I am not a movie critic. That line of ‘work’ is as useful to the workings of modern civilization as professional gladiators and ladies in waiting.
Nor am I a ‘movie buff’. I don’t go to many movies, and the ones I do see aren’t the ones that the ‘critics’ like. Not for me the drama, the horror, the blow-em-ups, the action flicks. My preferences are well done animations like “Up” and movies like “War Horse”.
Quite simply, “War Horse” is the best horse movie ever made.
It is deep on so many levels. It’s far better than “Secretariat”, where the horse portraying Big Red was merely the vehicle carrying the human interactions. He hardly resembled Secretariat in anything else but color! Nor is it “Hidalgo”, a movie was so unbelievable as to be almost comical. Most horse films are, despite the connotation, not about the horse at all. It’s about the people around the horse, because, of course, horses cannot talk.
Well, they can to me, and to most of my horse crazy friends. And in “War Horse”, the star conveys honest emotion as well as any actor despite the fact that he is a horse.
“War Horse” is about Joey, an English Thoroughbred caught up in the First World War. It is told on HIS level, from HIS experiences. Oh, there are people throughout the movie. In this case, the humans carry the equine interaction, and, of course, are the ones that cause the things that happen to Joey. But it really, truly is about WWI from the point of view of a horse. And, I’m told, it is based on a true story.
Spielberg wisely allows the horse to be a horse. The horses don’t perform unbelievable or magical stunts. There’s no ‘voice over’ or narration explaining the horse’s thoughts and feelings. Spielberg manfully resisted embellishing equine interactions, with only one scene that strained credulity, that being where Joey teaches his buddy that the horse collar is harmless. In every scene, the horses are horses.
“War Horse’ refuses to glamorize war. It is, in fact, an antiwar film, in that it unflinchingly portrays WWI as the hideous war it was. The British went into the war with the uniforms and the tactics left over from the Boer wars. The ranks were filled by unsophisticated, poor enlisted men who were served up to the German guns, led by upper class, sanctimonious officers still using the battle tactics from the early 1800’s. The Germans, in contrast, had done their war college homework. They brought modern tactics, superior weapons, protective gear, tanks, and machine guns. The movie portrays the terrors of the war: the merciless mustard gas, the misery and drudgery of living in the trenches, the no-man’s land of wire, bullets and mud.
The movie portrays the many aspects WWI thrust upon soldiers, civilians and horses. There are some intense battle scenes, hinting at the carnage and horrific loss of life. I must commend Mr. Spielberg: none of the violence is gratuitous. You don’t see geysers of blood and limbs being blown off, a la “Saving Private Ryan”.
Spielberg has learned from Alfred Hitchcock. The power of suggestion is all that is necessary to stimulate the viewer’s imagination, a far more effective cinematic technique than actual portrayal of violence.
Spielberg puts you on the battlefield. You are THERE. You are in the trenches. You are the horses pulling a monstrous howitzer up an impossibly steep slope. The shelling rattles your teeth. You see your fellows, both human and equine, drop and die.
But there are respites from the war, scenes where the birds sing (blackbirds, chaffinches, greenfinches, and English robins), sunsets are beautiful, and a gander poses the biggest danger to a greedy landlord. Underneath it all is the luscious and beautiful landscape, sadly churned into a muddy, morass of wire, devastation, and dead animals, both human and equine.
Spielberg deals fairly with both sides of the combatants. Not all the Germans are portrayed as bad guys, not all the English are shown to be noble and kind. Just like the horses, the vast majority of the people involved in the war were there due to being caught in the middle of two dueling nations, or there due to nationalism, and a sense of obligation. Even so, even amidst the roar of war, you see acts of selflessness and generosity-even amongst horses.
Horsemen will see the horse portrayed honestly. Joey is a well-bred, courageous, and intelligent horse. There’s no mean in him, or stubbornness. He works his heart out for the people who handle him, never holding a grudge, no matter how deserving the human is of one. He is just a horse. There’s not one single scene where Joey is ‘acting’. Spielberg pulls off the impossible: he puts the viewer into the horse’s mind. The viewer knows what the horse feels, what he thinks, and what he does without having to translate it into human language.
Like so many animals, but horses in particular, Joey portrays the honest acceptance of the completely unnatural situations thrust upon him. Through it all, Joey is a great horse: obedient, gentle, and brave.
Go see “War Horse”. You will not regret it.