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War Horse (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

About the story in War Horse, a strict realist would say, “Yeah, right. How likely is that?” I hold to the old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” — or even Jack Johnson’s “fact and fiction work as a team.” But, I do have reservations about the filmcraft in War Horse. Its serendipitous, mildy fantastical story speaks solidly about life and beauty and grace, giving us plenty to embrace and take to heart.

Albert is a teenage son in a small family living meagerly on a rented British farm in the early 1900s. His irresponsible father, Ted, is a veteran who never quite recovered from what he had to do in the war. His irresponsibility leads to Albert getting, then losing, a splendid thoroughbred horse. Just after WWI breaks out, the horse, Joey, is sold to a British cavalry officer. As soon as Albert is old enough, and although he has no idea where Joey will be, he enlists, so as to follow in Joey’s path. Meanwhile, via a series of various events, Joey passes from one caretaker to another. In their parallel paths, character and stamina of horse and boy are strongly tested. Running time: 146 min.

From the opening of War Horse, Albert’s awe of and love for Joey is plain and evident — and quite justified. On their separate paths, the testing they endure is a hard fought trial by fire. We see the war from several different vantage points, albeit each of them briefly. A small number of Joey’s actions edge toward the fantastical, but I can let the story go there, so as to engage with the exploration of character that the film is doing. War Horse asks us to consider questions about war, but more personally, it asks: Concerning the faults of those around us, how might we consider where life has taken them and where it has them? For ourselves and those around us, how do we decide what is honorable and what is despicable? Based on that, how will we treat people who’s actions fall closer to despicable? How deep and lasting are the relational connections we build, and how deeply do we love? War Horse is strong when we engage with the depth in its story and with the good and bad of the characters and their relationships.

Unfortunately, War Horse’s filmcraft tends to work against the story, rather than with it. The music inserts itself into the forefront, trying to tell the story rather than explore its heart. There are good moments of acting, yet also many that are plastic and simplistic. The staging and cinematography have brilliance at times, while at other times the lighting is cheap and the coloring overly sentimental, even manipulative. But enough of its failings. War Horse has enough heart and merit that, if you can look past and forget its failings, you can take away true goodness for life.

So is it worth the time? I wouldn’t pay for it at the theater, and I wouldn’t prioritize it highly on my list, but for the right group and time, yes. Viewers that hold tight to a demand for high levels of filmcraft should avoid it. Horse lovers and romantics might have it a bit higher on their viewing lists.

One last thought: Some may say that the film’s weaknesses are attributable to it being made more so for children than adults. To that, I reply with a C.S. Lewis quote: “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.” In other words, War Horse could have been both accessible to children and had better filmcraft (e.g., The Secret of Roan Inish).

“Trial by fire” is an important theme in the film and, being set in wartime, the violence is, at times, intense and extended (think Saving Private Ryan, though that film is a notch more graphic than War Horse). Although the violence is strong, it is appropriate to the film’s exploration. There is a small amount of language, and one character drinks excessively.

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenplay: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on novel by Michael Morpurgo
  • Leads: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Matt Milne, Robert Emms
  • Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
  • Music: John Williams

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