Tuesday, January 03, 2012

War Horse / ***½ (PG-13)

Albert Narracott: Jeremy Irvine
Ted Narracott: Peter Mullan
Rose Narracott: Emily Watson
Lyons: David Thewlis
Andrew Easton: Matt Milne
David Lyons: Robert Emms
Captain Nicholls: Tom Hiddleston
Maj. Jamie Stewart: Benedict Cumberbatch
Gunther: David Cross
Michael: Leonard Carow
Grandfather: Niels Arestrup
Emilie: Celine Buckens
Friedrich: Nicolas Bro
Geordie Soldier: Toby Kebbell

DreamWorks SKG and Touchstone Pictures present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play by Nick Stafford. Running time: 146 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence).

What is war to those who live through it? Hollywood has for years told us what war is to the soldier. What it often misses are the details that go on around and in combat zones that are more ordinary. Where do all those horses come from? The horses used on the battlefields are real enough. They must’ve existed without the war, but when a horse dies on a battlefield, we don’t really think much of it. It is just a tool of the war machine, a cog in the wheel of progress, or freedom, or whatever is being fought for. But, hasn’t Hollywood also taught us that every little piece of life affects many others?

Steven Spielberg’s new film “War Horse” tries to reconcile the notion of the little sacrifices in the grand scheme of our world. Its story is taken from a 1982 children’s novel of the same name and a London stage play that uses puppetry for the central character of the story, a horse named Joey. That’s not to say the story is so much about the horse as it is about many different aspects of life in wartime. Spielberg’s film uses the horse to give us an overview of many different lives that are touched by this “miracle horse” and therefore the war.

Set during World War I, when some people estimate that over 8 million horses served both sides, “War Horse” follows Joey’s life from birth. Throughout the course of the movie, we will follow the horse from pre-war England, through the war and various European countries to arrive back in post-war England. Joey will touch many lives during the course of the war and we will glimpse how the war impacted Europeans’ lives through the different people who become chapters in Joey’s life.

First, there is the boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who witnesses Joey’s birth and forms a special bond with the horse that will eventually find them reunited at war’s end. Albert’s father (Peter Mullan, “Red Riding”) foolishly purchases the horse in a bidding war with his landlord (David Thewlis, “Kingdom of Heaven”). Albert trains the horse and against all odds turns him into a plow horse to save his family from eviction. Then the war comes.

Joey is “leased” by an Army captain (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor”) for the cavalry. During battle Joey finds his way across enemy lines only to be employed by two deserting German soldier brothers. When they are caught, Joey is found by a French girl who convinces her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) to keep him. Soon German soldiers raid their farm and take the horses to pull heavy guns. This line of work eventually lands Joey on the front lines, and in a virtuoso action sequence Spielberg shows us just about every horror that exists in trench warfare.

Joey’s journey shows us England’s economic struggle before the war with Albert’s story. It gives us a glimpse into the psychology of the men chosen to be leaders with the cavalry captain’s story. The German deserters show us a side of the Germans rarely seen on film. The grandfather’s story, which has a coda after Albert and Joey are reunited, shows us how the war tore the households of the French countryside apart. When the horses are employed for the German artillery we learn how many resources were destroyed by the warfare tactics of the time.

Finally, Joey takes on a Christ-like role when he dashes across the front lines and he becomes entangled in barbed wire. Joey’s sacrifice brings both sides to a truce as the soldiers’ compassion forces two men from each side onto the battlefield to cut the horse free. The parting words of the soldiers at the end of this scene embody what we all want to take away from a conflict like the world wars. We want to know that it was all for something better than ourselves, that it made us better. Or even more importantly, that it didn’t change our understanding that essentially we are the same in many ways. The guy in the other trench is just like the ones in our trench. He doesn’t want to be there any more than we do. But, such is duty to progress.

This is not a surprisingly original conclusion, and there is not as much here to distinguish this wartime movie from others that have been made beyond the fact that instead of following a person this one follows a horse. Because of this, “War Horse” is not in the upper echelon of Spielberg’s greatest war movies, like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg also plays a little too much with giving Joey and a goose at the Narracott farm a little too much personality to be real animals. Fortunately, the animals’ more human qualities last for only brief moments and don’t distract from the overall effect of the story.

Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”) craft a unique perspective of war here, if not a unique message. They do it by allowing the audience to care for a large cast of characters with only brief introductions to each. The moving on from one story to the next isn’t over sentimentalized by typical goodbyes and departures. Instead, Joey’s interaction with the lives he touches more often end abruptly because of the nature of war and his work tool status in it.

Spielberg uses his skill as emotional manipulator to craft a powerful character arc for a protagonist that doesn’t even speak. The fact that the horse is as much a dramatic tool to tell many others’ stories must’ve been what drew him to this material. Spielberg understands that war and the resources it uses serve little purpose if people aren’t affected by it. 

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