Movie Review: War Horse
By Matthew Huntley
January 10, 2012
When the war finally does come, Narracott has no choice but to sell Joey. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) of the British cavalry promises Albert he’ll care for the animal and hopefully return him safely. This begins the horse’s odyssey around different parts of Europe, where it befriends and touches many affected by war, including a larger black horse; a couple of German brothers (David Kross and Leonhard Carow) likely conscripted by the army but too young for battle; a French girl (Celine Buckens) living with her wise grandfather (Niels Arestrup); a compassionate German soldier (Nicholas Bro); and eventually the entire British infantry.
Whether or not Joey makes his way back to Albert is not for me to say, but I can tell you the horse’s journey is thoroughly engaging and entertaining because Spielberg allows the scenes between the horse and humans to reflect truth instead of forced melodrama. We recognize these moments as the kind we might have shared with our own pets, or perhaps even our children and friends. Spielberg wisely avoids making the horse “cute,” and he certainly doesn’t undermine its intelligence just because it’s an animal. He respects him and, as a result, we believe the way Joey behaves and feels for other living things. We sense this in his reaction shots, and whether or not real horses act like Joey does isn’t the point; what matters is we believe him in the context of the story.
It would have been wrong to sugarcoat the war scenes, even for a family picture, because no matter what, war is not a clean, pleasant experience. Spielberg is right to film the battle scenes brutally and realistically. They’re tame enough so younger viewers can watch them and not cover their eyes, yet strong enough so they’re hard-hitting and effective. Through them all, though, Spielberg never loses sight of the central story, which is really about Joey. The movie’s best scene finds two soldiers, each on opposing sides, meeting in the middle of a battle field and exchanging words for the sake of the horse. The dialogue here is especially genuine and the intercutting between the humans and the close-ups of the horse give it a richness and depth that make it all the more beautiful.
Let it be said that War Horse has more than its fair share of heavy sentimentality, which is sure to leave some audience members tasting cheese. However, I can forgive the movie for these moments because, given the old-fashioned story and storytelling, they just seemed appropriate. We have the idealistic characters who constantly look like they’re on the verge of tears; the arguably contrived moment of vindication where a symbol from the beginning shows up just in the nick of time at the end; and the somewhat over-the-top closing scene that’s a blatant homage to Gone with the Wind. Sure, these moments can be a bit much, but they work.
We don’t often see movies like War Horse anymore, probably because they’re expensive to make and not as easy to sell. Even though the story is simple, it still captivates us and the production is striking. Just as Joey makes connections with the human characters, we connect to this movie. That may sound cheesy, but for a movie like War Horse, it also sounds right.