To kick off our 2012 reviews, we’ll start with Steven Spielberg’s War Horse which opened on Christmas Day. It was a beautiful film to watch: one that was definitely unique, and some will say that it is a sad film. But that sadness, along with Spielberg’s usual sentimentality, only adds to it’s appeal. In fact, as the film wound down to its conclusion there were a lot of tears flowing accompanied by the sounds of folks snifling into their hankies or tissues throughout the packed theater.
War Horse is a story where there were no bad guys, and basically just one heroic creature which was the horse who was called Joey. Spielberg opens with a series of shots from an airborne helicopter, of the farmlands and pastoral settings that make up the lush Devon County, UK, countryside. As a visual hook, this worked quite well. When we do come down , we find we are in the year 1914, and we find ourselves at a horse auction. A farmer named Ted Narracott ends up spending 30 guineas for a horse, a thoroughbred horse, who would have little value as a work horse on a farm. In fact, the price and the outright purchase were wildly out of place for this cash-strapped farmer who was at the auction because he needed a plow-horse.
However the young colt, and the Narracott’s teenaged son named Albert bonded quickly and easily. But the purchase price put a severe crimp in the Narracott finances – so much so that he was unable to pay the full rental price for his farm. A negotiation ensued and the Narracotts were able to get an extension by promising full payment of all rental money due by the following October or else they would lose the farm. This meant that Joey had to be trained to wear a yoke, a harness, and to pull a heavy plow through the stony ground, so the Narracotts could plant a field of turnips.
This ran for rather a long time, in fact this training, and the planting, and expected harvesting took up far too much time. But it was necessary to illustrate the desperate situation of the Narracotts, their strong family bond, and how the typical British class divisions put other landless tenant farmers at risk. Despite the necessity of delivering all of these factors, it still might have been compressed to a shorter length. But as presented, the overwhelming aspect of this first quarter was how strongly the boy and the horse bonded.
Then the Great War (what we called World War I) came to pass. The British Army needed horses for the war and Joey was sold by Ted to an Army Captain who displayed a gentle touch with the horse, and who obvioulsy cared and respected Joey who would become his personal steed. Together they entered the war and soon found themselves in Flanders fields. This was just the beginning for Joey. Soon Joey would be captured by the Germans after a doomed British Cavalry charge against their encampment turned out to be a deadly trap.
Joey would be passed on to a French family after the attempted desertion by two young German soldiers failed, then he would be captured once again by the Germans, and all of this happened without Joey having any say in the matter. Spielberg has portrayed war in a way that allows us to see the horrors of war without displaying most of the gore. Soldiers emerging from the trenches are mowed down within steps of entering the no-man’s land. But Spielberg’s camera was in motion so we never really saw the blood. Both the Germans and the British soon learned the futility of Cavalry charges against machine gun nests.
Joey was soon tethered into a team that was tasked with hauling the heavy artillery weapons into place. There was a kindly German soldier who requested breaks or rests for his team of horses. But he was told that the horse were like the equipment – they would be used until the couldn’t be used any longer, and then they would be shot. In a sense, this was Spielberg’s anti-war message that said war was not just violent and deadly, but it was also a pointless folly resulting in the death or abuse of not only the equipment but also of the soldiers as well as the animals involved.
But as always, Spielberg’s cinematic canvas is filled with beautiful images, we got them before the war, after, and even during the war scenes which placed us right in the midst of the carnage, and needless deaths. In this film about a horse who lived and endured a war, there was no one to hate. The British officers and troops were all kind gentlemen, as were the German officers and troops. The French were present, as a wise grandfather and his teen-aged granddaughter, and they were victimized as well. A German army corps rolls into the farm where Joey had been located. They took just about everything they could carry off. But you couldn’t hate them. Spielberg has painted the war black but has painted the troops on either side in a humanistic way. As I said to begin the second paragraph – there were no bad guys.
So as we watch and wonder if Joey will survive, this horse seems to have miraculous luck and at least several kind-hearted angels, or maybe I should say officers on either side watching over him. A few years have gone by and we begin to hope that Joey and Albert Narracott, now old enough to have enlisted, will be united.
There was a poignant scene that offers us a look at the terrors of war from three perspectives: the horse’s, and the both the German and British armies. Joey is frightened and takes off. He runs through the no-man’s land avoiding barriers, bodies, and the blown out craters from the artillery shells.
Until he is brought down by the barbed wire. The way this scene plays out is pure Spielbergian – after all, he is the ultimate cinematic optimist. While Joey races through the night-time and hellish no-mans land, the camera is placed above him, or alongside of him, and even beneath him as he vaults over a tank. This was nothing less than a technical marvel. But when a German and a British infantry soldier meet between the trenches to jointly free the horse from the wire, it is just a superb emotional moment for we viewers.
I’d suggest that this film is a notch below Saving Private Ryan in the overall sense – because Tom Hanks as Captain Miller could communicate and Joey the horse cannot. But you can’t help but admire this heroic animal …
and by film’s end you are most thankful that Spielberg has made the soldiers on either side entirely believable on a human scale. You have to applaud the decision to give the enemy faces, or smiles, even our sympathies, and above all else – hearts.
I’m inaugurating a numerical rating system beginning with this film. It is a scale of one to five with one being so poor a rating that you should definitely avoid a film rated at one at all costs. A film earning a five or nearly a five, would be a candidate for Best Picture of the Year. I’m calling War Horse a definite contender and awarding a four point seven five. The quarter point deduction is for the overly lengthy farm sequence at the beginning. After that, I thought the film was flawless. Let me know if you like a rating system, or feel it does nothing for you.