Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse

As far as predictable, inspirational movies go, War Horse falls on the high end of the spectrum. You won’t hit any big twists or surprises, and you’ll see the ending coming from a ways off. The major difference between this and so many other sentimental films is that War Horse has Steven Spielberg in its director’s chair. The film is so well-crafted that when it arrives at its predictable conclusion, you won’t be disappointed. On my way out of the theater, my brother-in-law called it “one of the best ‘Hallmark Movies’ he’d ever seen,” and I knew exactly what he meant.

War Horse is a film adaptation of a children’s novel which also inspired both a radio broadcast and an award-winning stage play, but it’s an unusual story any way you tell it. On the outset of World War I, English teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) forms a special connection with his horse, Joey. Albert’s father sells Joey to a military Captain in order to pay rental debt, and throughout the war, Albert maintains hope that he will see his horse again. What follows is an odyssey across war-torn Europe from 1914-1918 as Albert’s horse, Joey, changes hands with each conflict, finding himself on farms, battlefields, and the infamous No Man’s Land between the trenches.

The sentiment and schmaltz are laid on thick - almost too thick. Subtlety isn’t this film’s strong suit, but then again, War Horse is a WWI picture. John Williams’ grand and sweeping score announces itself at every turn. The camera regularly soars across the typically understated beauty of the English countryside. There are plenty of lingering shots of characters gazing off at the horizon. It all works, as these feel-good staples are later offset by war violence, and the film’s framing and cinematography elevate War Horse above what it would have been in the hands of a lesser director.

Jeremy Irvine plays Albert with sincerity, even though the “boy and his horse” bit seems stranger as Albert gets older. By the time Albert’s an adult man serving in the British Army, the only thing that keeps his immense love for Joey from being a little too weird is that the horse has gone through so damn much, and we’ve gone through it with him. There’s a memorable supporting cast of characters: Albert’s parents, their landlord, various military officers, two young German soldiers, a frenchman and his granddaughter - all brought to life through fine performances.

When you think of the great war films, few transpire during World War I. Most are World War II films, as WWII provides an easy backdrop for tales of heroism and bravery. Vietnam films often highlight the senselessness and waste of war, but from a historical perspective, WWI stands as the ultimate example of how frivolous and tragic war can be. The war produced over 35 million military and civilian casualties, largely due to dramatic increases in firepower without equal increases in transportation. War Horse shows how technology (or the lack thereof) unleashed new horrors and how few wars have ever seen such uneven odds depending on who had what technology. One scene in particular stands out as an army of soldiers on horseback with swords in hand is mowed down by a line of machine guns.

The final sequence evokes the closing moments of Gone With the Wind’s first act, as characters stand silhouetted against an impossibly orange sky. Years from now, I doubt War Horse will stand out in Spielberg’s filmography full of masterpieces, but it’s a well-told story of bravery and friendship, notable for its beauty and its impressive depiction of World War I. The narrative emerges somewhat disconnected and certainly unbelievable, but amidst the horrors of war, some excessive heart isn’t such a bad thing.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.

War Horse is based on a children’s novel, but don’t be mistaken; this is not a children’s movie. It’s a war movie, and even adults who are sensitive to war violence should be cautious. The combat scenes aren’t bloody, but they are intense, particularly one where the horse runs frightened through the chaos and becomes trapped in barbed wire.