War Horse (8/10)
by Tony Medley
Run time 146
OK for children.
Animals who can reason have been
around in literature for quite a while. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge)
created them in his classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Walt Disney took them to extremes. So, even
though this film is based on a 1982 novel by
Michael Morpurgo and the 2007 stage
play (called "the theatrical
event of the decade"), the
screenplay is by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, and it's produced and
directed by Steven Spielberg,
they all owe a lot of credit to Carroll and Disney.
Morpurgo, Spielberg, and his crew
took that concept and put the human ability to reason in a horse, born
him in pre-WWI Britain, and gave him a loving master,
Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the son of
Ted and Rosie Narracott (Peter Mullan and two-time Oscar® nominee Emily
Watson, both of whom give wonderful performances). In the play the
horses were puppets; Spielberg uses real horses.
To make a too-long story mercifully
shorter, the horse, Joey, is taken from Albert and sent to war when it
Mimicking Jack London, Spielberg
tells the story from Joey's POV, as did Morpurgo. Spielberg is at the
top of his form, though, because he tells the story extremely well and
gets one to believe that Joey actually can reason like humans.
Much of the movie is the moving tale
of the bond between Albert and Joey, and that's the realistic part of
the movie. Clearly a bond can be formed between an animal and a human,
although as one character expresses in the movie, "a horse is not a
dog." This raises the question of how smart a horse really is and do
they really have the same emotional characteristics as a dog. Most of
the evidence is that they do not.
Unfortunately, one of the most moving
scenes in the movie is also the least credible. Joey's best friend
(another horse) is hurting but pulled to the front of a line of horses
pulling a huge 8-ton German cannon to the front. Joey knows his friend
is hurt, so he whinnies, or whatever horses do, makes a lot of
commotion, and runs to the front of the line to substitute for his
In the same scene, Spielberg has been
so successful at capturing our emotions that when the German commander
tells his sergeant to go ahead and use the horses as pack animals, and
work them to death, even though they are tired, he seems like an ogre.
But that's what horses are there for. In the most brutal war of all
time, horses were beasts of burden. (A commander shouldn't be castigated
for using them for what they are for. But this is a movie and it's as
much a fantasy as a Donald Duck cartoon.)
Two other performances stand out,
Niels Arestrup, who plays a French farmer, and Celine Buckens, who plays
his granddaughter. They enter the film at about the 90 minute mark when
the movie is getting too long, and they revitalize it with their
While the war scenes are well done,
they don't really capture the horror and stupidity of World War I, where
most of the Generals on both sides were war criminals, so little regard
did they have for the lives of their troops. The devastating destruction
of human life in the trench warfare is shown, but not the appalling loss
of life. Just as an example, in the battle of the Somme,
the British suffered 57,470
casualties the first day, July 1, 1916, advancing only a little more
than a mile. Despite this, British General Haig pressed on with the
attack until November 19th of the same year. Despite little or no
achievement, total losses for the British were 419,654 with German
casualties between 450,000 and 680,000. When the offensive was
eventually called off the British were still 3 miles short of their
first-day objectives. And that was just one battle. That's why it's
called The Lost Generation.
Spielberg closes the movie with a
scene that looks like it's directly out of Gone With the Wind. I
hope he meant it respectfully as an homage, but it's a direct steal.
None of this means that it's not
entertaining or that it doesn't tug your heartstrings. Sometimes people
read my reviews and claim that they didn't understand why I didn't like
the movie when, in actuality, I did like it. So to clear that up, I did
like this movie. Even though it's long and the premise is fantasy, it is
extremely well made, the acting is superb, as are the war scenes.
Particularly well done are the final scenes when Joey gets chewed up by
barbed wire (which was plastic so posed no harm to the horse).