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War Horse

Steven Spielberg rides wave of sentimentality

Dec. 21, 2011
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War Horse begins with a graceful sweep over England's green and pleasant land—an emerald countryside under an unusually sunny sky for that partly cloudy corner of the world. Before long, director Steven Spielberg touches down on a particular field where a horse is giving birth and a bright lad, Albert, watches intently. The boy and the newborn will become friends for life, not inseparable (there would be no story otherwise) but bound by devotion.

Earnest and winsome, War Horse is the kind of movie Disney made back when Spielberg was a child, but the director, who came of age at the end of the tumultuous 1960s, is also aware of the darkness Disney would have concealed from children's eyes. To be sure, a current of G-rated tension is already felt in the film's idyllic village in the months before the outbreak of World War I. Albert, played by British stage actor Jeremy Irvine, is training his beautiful steeplechase horse, Joey, against the ticking clock—or perhaps the tolling hour bell of the parish church. Albert and Joey must plow a rocky field at the back of the family farm lest the landlord, weaselly Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis), put them out for falling short on their rent. Albert's dad (Peter Mullan) is a proud man of poor judgment and given to drink. The Wellington boots in the family are worn by mum, in a great small performance by Emily Watson, whose narrow, angry eyes and flinty temperament allow little display for the worry she feels.

But the story is about Joey, a gentle yet fiery and determined creature who listens intently to Albert's long monologues. His dark, intelligent eyes seem to take most of it in. When England goes to war against Germany, Joey is called to the colors like many horses at a time when pack animals hauled supplies to the front or pulled cannons into place. Joey, of course, becomes a cavalry officer's mount, and in the first months of the war, before the trenches were dug, officers on both sides still imagined cavalry charges with drawn sabers could win the day. War Horse turns dark as Joey's regiment sweeps upon a German camp in a surprise attack, only to face a line of withering machine gun fire. The choreography of carnage has been a Spielberg specialty, but the opening battle is only the beginning. Joey is captured by Germans and begins his trudge through the mud and surreal slaughter of World War I. Spielberg's depictions of trench warfare are accurate (he must have seen Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory) while omitting the splatter and gore. One would have to be made of stone to be unmoved by the plight Joey shares with the human combatants and the painful dislocation from his companion Albert, but Spielberg, in usual fashion, lathers on the sentimentality. The score by his favorite composer, John Williams, yanks at our emotions as if the strings of his orchestra were reins on our heart. “I will find you wherever you are and I will bring you home,” Albert assures Joey as the war separates them. The horse probably believes him, and so will Spielberg's audience. A subtler hand might have made drama rather than melodrama from Michael Morpurgo's children's story about a horse sent to the front, but Spielberg just can't approach a tender subject with dry eyes


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