WWI drama in 'War Horse'


Usually, the storyline of a film about animals is predictable, heart-wrenching and sold to the audience so that any dissenters from the enthusiastic majority are judged for their apparently missing soul.
War Horse is not your typical equestrian drama. Directed by the wonderful Steven Spielberg, the story is split between multiple characters whose interactions with a particularly inspiring horse are intertwined in an interesting, if somewhat unrealistic, way.
Cynics no doubt abounded when the film premiered, but the honest storytelling achieved by Spielberg draws one into a thematic experience that is ultimately worth it.
Beginning in a pastoral English town, half-Thoroughbred Joey is purchased by an alcoholic tenant farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan). His young son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) particularly takes to the intelligent horse, teaching it to pull a plow among other things.
World War I looms on the horizon, requiring that Joey be sold to a gentlemanly soldier of the British cavalry and taken into battle against the Germans.
It was at this point in the film that I realized respect was due to Spielberg for his cinematic treatment of warfare. The reality of what occurred in cavalry engagements throughout the first World War was not completely abandoned. It was downplayed without seeming disrespectful or deceitful. The emotional gravity of watching horses with riders charge soldiers armed with machine guns in one shot, transition seamlessly into a shot of horses running through the woods bare-saddled is moving and extremely powerful.
Overtaken in the woods by the German ranks, Joey falls into the care of two brothers whose will to live forces them to desert on the eve of battle. They take shelter on a French farm until discovered and put to death for their crime. Again, Spielberg employs emotional restraint and shields young viewers from a graphic death with a skillfully placed windmill. At one moment the boys are standing in front of a firing squad; after the fan blades shift, the boys have crumpled in the grass.
Joey is left now with an elderly farmer and his granddaughter, who add to his skills by teaching him to jump before he again changes hands. This time, the Germans put Joey through hard labor, pulling heavy machinery while hitched to a black beauty who becomes his companion.
Kept alive by animal instinct and some inherently magical quality that all who come into contact with him see, Joey is assisted by a German and British soldier when discovered in “no-man’s land” between the trenches, caught in barbed wire.
By this point, Albert has made his way into the trenches to serve honorably alongside a childhood friend before subjected to devastating chemical gas that burns his face. Sent to recover in a hospital, he overhears some doctors discussing a rather miraculous horse who needs treatment for cuts from barbed wire.
Before the doctor’s orders to kill the horse rather than allow it to suffer can be carried out, Albert whistles to Joey, and the two are reunited after years of uncertainty.
The ending is one indicative of Spielberg’s optimistic treatment of many subjects throughout his repertoire. Redeeming and heartfelt, War Horse requires the modern-day viewer to stomach some sentimentality for a truly worthwhile experience.