MOVIE REVIEW: War Horse

WAR HORSE-- 5 STARS

With the calendar turning to 2012, in the midst of the century anniversaries of many automobile empires, people have slowly forgotten about man's six-thousand year domestication and affinity for the horse.  Before cars, owning your own horse meant something.  It wasn't just a pet.  It provided practicality and service to his owner beyond that of a dog or a cat.  To put it in more modern terms, a dog is like an iPad, a bringer of connection, companionship, and entertainment, but a horse is like your first car.  That car provides for you, gets you where you need to go, expands your boundaries, and facilitates your contribution to society.  A century ago and beyond, a horse meant that to his or her owner.  A dog or an iPad can't do that.  Nowadays, having your first car is the pinnacle sign of adolescent and coming-of-age independence and responsibility.  That independence of your first horse or first car turned boys into men and was a sign of establishment.  Having your first dog, pet, or iPad just made you connected.  You never forget that first car (a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, in this writer's case) and the memories it brought, and when you parted with it, a piece of your exuberant and innocent youth went with it.

Steven Spielberg's latest heart-tugging masterpiece War Horse, based on the British 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, speaks to that last great era of man's affinity with the horse, right as cars were coming onto the scene.  When young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine, in his film debut) of Devon, England first lays eyes on the colt he will soon name Joey, a bond is formed that doesn't match that of man with a dog.  You see, men will always be more dominant than dogs, but a horse is physically superior to man.  Commanding and training a horse takes respect and appreciation of the animal's power (again, much like a car nowadays).

When Albert's drunk and failed war veteran father Ted (Peter Mullan) takes a shine to Joey and purchases him instead of a plough horse for their farm, much to the chagrin of his hard-working wife (Emily Watson), the purchase also puts the family farm in debt that only a bountiful harvest can correct.  Partially crippled from fighting in the Boer War of South Africa, Ted can no longer physically train and break in a horse or man the plough for the field.  Young Albert takes it upon himself to do just that and the horse becomes his.

With the onset of World War I and a heavy rain destroying their crop, Ted is forced to sell Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston of Thor and Midnight in Paris) of the British Cavalry Corps for the money needed to save the farm.  The honorable Captain Nicholls promises to care for Joey and, hopefully, return him to Albert after the war.  From there, the journey divides for Joey and Albert.  Joey is sent to France and trained for military operations, where his power and speed serve him well.  Albert can only wait to join the war later and becomes a soldier in the trenches himself years later.

Joey becomes our main character as the film follows his extraordinary journey through the four years of World War I.  Like Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the story successfully builds your commitment and caring towards a non-human character to great success.  His fate and ownership drifts through both sides of the war.   From his start with the British to  adoption by a kind French farmer (Niels Arestrup) carrying for his orphaned granddaughter to hard labor servitude lugging artillery for the Germans, Joey's power and bravery save his life and others time and again.

Is War Horse old-fashioned?  Sure it is, but, as I outlined before, those were the times, when a horse was the measure of a man.  Is War Horse incredibly sentimental with this relationship?  Sure it is.  People love happy endings.  You don't have a heart if you can't enjoy a good story like this and would rather turn your up your nose and call it syrup.  Is any of this unbelievable tale forced down your throat?  No, and that's why Steven Spielberg makes instant classics like this.  War is still cruel and violent and Spielberg doesn't shy away from that.  The realism balances the mythic overtones.  He doesn't cover it up with the so-called syrup of a sentimental horse movie.  More importantly, the war was detrimental for both sides of World War I and Spielberg respects that by showing equal good and evil on both sides.  There are no over-the-top "black hat" villains.

As we already know from his history, director Steven Spielberg is on another level with this kind of epic storytelling and, in his hands, this British children's novel and stage play, based on the accounts of returned WWI veterans, is given grand cinematic treatment.  Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, not a single technical aspect of film-making is flawed in War Horse.  Everything looks, feels, and fits perfect, without requiring the cheesy use of 3D.  If they used CGI or animatronic horses, I sure can't tell and the equestrian and stunt work throughout is outstanding.  Veteran Spielberg collaborator and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, from the striking vistas of Britain and France to the intimate trenches and barbed wire of No Man's Land, moves with award-worthy power and scope.  From the dancing flute solos accompanying the opening scene of Joey's birth to the swelling strings of an ending sunset right out of Gone With the Wind or a John Ford western, legendary composer John Williams nails every cue and note with beautiful musical themes.  Altogether, War Horse is a worthy, emotional, and crowd-pleasing chapter to Spielberg's legacy and earns its rightful place as one of the best films of 2011.

LESSON #1: THE BRAVERY OF NOT TAKING PRIDE IN SOMETHING-- Early on in the film, we learn that Albert's father was a veteran of the South African Boer War, but that he doesn't display his medals or take pride in his veteran status because it was at the expense of lost lives.  Albert's mother explains to her son that there's more bravery in not taking pride in the cost of war than glorifying its spoils and victory.  I loved that lesson and it sets the tone in a great many ways to the future heroism of both Albert and Joey.

LESSON #2: THE KINSHIP BETWEEN A MAN AND HIS HORSE-- As I fully outlined before, the relationship between man and horse is special and far-reaching.  Throughout the many people who use and care for Joey throughout the film, nearly all appreciate his efforts and are made better for being involved with him.  While the bond between he and Albert is the greatest, that doesn't mean Joey can't nobly serve a greater good wherever he goes.  That segues into the final lesson.

LESSON #3: NOTHING IS EVER TRULY LOST-- We lose things we care about, both living and non-living, all the time, sometimes by accident and sometimes by fate.  However, like our forgotten and bequeathed hero toys of Toy Story 3, the things we lose or part company with go on to serve someone or something else, even in a different form.  Somewhere, your beloved first car was traded in to be someone else's first car or parts to help someone else.  Yet, if fate allows it, the things we truly love can return to us someday, creating a proper and beautiful reunion.