Steven Spielberg’s latest film “War Horse” is a wonderfully epic tale that’s visually stunning, highly entertaining and occasionally brilliant in it’s sweeping storytelling grandeur. It’s also the kind of film that those critical of Spielberg’s style might dismiss as emotionally manipulative.
However, like a experienced maestro who knows his forte and instrument all too well, Spielberg often hits all the right notes with this blatant manipulation within his films. As with many of the director’s most memorable and beloved efforts, Spielberg makes no pretense regarding his intent to wring the maximum emotional potential from every melodramatic scenario.
It’s become part of the Spielberg brand and audiences sign up, fully knowing… and indeed, expecting to be led to a familiar place where awe, wondrous amazement and misty-eyed emotional moments gush forth in unabashed abundance.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 best selling novel and stage production, “War Horse” follows the multi-faceted journey of a thoroughbred horse named “Joey”. This fine stallion begins his odyssey amid humble beginnings on a tranquil farm, trained with loving care by his young first owner Albert ( Jeremy Irvine ) to perform feats of unexpected endurance and strength. Joey’s ability to overcome the odds against him seem to prepare the steed for the many formidable challenges that will face him in the difficult and dangerous years to come.
Amid this initial chapter, a strong bond of love and loyalty is also formed between Joey and Albert. It is a bond that the audience knows will ultimately carry through the film to it’s semi-predictable emotional ending. However, it is Joey’s long, often arduous journey that is the centerpiece of this fine film.
When World War One breaks out, Joey is reluctantly sold to the English cavalry to carry soldiers in a conflict that most assuredly means constant peril for any animal where mechanized technology and automatic weaponry heralds a new dangerous era.
“War Horse” follows Joey’s precarious journey through suicidal cavalry charges against German machine-gun fire, enduring agonizing moments where horses are used as flesh and blood engines to drag multi-ton killing machines through bone-crushing mud and, ultimately braving brutal battlefield scenes, depicting the bloody and filthy chaos of trench warfare so unique to that first all-encompassing world conflict.
However, in between the death and destruction on-screen for both man and beast, Joey’s perilous journey also allows the audience to witness moments of human kindness, compassion and selflessness amid the ongoing carnage.
Joey encounters two young German soldiers who try save this stunning steed from certain death at the war front. A young French girl and her grandfather do their best to shelter the horse; bringing joy to the young child and ultimate heartbreak as well.
Several more such encounters take place as the film unfolds where Joey and those who befriend him endure horrific conditions; yet, for the human players in Joey’s story, their lives also experience a momentary respite from the devastation that surrounds them all.
In one extended effective scene, Joey becomes horribly entangled in barbed wire in between rows of British and German forces facing one another in a literally entrenched stalemate. The ensnared animal becomes a momentary cause for detente as one soldier from each side, under a white flag of peace, join forces to cut the beast loose… and in the process, free not only the horse; but also themselves temporarily from the conflict surrounding them in an act of unity and perhaps, under different circumstances, friendship.
Of course, this battlefield scene of spontaneous camaraderie strains credibility; but, under Spielberg’s direction, it works. It tugs at your emotions in a way that you want to believe such a moment could take place; and as such, you simply go with it in all it’s schmaltzy, feel-good glory.
Again, all the familiar Spielberg flourishes and expert collaborators are in play here. Janusz Kaminski’s stunning cinematography sweeps the landscape and captures the action with an artistry that’s magnificent to behold. John Williams’ again lends the film’s score equally effective touches of placid serenity and powerful strength to stir the senses in every scene.
“War Horse” is not without it’s cliched moments and times where Spielberg’s manipulation comes close to spoiling the overall impact. I started to grow weary at repeated close ups of Joey’s head, where the stallion’s eyes took on an often unbelievably human-like expressiveness in moments of fear, danger and sadness.
Also, the film’s ending moments, while visually stunning, seem to unmistakably crib from “Gone With The Wind”. I half expected to see Scarlett O’Hara pop out from behind a tree bathed in the crimson red glow of a brilliant sunset while silhouetted characters embrace in the foreground.
Animal lovers should also be forewarned that this film contains a variety of disturbing scenes of horses suffering the abuses of serving as beasts of burden under brutal and archaic wartime conditions.
However, these are small blemishes on the exquisite cinematic canvas that Spielberg paints in the epic presentation that is “War Horse”. Spielberg knows his audience well and delivers the expected ingredients with panache.
If “War Horse” is emotionally manipulative, so be it. I surrendered to it’s embrace with careless and joyous abandon.
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