War Horse (Sue)

Rating:

Spielberg Goes Through Horse Phase

Main Cast: Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Horse

Director: Steven Spielberg

Unlike other girls, I did not go through a Horse Phase.  No room covered with horse posters, no desperate pleas to my parents to buy a horse, no drawings of horses on all my notebooks.  I was more practical and stuck with cats – far easier to obtain and keep in the suburbs.  But I’m not without a heart; I understand the lure of the majestic beasts.  And when Steven Spielberg decides to combine equine with warfare I’m more than willing to shell out $5 at the discount matinee to see the result – War Horse.

Set in 1914 Britain, War Horse begins with a farmer making the ill-considered purchase of a thoroughbred horse instead of a sturdy work horse for his farm.  Over his wife’s desperate pleas, he decides to keep the horse and lets his son train and work with the animal, which more than proves its mettle as a beast of burden.  Soon war arrives and the horse is sold to the cavalry.  We follow the horse on its perilous journey through WWI, seeing both sides of the conflict and the havoc it wreaked on both man and beast.

Spielberg makes the decision to follow horse rather than man through the film.  Though the original farmer (Peter Mullan), wife (Emily Watson) and son (Jeremy Irvine) get more screen time than any other humans, our protagonist is decidedly Horse.  And the horse is magnificent.  It’s hard to tell what’s real and what are special effects – always a good thing – and the abuses suffered by the horse at the hands of both humans and war are amazingly well rendered.  There are portions of this film that will be difficult for those with tender animal hearts to tolerate – the horses depicted here were not harmed, but those that served in WWI most certainly were.

The most successful aspect of War Horse is the depiction of WWI.  We’re now far removed from the conflict in years and the notion of trench warfare will be foreign to some viewers.  Spielberg has proven before that he has a remarkable talent for making wars past feel immediate and horrifying and his depiction of the horrors of WWI is no less harrowing than his earlier portrayals of WWII.  The stunning ugliness of the trenches and the appalling waste of life (both human and equine in this case) are brought thoroughly home as we watch the horse battle with both German and English forces.  Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who also filmed both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) are masters of dropping a war in your lap and leaving you breathless with the fear, destruction and desperation felt by those who live through and die in armed conflict.  It’s beautiful and horrible.

War Horse also has significant issues.  It’s deliberately manipulative, implausible and melodramatic.  It relies too heavily on audience investment in a horse rather than offering developed human characters.  The actual story arc is rather childish – the sort of thing of which a girl in a Horse Phase would wholeheartedly approve.   At its best it’s a novel and gorgeous depiction of the horrors of WWI.  At its worst it’s a gorgeous depiction of a trite fairy tale version of Horse Love.  Those two traits do battle throughout the film, leaving it an overall average experience.  On some level my brain likes the fairy tale but on another it rebels against the forced simplicity.

Overall, War Horse ends up being just average.  It’s beautifully filmed and offers a stunning depiction of warfare in WWI.  But the story itself is childish, blatantly emotionally manipulative and implausible.  It’s worth a $5 matinee, but not the Oscar nomination it received.

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