animal and its many riders; the good and the bad, moving from struggle to struggle with the words all but coming straight from the horse's mouth.  Keep in mind War Horse was originally a children's book as well, and before it begins its meandering journey, it opens in a way befittingly wide-eyed.  Our stallion is born in a picture-perfect English countryside, knighted 'Joey' by his absolutely obsessive boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and bonded to him forever through what the film assumes are shared travails.  Albert's father is a well-meaning drunk, and an unpaid debt leads him to separate horse and teen as the country goes to war, leaving the boy running about madly blaming dad for taking away his BFF while Joey begins his European tour as a cavalry horse in WWI.  From there it twists and turns, opening one story as another closes too soon or begetting an additional subplot while a few remain in action.  There are some phenomenal short vignettes buried in War Horse's trenches that snap us back to reality moments after Spielberg drifts too close to an eye roll or improbable astonishment.  While the wider picture and Albert's recurring plot line occasionally feel strained to the point of contrived (they're very classic Disney), the small moments show us something we haven't seen before, and allow Spielberg to be bold in unexpected ways that pull what could be a tonally uneven film into alignment.  This is a war movie. This is what happens in wartime. Everything is in the grey.

War Horse's biggest strength is perhaps its old school nature.  Without veering towards the territory of straight homage, it's clear that Spielberg aspires to the epic proportions of cinematic greatness pushed at by John Ford or Victor Fleming.  Everything about War Horse evokes the technicolor grandeur of that Western freedom, though this is Europe, and consequently the stuff of storybooks.  There's an artificiality cast on everything that reads like the lightworks on a Thomas Kinkade print. The cottages and fields appear in a golden hue that makes them impossibly rich and appealing while the trenches are darkened by deep shadowed undertones (nevertheless crystal clear).  It's a big film with big goals and a very old fashioned, pure heart.  What could easily have been a sugary mess is handled largely with thought and care by Spielberg, who has laced the film with realistic violence without losing sight of Joey.  War Horse is bound to be beloved.  It's hard not to feel good about the whole thing as you take in that fiery sunset. Yet, while War Horse is a great deal better than it perhaps ought to be, I worry that a second viewing may heighten the sneaking sense I have that it's a little bit too full of its own calculated optimism.


  1. I think "War Horse" definitely IS a movie about a horse - at least, relatively speaking. When most people think of movies with horses, they exist as catalysts for a human journey (this according to Steven Spielberg himself). Yet "War Horse" is truly about this horse and his journey home. But I think there's room to debate.

    Excellent review!

  2. Not a debate worth having, in my opinion. You're correct, relatively speaking, it's absolutely a movie about a horse. Yet, the very idea of the horse as catalyst for the human journey makes it significantly more than the "animal" picture many audiences tend to shy away from...

  3. The stage recital of War Horse sees Joey turn from shaky foal to full-grown adult before the audiences very eyes.


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