War Horse is a peculiar kind of film. After the first 15 minutes, I was content to place it in the echelon of other family-friendly films about chipper young lads and their underdog pets. But I should have realized that Mr. Spielberg would have a few tricks up his sleeve, and I should have had more faith in the director that created one of my most favorite films, Saving Private Ryan. War Horse is not a traditional war film, nor is it a run-of-the-mill family film, it’s a strange hybrid of the two, which is both a strength and a weakness.
War Horse follows the tale of Joey, a young thoroughbred horse bought to work on the Narracott family farm in Devon, England before the start of WWI. The family is in dire financial straits and really needs a workhorse, not a prancing thoroughbred, but young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) sees the spark in Joey that is often missed by adults too world weary to believe in miracles. Joey and Albert succeed in plowing the family’s field, and we begin to realize what may already be obvious from the very beginning of the film; this is a different kind of horse, who will eventually be thrown into a different kind of war.
The rest of the film follows Joey, as he is first sold off to the British military, and then through a series of circumstances beyond the control of an animal, is handed off to a series of different owners on both sides of the conflict. Spielberg anthropomorphizes Joey just enough in order for the audience to be able to relate to him as not only a sympathetic character, but one that gains an understanding of what is happening around him. Like most fresh-faced young men on the eve of battle, Joey is ignorant to the horror that awaits him. And during his first battle, he is confused and frightened. He presses on courageously, accepting his fate with each new owner, until he suffers his first loss in the war, and looks death straight in the face. His reaction, brilliantly directed by Spielberg, is a masterful action sequence that spans the emotional gamut from anger, to fear, and finally desperation…and yes, I’m still talking about the horse.
It is very difficult to anthropomorphize animals on the big screen while maintaining a certain level of reality in the process. This isn’t Doctor Dolittle we’re talking about here. Spielberg develops Joey’s character well, exploring one of humanity’s greatest injustices through the eyes of an animal that unfortunately has little say in the matter. And perhaps that’s what makes Joey such a relatable character. Joey embodies the vulnerability of every soldier on the field, his fear and his courage.
But as much as Joey’s human qualities serve the film, they also slightly hinder it. There are undeniable shades of family classics like Black Beauty in the quieter moments of the film, where Joey’s childlike playfulness and his relationship with Albert serve to counteract the “big ugly” boiling around them. It’s the combination of two unlikely bedmates that muddy the waters and cause the film to be ambiguous about its focus and intentions as either a great war film or an equally great family film. I’m not always a proponent for strict classification, but if the blending of two genres causes you to miss what makes each special on their own, then it can leave a hybrid film in no man’s land.
I enjoyed War Horse, and for reasons I can only explain as being overly emotional, it will be in my top ten of the year. Maybe I’m just a sucker for Spielberg, but the man knows how to shoot battle scenes. He also knows how to make movies that seem to speak to everyone’s childhood, especially if you are a boy. We’ve seen many movies this year that look to the past for inspiration, but leave it to Spielberg to comb through his own past as one of the best filmmakers in history, and create a film that encompasses what he does best.
War Horse opens today both wide and at the Ritz Five.
“This is the business we’ve chosen!” Jill Malcolm and Ryan Silberstein, two self-described film aficionados, tell it like it is about the latest and greatest movies. They are Contributing editors here at Cinedelphia, writing partners, and founders of Filmhash.com.