A Steven Spielberg Double-Feature Part II — War Horse
When I first saw the trailer for War Horse, I dismissed it almost immediately. Something about the swelling music and the dramatic shots edited together rubbed me the wrong way, as if the trailer was screaming for us to understand that THIS IS A SERIOUS (read: Oscar-bait) FILM!! Equally unappealing to me was that, on the other hand, what appeared to be a story about the adventures of a miraculous horse seemed to be to be incredibly silly and childish. If the words “a Steven Spielberg film” hadn’t been in there, I would have immediately resolved not to see the film.
But there’s just no way that I can miss seeing a new film by Steven Spielberg on the big screen, and I’m glad that I didn’t write this film off because War Horse, while not a masterpiece, is a very solid film and a much different type of story than I was expecting.
The weakest part of the film is the first thirty minutes or so. That’s the part of the film that is most like what I feared the movie would be. A boy forms a miraculous bond with a beautiful horse, and then that amazing horse plows the field that everyone declared was impossible to plow. Now, I’m no farmer, but the film presents us with two pieces of information that every character accepts as fact: that, a) the horse Joey is far too small to be a plow horse of any kind, and that b) the rocky field is considered to be un-plowable by even the biggest, best plow-horse. So, of course, Joey is able to plow the field, which brings us right into fantasy-land. I was worried.
But then World War I breaks out, and the boy, Albert, loses his horse to a young man going off to war, and the film really begins. I was worried that War Horse was going to be the adventures of this amazing horse at war. Luckily, though, with one small exception (the scene in which it seems that Joey volunteers to pull the heavy artillery, in order to spare another, injured horse), the film is not about the heroic actions of an anthropomorphized heroic horse. Rather, Joey is the vehicle for telling a series of different vignettes about World War I. As Joey passes from owner to owner, and the war progresses, we meet various different characters on all sides of the conflict (British, French, and German) and so are presented with stories covering a wide range of the spectrum of experiences (mostly pretty horrific) faced by men and women during the course of that terrible conflict. That’s a pretty clever idea, actually, of using Joey as a device to lead us through all these different anecdotes, and once I realized that was going on I was able to sit back and really enjoy the film.
(I will note, here, that I am unfamiliar with both of the film’s source materials: the book by Michael Morpurgo and the play adapted from that book. So I am judging this film solely on the film itself.)
War Horse is a surprisingly tough, grim film. Pretty bad things happen to pretty much all of Joey’s owners (which is why he keeps passing to new owners). Now, we’re not in Saving Private Ryan territory, by any stretch of the imagination. Mr. Spielberg doesn’t show a lot of gore in the film. But there are still a number of really harrowing sequences, particularly when we arrive at the trench warfare glimpsed late in the story. Even when the violence occurs off-camera (such as the fate of the two young German boys who, for a short time, possess Joey), the film doesn’t flinch from making clear what happened to them. Even one of the vignettes that ends without anything too horrific happening, that of the young French girl and her grandfather, is given a tragic twist later on in the story. (That moment is, to me, by far the saddest scene in the entire film.)
It’s fascinating to see Steven Spielberg — a man so known for telling stories about World War II (the Indiana Jones films, 1941, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun) — exploring the first world war. War Horse covers a lot of territory, and it’s interesting to watch the film shift into different tones and styles with each new vignette. As can always be expected from a Steven Spielberg film, each new sequence brings a parade of talented actors and actresses. Tom Hiddleston (so marvelous as Loki in last summer’s Thor — click here for my review) was compelling as the young British soldier who purchases Joey from Albert’s father. He shows Albert a moment of surprising kindness, right after purchasing Joey, that I found to be extremely powerful. It’s a well-written moment, and Mr. Hiddleston sells the hell out of it. I was also quite taken with the work of Niels Arestrup as the kindly French grandfather. His monologue about courage (a snippet of which was used in the film’s trailer) is a compelling moment. I was also quite taken by the work of Toby Kebbell as the British soldier who winds up working together with a German soldier to rescue Joey from a horrifying tangle of barbed wire in the “no man’s land” between the British and German trenches. It’s a lovely moment in the film, and while it might be as much a fantasy as Joey plowing the un-plowable field, it’s a lovely fantasy and a delicate ray of hope in the midst of the carnage of the WWI battlefields.
I certainly wouldn’t rank War Horse among the best of Steven Spielberg’s films, but that still allows it to be a very well-crafted, engaging film. It’s not one I’ll be rushing to own on DVD so I can re-watch it a million times, but I’m glad to have seen it. It’s a strong piece of work from a filmmaker who still knows how to craft an epic fable about war and adventure better than pretty much anyone else out there.