There’s a great moment well into the second half of “War Horse.” Joey, the title character, is trapped between German and Allied lines in World War I. Terrified by the battle, he becomes hopelessly tangled in barbed wire between the two lines. The scene is surreal, with washed out color and a totally devastated landscape; it’s a vision of hell. A British soldier risks his life by emerging from the trench to attempt to free Joey, in full sight of the Germans. Seeing this heroic effort, a German soldier emerges from his trench with wire cutters to assist the British soldier. Another German soldier tosses a second pair of wire cutters so that both can work together to free Joey. Working together peacefully with a common goal in sight, the two are able to set the frightened, wounded animal free. With all the barbed wire covering Joey the suffering Joey, I couldn’t help thinking of the image of the crown of thorns. Is Joey a Christ symbol, suffering for the sins of humanity?
I wish all of “War Horse” was this good. The movie begins with the birth of Joey, a beautiful thoroughbred. Albert is the boy who loves the horse. Albert’s father purchases Joey at an auction to be a working horse on his farm, to the derision of many who know that thoroughbreds are not suitable work horses. Director Steven Spielberg seems to be channeling legendary director John Ford; it looks like these scenes are right out of Ford’s “The Quiet Man,” with its impossibly beautiful, though simple country settings and lush color cinematography. Albert’s father seems slow, perhaps ruined by drink. His mother is strong, hardworking and sensible, and of course, they are about to lose the farm. When World War I is declared, Albert’s father sells Joey to the army. Naturally, Albert is heartbroken to lose Joey. But they are destined to meet again.
This first section of the film had too much of a familiar tone, like I’d seen it all before, without anything particularly new to contribute. Fortunately, the movie improves as it moves on to the Great War.
Joey then goes overseas with his officer. When the officer dies, Joey is captured by the Germans who use him to pull an ambulance. For a brief time, Joey escapes the battlefield and is taken in by a young girl, who lives on a farm with her grandfather. This idyllic setting doesn’t last long, however, as soldiers advance and take Joey into battle.
Spielberg seems more at home here with the battle scenes, and even though it’s a different war, the scenes are reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan” (although the violence has been toned down for a PG-13 audience.) Soldiers try to advance through muddy fields with bullets whizzing over their heads. By the last year of the war, Albert has enlisted and finds himself in the trenches. As you can imagine, Albert is reunited with Joey, and the reunion is indeed moving. The final scene, back in the English countryside, once again is an homage to John Ford, straight out of the final scene of “The Searchers.”
I have not read the 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo, nor have I seen the acclaimed stage version of “War Horse.” I wonder if it has lost something in its adaptations from the original book to stage to screen. Yet, in its best scenes amidst the trenches and barbed wire, “War Horse” is still a powerful witness to friendship and a testament to the horror of war. I like the fact that Spielberg shows us the German soldiers as well as the British. The Germans are not demonized, nor the British shown to be overly heroic. They are all soldiers, fighting in a horrible war.
Among the impressive technical aspects of the film, Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski is a standout for contrasting the bleakness of the battlefield with the beauty of the English countryside.
“War Horse” can be criticized for being obvious and, at times, even a bit corny. Despite these reservations, in its best moments, it still had the power to move me with its humanity, even in the worst of times.
Tom Condon, OP