Monday, December 31, 2012

War Horse

War Horse (2011), directed by Steven Spielberg, marks a rare cinematic endeavor: a film set in World War I. Yes, some of the all-time great movies have been about this war (All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory), but compared to other major conflicts of the 20th century, especially World War II and the Vietnam War, the number of films about the war is relatively small. There are a few reasons for this, I think: U.S. involvement was limited until the end (American audiences can be a bit impatient with movies not about Americans), other wars still hold some degree of moral justification (WWI seems to be the last war governments were able to justify blatant imperial ambition with blind patriotism), and the very nature of the fighting itself. For most of the war, it was two sides dug in and not giving or taking much ground.

Spielberg seems to grasp these challenges. Based on a book and play, War Horse follows the events of World War I with a horse as the unifying character. No, it doesn't talk like Mr. Ed or have voiceover narration like in Black Beauty, but by linking several different characters and locations through the horse, Spielberg is able to convey the huge scope of the war, from the early days of patriotic fervor to the grueling trench warfare to the wearied relief that marked the end of the fighting. Less important is the horse and more important is how it affects those who come in contact with it and how the war impacts everyone and everything.

In Devon, England, farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a thoroughbred horse instead of a work horse, much to his wife Rose's (Emily Watson) dismay, but his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has admired the horse since its birth. He trains it and names it Joey. When the harvest fails, Ted sells the horse to the British Army as war with Germany is declared. Joey is first shipped off with Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). When Nicholls is killed, Joey spends the rest of the war passing through various owners across the battle lines: a pair of young German brothers (Leonard Carow and David Kross) in the army, a Frenchman (Niels Arestrup)and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), and a German private (Nicholas Bro). Meanwhile, Albert has enlisted and is part of a massive campaign on the Western Front.

Inevitably, since this is a Spielberg movie, Joey and Albert will be re-united in a big emotional scene, but the movie is less a linear narrative and more of a series of short stories as the various players interact with Joey, who eventually becomes known as the "Miracle Horse." It's through the horse's experiences that we witness the war. The early scenes of patriotism and glory are shattered in the first big battle as Captain Nicholls rides Joey in a cavalry charge across a grassy, sun-lit field into an enemy encampment at the edge of a forest. In a stunning visual, the German machine positions open fire and instead of showing the men being cut down, Spielberg elects to represent the slaughter with dozens of now rider-less horses leaping over the German positions (quite a few steeds are killed in the crossfire, too). As the war progresses, the environment itself seems to become poisoned, the sun remains hidden by dark clouds, and the lush green fields are replaced by filthy trenches lined with corpses, broken equipment, and barbed wire. It might not be Saving Private Ryan levels of violent or gory, but War Horse competently captures just how brutal, frightening, and demoralizing war is.

In the midst of all this suffering and turmoil, basic dignity and love survive. There is the German soldier who uses Joey to escape the army with his brother to protect him from a young death. At one point, Joey becomes trapped in barbed wire in No Man's Land, and one soldier from each side goes to help get him get free, both Germans and British silently agreeing not to fire on each other (in a funny shot, the two soldiers call for wire cutters and several pairs are tossed over the top). The French grandfather does his best to protect his granddaughter from hardship, letting her keep Joey when she finds him and later trying to buy him back at an auction after the war.

As I've indicated already, War Horse is a movie of amazing scope, and it's complemented by some amazing cinematography by Janusz Kaminski that's simply gorgeous and sweeping. It's certainly a great picture just to look at and simply take in. On the down side, this is a movie of big moments and sequences, and as a result, characters are drawn in the most basic of traits; it's hard to get emotionally invested in any of them because so many of them are out of the picture before too long. Spielberg being Spielberg also gives in to his tendency to pile on the bright-eyed sentimentality when a little understatement would have been better served.

In the end, War Horse encapsulates both Spielberg the artist who makes a gritty war drama and Spielberg the popular entertainer who tugs at the heart strings, and for the most part, he succeeds at both.

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