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FILM REVIEW: Spielberg’s WWI drama depicts spirit of survival Bill Fentum, Dec 23, 2011
PHOTO COURTESY DREAMWORKS PICTURES
In "War Horse," newcomer Jeremy Irvine stars as an English farm boy separated from his family’s thoroughbred horse during World War I.
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
War Horse Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
The early scenes in War Horse offer a vision in miniature of creation care as God intends: In 1912, 16-year-old Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses the birth of a thoroughbred colt in rural Devon, England, and soon becomes the animal’s master, protector and friend.
Months later Joey (the name Albert gives him) is purchased in an auction by the boy’s father (Peter Mullan), who needs the horse to plow their field. Neighbors tell the elder Narracott he’s a fool, that a thoroughbred isn’t suited for plowing. And yet Albert—steadfast but gentle—is able to harness Joey, and as a team they quite literally “save the farm.”
Then in the summer of 1914, a flood destroys the local crops. World War I has started, the British cavalry needs thousands of horses, and so Albert’s father makes the painful decision to sell Joey to a young officer, just to pay the rent. Devastated, Albert assures Joey that someday they’ll be reunited.
From there, War Horse is about a journey toward home, a common theme for director Steven Spielberg. Whether it’s a creature from another planet (E.T.), children separated from their parents (Empire of the Sun, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), or Tom Hanks as a foreign traveler stranded for months at JFK Airport (The Terminal), his protagonists seek a return to the only place they can feel at peace.
Now, for the first time, Mr. Spielberg explores that theme through the journey of an animal. Joey (played onscreen by 14 different horses under Humane Association supervision) passes through the hands of British and German troops, a French farmer and his granddaughter, and two brothers caught in the war. Meanwhile Albert, still separated from Joey, becomes a soldier, too—his innocence shattered by the experience.
All of the characters possess a will to live beyond the years of conflict, though not all of them do survive. The PG-13 movie avoids the graphic violence of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but the sense of tragic loss is no less vivid.
A cathartic moment comes when Joey, spirit unbroken, breaks from his bonds and races through enemy lines with no other thought but to escape the madness once and for all. In Joey’s run for freedom, we see the Spielberg touch at its best: a haunting image that requires no words to convey its full meaning and impact.
Not all of the film is quite as perfect. In the first half hour (and the last few minutes), the photography of the English countryside is so reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age that it’s a bit overwhelming. And the pace of the script—adapted from a best-selling children’s novel and award-winning play—lags now and then.
But those are very minor issues. Overall, War Horse is a real world (i.e., non-fantasy) epic that should be as rewarding for adults as for younger audiences. It shouldn’t be missed.