A Movie Review

of War Horse (2011)


By Lance Zedric

War Horse (Dreamworks Pictures) is a cinematic and historical onion. Peel back one layer and another appears. Going into the movie expectations were high. After setting a lofty bar with  Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and others how could they not be? Nobody has brought military movies to the silver screen better than Steven Spielberg, and his record proves it. But I also had my doubts. For decades Spielberg has enthralled millions with his creative genius and ability to tell a good story, but I could neither exorcise the equine demons of “My Friend Flicka,” “National Velvet” and “Francis The Talking Mule” nor wrap my head around the premise of a horse being the star of a war movie. Armed with a large tub of buttered popcorn and a battalion of skepticism, I hopped on War Horse and went for a ride.

War Horse begins in pre-World War I England where Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a hobbled, financially strapped, and often-drunk farmer attends an auction to buy a workhorse to plow his stony field, but instead gets into a booze-inspired bidding war against his snooty landlord and buys Joey, a spirited thoroughbred, who is ill-suited for fieldwork. The farmer’s teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is smitten with the horse, and prevents his father from killing him when he is unable to pull the plow. Young Albert then trains Joey to do so and temporarily saves the farm but the tension between father and son is clear.

Albert’s mother, Rose (powerfully portrayed by Emily Watson), reveals to Albert that his father was wounded in the Boer War and still carries emotional scars from it. She then gives Albert his father’s tattered regimental pennant that he had hidden in the barn. The pennant is crucial to the story and serves as a symbolic and emotional thread that weaves the characters together past and present.Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and Joey

That summer the war begins, and just as the turnip crop is ready to harvest, it is ruined by heavy rains and Narracott is forced to sell Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an honorable British officer who promises to return Joey to Albert after the war is over. Albert is devastated, but dutifully ties his father’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and sends him off to war.

Shockingly, Nicholls is killed in his first battle and Joey, along with Topthorn, another officer’s horse, is saved by two young brothers serving in the German Army. The younger boy is soon ordered to the front while his older brother, Gunther, remains in the rear to care for the horses and to help transport wounded soldiers. Fearing that his younger brother will be killed, Gunther snatches him from the ranks on horseback and the boys escape and hide out at a French farm, but they are quickly found and shot for desertion. The horses, however, are left and discovered by Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young ailing French girl who lives with her grandpa, brilliantly played by Niels Arestrup. Like everyone else, Emilie is smitten by Joey, who brings happiness to her and her grandpa, but after a short time the horses are recaptured by the Germans.

For the next few years, Joey and Topthorn must pull heavy artillery pieces, and with the help of a horse-loving handler, Joey survives the brutal tasks but Topthorn dies. Shortly afterward, during an attack, Joey runs away and becomes trapped in no man’s land where he becomes hopelessly entangled in barbed wire. British and Germans troop watch from opposing trenches as Joey struggles. Under a flag of truce a soldier from each side emerges from their trench and helps free the horse, all the while sharing a few moments of friendship.

Joey is safely returned to British lines but a field doctor determines that he must be put down because of his wounds. In typical Hollywood fashion, all is saved when a temporarily blinded Albert, who has since enlisted and who miraculously hears the interchange from his hospital bed. Just as a sergeant is about to shoot Joey, Albert rises from his bed over a hundred feet away, parts the crowd, and identifies Joey’s markings, thus convincing a doctor to spare the horse.

Most directors would have ended the movie here, but not Spielberg. He added yet another twist of the emotional knife deftly illustrating how military bureaucracy, the same of which has existed in every army everywhere since the beginning of time, raises its ugly head and decrees that Joey cannot return to England with Albert and again must be sold at auction. Despite a hefty collection taken from the men of the unit, Albert is outbid and Joey is ultimately purchased by Emilie’s grandpa, who is devastated by the death of his granddaughter and buys the horse because of the love she held for it. Enter the pennant, which Albert identifies as his father’s. The grandfather realizes that the horse did belong to Albert and is so moved that he gives the horse to him.

The movie concludes in a breathtaking display of cinematography reminiscent of David O. Selznick’s, Gone With The Wind, with a touch of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life heart wrenching sentimentalism thrown in for good measure. Young Albert returns home upon Joey and reunites with his parents in a touching scene that any serviceman or their loved ones can appreciate. It was here that I about fell out.

Militarily, War Horse doesn’t disappoint. It fills a cinematic void in the realistic representation of battle conditions in World War I. Namely, mud and more mud. Barbed wire. Trench warfare. Gas attacks. Deadly artillery.  And in one of the movies’ more dramatic scenes, British cavalry hidden in a wheat field, mounts a spirited charge at a German garrison wielding sabers reminiscent of the charge of the light brigade, only to be mowed down by German machine-gun fire like the wheat from whence they came. This scene, more than any other, represented the transition from the antiquated warfare of 19th century Europe to the horrors of the modern battlefield. Equally impressive was Spielberg’s choice to give the film a Eurocentric flavor, which more accurately represents the essence of World War I and provides American audiences with a relatively cursory look at the war from German, British and French perspectives. But one bullet does not a musket make.

War Horse has all the elements of a great movie but the whole is not the sum of its parts. Though formulaic and often predictable, War Horse had enough of the right stuff to connect to viewers on several levels. The human element is strong. The acting, both human and horse, is superb. And the battle scenes are well-choreographed and visually stunning. The ageless father-son conflict coupled with the greater message of enduring love and loyalty resonate and drive the movie. But it has too many ingredients and does not suspend disbelief. Watching War Horse, which ran 146 minutes, was like eating a double stuffed supreme pizza smothered in extra cheese (or corn). One leaves the theater viscerally gorged and emotionally satisfied, but intellectually wondering what they just ate. Worth seeing. 3 out 4 stars.