With tough and difficult movies such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Amistad’, and ‘Munich’ one might forget that Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest film director that has ever lived, can still deliver general, all encompassing, easily accessible fare that still manages to feature grand filmmaking in almost every aspect. I think that last Indiana Jones movie was supposed to be something along those lines, but far be it for me to criticize arguably the greatest film director that has ever lived. ‘War Horse’ however is that movie. A majestic, grand film crafted by artisans who know how to make big, pleasing, heart tugging films that might not challenge one intellectually all that much, but lifts us up spiritually, which is probably more important anyway don’t you think?
In England early in the twentieth century, a horse is born. A young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) sees the young colt and instantly falls in love… in a completely non-bestial type of way… but the horse doesn’t belong to the young man as he admires it from afar. The colt grows up and it’s time for the owners of the horse to make some money off of this beautiful animal and by chance Albert’s dad Ted (Peter Mullan) needs a horse to plow his field and he bids on this horse. Thing is, this horse is a thoroughbred, a show horse, not a plow horse. Asking this horse to plow a field is like asking a wide receiver to play left tackle. You know I love me some football analogies. Regardless, Albert is overjoyed that his dad brought this horse, unlike his mother (Emily Watson) who believes that her husband has ruined them all by overpaying for a show horse that is incapable of plowing a field. Albert thinks he can make it work and he sets about the business of training his beloved horse with some amazing success, even training this long, lithe horse to plow a field like a field has never been plowed
But alas circumstance forces this families hand, and with World War I on the horizon the horse christened Joey is sold into service, with Albert swearing that they will be reunited once again. Thus begins Joey’s journey through the world. A kind Army Captain (Tom Hiddleston) cares for Joey, leading him into battle. I’m no great war strategist, but if I have a sword and the enemy has machine guns, I’m not liking my chances. Joey, who has made a horse friend, then becomes the property of a pair of young German brothers who are forced through circumstance to leave the horses in a barn in France. There the
horses are cared for by a sickly French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) before they are snatched up by the marauding German army for duties not befitting of any creature on God’s Earth.
While Joey’s journey across Europe is going on, Albert still hasn’t given up on finding his beloved stallion. Will the boy and the horse be one once again? How uplifting would it be if this didn’t happen, right?
The challenge to enjoying ‘War Horse’, particularly for the hard-hearted cynic, is simply letting go and giving in to it. The director pulls and prods and pushes and pokes at you to elicit some kind of emotional response from his audience, and ‘War Horse’ is fairly shameless in the way it goes about this. You could fight it, ignore the sweeping landscapes, turn your nose up at the spunk that comes from the sickly, but tough as nails French girl, resist the flawlessly shot Rockwellian images that only a director like Steven Spielberg can stage and you could plug your ears to shield yourself from the great John Williams and the manipulative score he has provided for this film… or you can just let go, give in to the moment and enjoy watching this director and what he does best. It’s not subtle, as not a lot that Mr. Spielberg does ever is, but it is damned effective.
The story which consists of something similar to individual vignettes stitched together by a common theme might seem at the outset as something unwieldy, but the way this story was told and the style in which the set pieces is welded together was masterful. The story flow, through the soul of the horse who is the main character, moved seamlessly forward hitting all the right action and emotional cues. The performances by the variety of actors were spot on, not unexpectedly considering the high level of pedigree that comes with a film of this nature and the actor assembled, and this is despite the fact the majority of these actors aren’t much more than accessories to the plight of the horse and its various external influences. The cinematography is amazing, the action sequences are crisp and thrilling and Steven Spielberg can direct a war sequence with the best of them giving us some ‘Saving Private Ryan’-lite action styled sequences.
If one were to search for something to criticize about ‘War Horse’, again we can’t argue against the fact that it’s designed for a large audience which as we mentioned before doesn’t deliver the most challenging film around. Some of the situations coupled to the musical cues were so blatantly manipulative that it’s hard to ignore that they are there, even if you have given in to magic of it all. Also, though I wouldn’t know because I’m no expert on WWI warfare, there are those out there who were downright insulted by the way certain aspects of battle were presented here. But again, that would’ve been lost on me.
Regardless of all of that, ‘War Horse’ is an extra large dose of crowd pleasing filmmaking on the largest scale. A wonderful cinematic experience accessible by audiences no matter where they come from or how old they are.