- Vancouver, British Columbia - To start off, I must confess that movies about horses generally have the terrible disposition of being terrible, overly sappy and sentimental, since often the horse is given human attributes, albeit silent ones. Thus it must come as no surprise that when I first heard that Steven Spielberg was choosing to come back to the director's chair to make a movie about a horse, I felt reasonably concerned. Upon the premier of the second promotional trailer for this film, however, my fears were relieved by the realization that this was not simply going to be another dumb movie about a horse, but something more than I had imagined.
War Horse tells the miraculous story of a horse named Joey. He is rather foolishly purchased by a drunk, invalid of a farmer, who needs a work horse to provide for him, his wife, and their boy, but sadly this is no work horse, but a young one that has much to learn. The farmer's boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), takes a liking to the horse and develops a bond with it that no one else is capable of. He trains the horse and the two come to understand one another. War, however, comes to England and all able-bodied young men are called into the service of the king. Not only that, the army needs animals to support the troops and as a result of financial difficulties on the part of the farmer, the horse finds itself torn from the boy and sent to the European theatre with the boy promising the horse that he will find him again one day.
What is special about this film begins with how the narrative sticks primarily with the horse, Joey. We're made aware very quickly that we're to be most concerned about the horse, and secondarily with Albert. In many ways, this was a rather daring focus to take since the horse speaks no lines of dialogue, but at the same time, very necessary. What the filmmakers were able to get from this animal was at times shocking, but one never gets the sense that this is merely a show horse, trained to perform neat tricks. There were at least three scenes in particular where I could not help but ask myself if what I was seeing was that of a real animal or CGI. In the end, I want to believe that it was real.
While War Horse is an emotional war drama, the humour interlaced throughout the film is poignant and carries an appropriate punch, never ruining the mood or making us forget about what this film is about. I've read other reviewers who have commented that Spielberg demonstrates his master of sentiment, which is very true for this film. There are scenes where we know our heart strings are about to be pulled before the climax of the scene even arrives, yet we never feel like we're being manipulated to feel a certain way. Rather the audience is expected to react in the manner which suits them best, though only a heartless soul would watch this film and not be moved by the drama and suffering endured by both the horses and their masters.
In many ways, the horse is the catalyst to the re-telling of the First World War in a string of brief and nearly independent narrative snapshots, which is something that hasn't been done very well in other films without suffering from feeling didactic and overly preachy. One almost gets the sense that part of what Spielberg was aiming for in this film was to show how animals, strangely enough, sometimes demonstrate more humanity than humans at war do, but in one spectacular scene near the end of the film, we are reaffirmed man's humanity and his capacity to exercise compassion even amidst the company of the most hated of enemies.
A sole, though forgivable criticism about this film was the use of accents. Perhaps yours truly is simply a sucker for characters speaking their native languages with the help of subtitles, but in one part of the film, one character is supposed to be French, but her accent sounds far more like a German accent. Nevertheless, her accent starts to sound more French as the film progresses, while in other scenes, it seemed that we could tell who were the native English actors, and who were the Americans attempting to sound like they were English. I appreciate that this film was largely made for an American audience, who historically struggle to understand the simplest deviations from their own accents, but it just seemed a shame that this aspect of the film could not be shored up more when so much else was so good about this film.
War Horse is a film that will lend itself well to being timeless, though I worry that it may not hold company with some of the other more popular Spielberg films, as it is difficult to say whether this film possesses the same appeal as say Indiana Jones, Schindler's List, Jaws or E.T. Nevertheless, this was a charming, moving, and poignant film that is worthy of some consideration come February during the Academy Awards.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes