Movie Review - War Horse

New actor Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
in Steven Spielberg's "War Horse"
Steven Spielberg has directed Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, movies that have painted definitive pictures of World War II in terms of its effect on people and the complicated experience of battle. When looking back at fiction films that paint a definitive picture of World War I, War Horse should be one to add to the list.

Spielberg introduces us to a colt named Joey as well as the teenage boy named Albert Narracott who witnesses Joey's birth. Albert's father, Ted, a former drunkard whose behind on payments on his small, British farm, sees something special in Joey or else he's just trying to out-wit or out-bid some rivals. Needless to say, Albert's mother Rose, played by Emily Watson, is upset at her husband for paying too much for the horse.

Albert makes the case to keep Joey and proceeds to train Joey to be a farm horse. Albert trains Joey very well, but, unfortunately, it's not enough. In order to pay the bills and keep the farm afloat, Ted, a former war veteran, sells Joey to Captain Nicholls, played by Tom Hiddleston (Thor and Midnight in Paris). Nicholls needs a horse, as he's about to go fight the Germans in this first year of World War I.

Albert is upset, but there's nothing he can do, so he must say goodbye. Spielberg then follows Joey, as he's taken onto the battlefield in 1914. We stay with Joey throughout the war, which ends in 1918, but not before witnessing some intense fights and harrowing combats. All the while, various people take Joey under their charge. It almost becomes a series of short films, each with a different cast of characters that eventually circles back.

Each short film allows Spielberg to explore some different aspect of the Great War. Whether it's the experience of a young German soldier, Gunther, played by David Kross (The Reader) or it's the fear of a grandfather, played by Niels Arestrup (The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet) for his granddaughter, Spielberg can show us a wider and more epic scope of how the war affects all kinds of people.

The through-line is Joey. In the very early part of the 20th century, exactly one hundred years ago, horses played a bigger part in people's lives than they do today. Principally, horses were the mode of transportation. In many ways, they were key sources of labor, and as we learn here, horses were a big part of warfare.

Even though it's not total, we are put in the hooves of this horse. We're put in Joey's shoes. We certainly empathize with the horse and the hardship he endures. We certainly gain respect for these majestic animals, for these strong animals and for these beautiful animals. The anguish and the fear that these animals feel also come through. Spielberg depicts it to shocking effect with a sequence that takes Joey literally through the trenches and into No man's land.

What's important is that we feel like Joey is a living being with his own mind and his own personality. Spielberg achieves that. He also keeps the film galloping at a steady pace. Along the way, he adds touches or flourishes that remind us of how great and how moving Spielberg can be.

Whether it's small, funny things, such as a goose that's more like a guard dog and an unlikely hiding place for horses to cinematic and poignant scenes like an execution through a turning windmill and a reunion during the golden hour of sunset, Spielberg crafts a beautiful piece here. It all builds to an amazing moment between the horse and a British and German soldier that wonderfully encapsulates what Spielberg is trying to do and he does it well.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of war.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 26 mins.


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