Riding off to war.
Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Red Flags: World War I violence
Do horses know how to act? Do they even know they're in a movie? I'm not sure, but the equine stars of War Horse certainly know how to tug at our emotions, just as in Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. Yet director Steven Spielberg clearly wants to add to his roster of epic war pictures, which includes Empire Of The Sun, Shindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and unfortunately, 1941. So we get a picture that's never completely about either war or a horse but a mixed mash-up of both, incorporating several side stories into the main narrative.
The film parachutes us into Ireland just before World War I, green and beautiful. An alcoholic Irish farmer, Ted Naracott (Peter Mullan), pays out the nose for a thoroughbred horse instead of a work animal. His wife Rose (Watson) despairs, knowing the old fool is putting the family farm on the line. Both Ted and his son Albert (Irvine) sense some sort of greatness in the animal that will be their deliverance. Albert is a natural-born horse whisperer. He knows exactly what to say to his new equine friend Joey (more than a dozen horses played the role), and he's not above putting a collar around his neck to show Joey how it's done. The two of them share a deep resolve and strength. A sequence where Albert and Joey must plow a rocky field to save the farm has a sports-film quality to it, two underdogs banding together to achieve the impossible.
All of Joey's and Albert's work are not enough to keep Ted's finances above water, so the reluctant father sells the horse to the British army as troops march out of town for the Great War. Albert longs to go with Joey, but his age keeps him from enlisting, so an officer pledges Joey will receive great care until horse and rider can be together again. So begins a picaresque journey that takes us from Ireland to France and through the trench-warfare, horror and disillusionment of WWI with a horse who just happens to be along for the ride -- or two horses, actually. Joey finds a companion after shipping off for the front, and the two of them bond like war buddies.
A couple of other war movies entered my mind as this film unspooled. An early battle scene reminded me of the climatic assault in Gods And Generals, and a sequence where soldiers on opposite sides must work together to rescue Joey recalls Joyeux Noel. I'm sure many of you will also make comparisons to National Velvet.
I liked War Horse, but I felt the film needed focus. A recent opinion column in the Los Angeles Times theorized the dearth of WWI movies is due to the war's moral ambiguity, its lack of clearly defined good and bad guys which doesn't make good commercial cinema. Spielberg tries introducing some of that into War Horse, particularly in a subplot involving two German deserters. This is where it detours from Joey's perspective to try to include some larger truths of WWI, and that's where it falters. Black Beauty took us through a journey of several owners, but at least the title character narrated his own story. War Horse is also adapted from a novel and a stage play, but I'm not familiar with the source material to tell you whether the flaws originated there. What isn't flawed is Spielberg's touch for creating emotional bonds and characters we care about, and that ultimately redeems the movie.