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Review: WAR HORSE

December 25th, 2011 in Reviews by 1 Comment

Sometimes an offering from Steven Spielberg is like a box of chocolates because you never know what you are going to get. Are you going to get The Color Purple or
Amistad? Raiders of the Lost Ark or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? E.T. or Super 8?

Spielberg is taking a big risk with War Horse. Can he take a horse, make you care about
this horse and tell a compelling war time drama of the First World War through that
horse’s eyes? In a word: ABSO-FRIGGIN-LUTELY! Welcome back Mr. Spielberg,
we’ve kept your seat warm for you. Nobody does a coming-of-age film quite like
Spielberg and at its heart that is exactly what War Horse is.

What is incredibly impressive is that Spielberg accomplishes this masterpiece with a cast
of mostly new-comers and actors/actresses not likely to be so easily identified (at least by
American audiences). This film is as pure of heart from pretty much every angle.

Mission number one: Introduce us to the horse and show us why he is so special. Young
Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses a horse being born not too far from his
family’s farm. The foal is a beautiful brown and seems to be quite spirited and strong-
willed right away. He sticks close to mom and learns from her example. He won’t even
take an apple from Albert because his mother does not give her approval. You can tell
that the horse wants to take the apple and be friends with Albert but when mama says no,
no it is. Add in some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see and add in some
music by master composer John Williams and the stage is set; he is a special horse, got it!

Now Spielberg just has to give us a reason to care about this horse. Albert’s parents,
Ted (Peter Mullan) and Rose (Emily Watson) are about to lost their farm. Ted is a gimp
who drinks too much and Rose is a woman who you can tell has had to be very strong
for a long time. They need to get a rocky patch of their farm plowed and planted with a
new crop otherwise their wealthy landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis, Professor Lupin
from the Harry Potter movies and Ralf in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) is going to
kick them off of their farm. Ted goes to a horse auction to acquire his salvation. He sees
the strong willed brown horse and takes a liking to him, even though he is not a work
horse and therefore not the kind of horse he needs. Ted outbids his landlord anyway (30
Guineas to 25) and brings the horse home. This brings out the ire in Mrs. Narracott who
openly questions her husband’s decision and asks point blank, “What are you gonna pull
with that?”

Albert is thrilled of course because he gets to see this magnificent animal again. He
names him Joey. Albert tells Joey,” You’re the best of us, that’s why he bought you.
You’ll save us all.” Although Albert is talking to Joey, it feels like he is talking to us as
well and just like Joey does, we believe Albert too. There is your reason to care folks!

Albert begins to train Joey and their bond is as obvious as it is growing. As you are
watching Albert talk to Joey, at times plead with Joey to put on a harness to plow the
rocky field, you are thinking to yourself that there is no way Joey understands. However,
one look into Joey’s eyes convinces you that indeed he does understand. It’s as if Joey

understands what is at stake here and wants to do his part.

One of Spielberg’s strengths is knowing when to inject a little comedy. One such scene
has Albert riding Joey along the beautiful country-side and racing the landlord’s son,
David Lyons (Robert Emms) who is driving a car along the road. Although Albert wins
the race quite easily he gets thrown off of Joey when they encounter a stone wall. We
learn that Joey doesn’t jump. This sort of becomes our constant, Joey not jumping. It
helps remind us that no matter how serious the film gets, we can allow this idea of Joey
not jumping to lighten things up, even if but for only a moment.

Unfortunately, World War One is coming and things are a-changing. War is hard, it is
ugly and it affects everyone. Joey gets sold into the Calvalry and is heading off to war.
Albert tries to enlist also, to go with Joey but the minimum age for service is 19. The
man who bought Joey, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in Thor), is sympathetic
to the situation and promises to, if at all possible, return Joey to Albert when the war is
over. Albert tells Joey (while reassuring us as well) that he will find him and he will
bring him home.

Spielberg has definitely established the fact that Joey is a very special and gifted horse
but now he has to show us that Joey can be a war horse. During a practice charge, Joey
runs faster and harder than all other horses and allows Captain Nicholls to get the “Blue
Ring” with his sword. Joey is ready.

It appears that battle is imminent which leaves us with a glaring question: How bloody
is this movie going to get? The truth is that the blood and gore are kept to a minimum
in this film. Yes, this is a film about war but it is also a film for families and Spielberg
does a masterful job of navigating that. The focus is on the weaponry and strength of the
German army which Spielberg doesn’t need to resort to bullet holes forcing their ways
through human bodies to prove it.

One of the good messages that this movie teaches us is that not everything is as simple
as good and bad or black and white. One teacher of this particular lesson is a young
German boy named Gunther (David Kross, The Reader). He first convinces the German
army to not kill the horses they acquired from the British, that they can be used to pull
men from the battlefield, act as an ambulance. Joey is prepared for this because of his
plowing days. Joey’s friend, a big beautiful Black beauty named Topthorn, at first resists
but seeing Joey comply convinces him to do so as well. This saved both of their lives
because if the German army had no use for Joey or Topthorn they would have shot them
without a second thought.

Gunther and his brother attempt to flee to Italy on Joey and Topthorn but they only make
it as far as a farm in France. As much as Gunther and his brother were exception to the
rule, the rule still stands. The rule is that the German army as an entity was cold and
unwavering and they hunted down Gunther and Michael and dealt with their treachery
harshly and permanently.

This is where we get introduced to a couple of true innocents in the war, a young teenage
girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and Grandfather Bernard (Niels Arestrup). They
own the farm where Gunther and Michael were hiding out. Emilie is frail in body (so we
are told) but she is smart and funny and full of life, almost reminiscent of Anne Frank in
spirit. Emilie successfully hides the horses (whom she has named after hopeful lovers
who have scorned her) from the German army and Grandfather Bernard explains to
them that they are simple people who make Jam. The Germans take the provisions they
need and leave, promising to be back. Their time on screen may have been minimal, but
Emilie’s and Grandfather’s message rings loudly: Do the right thing, as much of it as
you can, even when you are staring the devil in the face. This story arc can get pretty
emotionally heavy but don’t worry, Emilie learns what we learned before; Joey doesn’t
jump.

Establish Joey as a special horse: Check! Establish Joey as a credible war horse: Check!
Show us that despite blankets of darkness there can still be slivers of light: Check! Now
the only thing to do is bring this story home and give us a resolution.

There will be no spoilers here, at least not any more because you deserve to have the
rest of the movie to yourself. You will learn what happens to Joey, Albert, Mr. and Mrs.
Narracott and so on but you will do it on your own terms. I guarantee you this; you will
NOT be disappointed.

War Horse is epically brilliant and Steven Spielberg, simply put, could not have made it
any better. The acting was sublime, the story telling was inspired and the strong imagery
and emotions evoked by the film will not soon be forgotten by those who experience it.

Do yourself a favor and definitely go see War Horse. You will laugh and you will cry,
but you will leave that theater with a smile on your face and a matching one in your heart.
This film is 5 out of 5 stars and in this film guy’s opinion one of the strongest not only of
the year, but in recently memory as well. This film is a coming of age story about a boy,
his horse and his family and NOBODY does that better than Steven Allen Spielberg.

Author: Mike D

One Comment

Liz Parker - 12/25/2011

Good review, I know you said you had a little trouble writing it. I think Spielberg did much better with War Horse than with Tintin this year.

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