War Horse is an epic film in the classic sense of the word. A film with a sweeping scope from a personal perspective, Steven Spielberg has created a movie that gives the horrors of WWI the same gravitas as he did WWII in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers while retaining the personal stories that made those films approachable. The film’s story follows a horse on a journey that overcomes odds and humanizes a war that changed the way all future wars would be fought. Classic style is mixed with modern technology to present a fine family film.
The film begins with the birth of Joey the strong-willed horse and central figure in the film. After the horse is purchased by a stubborn farmer to spite his landlord, his son takes to breaking the horse. After a storm wipes out the family’s crops they are forced to sell the horse to the war effort to pay their rent, setting off a series of encounters that make up the film’s narrative.
One of the more fascinating aspects of WWI—and one of the key themes in the film—is the advent of the mechanized era of warfare. Machine guns, deadly gas and heavy artillery were employed for the first time allowing for massive casualties of military and civilian populations alike. This is illustrated in the film when a British cavalry runs into a German machine gun bank: whizzing bullets quickly dispatches what was once the most formidable force in military strategy.
That—like most of the war scenes in the film—are wonderfully poignant and beautifully sculpted. Spielberg humanizes all the soldiers in the film by showing their affection and appreciation for animals and, at times, their common man. The best scene in the film comes when two members of the opposing forces come out of their trenches to help free the wounded horse that has become tangled in barbed wire. The two—who will be trying to kill each other in a few hours—manage a wonderful connection over shared appreciations while recognizing their differences in a tense but civil manner.
I haven’t mentioned any actors by name to this point in the review and that is intentional: The performances, while perfunctory, are unremarkable. There are some great scenes, including an old French winemaker and his lovely daughter who encounter the horse by chance before their lives are torn apart by the invading German forces. The aforementioned clippers scene. The training of the horse. Unfortunately these great moments are mired in the overlong and oft-meandering story.
A simple story about complicated times; War Horse is a throwback to classic epic cinema. Beautiful scenic vistas abound in this film about war and its impacts on the people who populate the warzone. Modern audiences may find its pace tedious and simplistic take on human behavior unbelievable but a more family-appropriate film you will likely not find this holiday season.
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