Spielberg Goes Back to War
When it was first announced that Steven Spielberg was going to be directing War Horse, a movie that featured young actors and a war-based story, the initial thought was “How could it go wrong?” After all, this is the same guy who won an Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan, he produced Band of Brothers, and he worked with kids in everything from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial to this summer’s Super 8 (which he produced). Unfortunately, the end result, while not necessarily a bad movie, certainly fails to live up to its high expectations.
The movie opens with the birth of its titular animal. After being sold at auction, the horse bonds with the young son of his new owner and proves to be quite a work horse, despite his smaller stature. Unfortunately, when the crops are destroyed in a storm, the family has no choice but to sell the horse to the war effort in order to afford their rent. This decision doesn’t sit well with Albert, the son who had bonded with the animal, but his youth restricts him from joining his friend in battle. The horse’s safety is promised to the boy by its new owner, Captain Nicholls, but he couldn’t even begin to know the adventures that the steed would have in the next few years.
Those adventures include charging into battle with Captain Nicholls, becoming the getaway horse for a couple of young soldiers who decide to go AWOL, and the promise of escape for a young girl suffering from a horrible illness. The horse would make many new friends—both human and equestrian—on his adventures and go by many different names, but there is always the question of whether he will find his way back home to Albert.
For all its faults, War Horse is a brilliant looking film, particularly in the final act. Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski seemingly take a page straight out of Gone with the Wind for some of the movie’s more colorful images, images that look as if they belong framed in a museum art collection. Spielberg also uses the camera well to tell the story, such as a terrific shot toward the middle of the film when the blade of a windmill is cleverly used to shield the audience from a horrific event.
There are also some terrific individual scenes within War Horse, specifically in the last half of the movie. One such scene comes when the horse races across the battlefield, determined to escape the madness of the war, leaping tanks and running through barbed wire fences. This exciting sequence is followed by a terrific quiet one, when two opposing soldiers put their differences aside long enough to work together and free the horse from the fencing that has trapped him.
Most of this good stuff happens in the second half of the movie and that is one of the film’s major faults: it starts off very slowly. The entire first act is spent prior to the war and emphasizes the bond between the horse and Albert. This is important, yes, and key to the movie’s emotional core, but after the movie takes the time to set up this relationship, it completely forgets about Albert for the middle of the movie. It seems that the crux of the story is about Albert and the horse trying to find each other amidst the chaos of war, but not seeing what is going on with Albert during the horse’s adventures seems to leave the story hanging a bit. When they inevitably reunited, it seems much more like coincidence or luck, than any effort by the two of them to reconnect.
It is also challenging at times to decipher exactly what side of the war we are seeing at any given time. As all of the soldiers are wearing similar-looking uniforms and seem to be speaking with the same accent, it is difficult to determine at any one time whether the horse is currently aiding the British, the French, or the Germans.
Although there are definitely a few things to like about War Horse, the whole is a little less than the sum of its parts.
War Horse is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of war violence.” The war scenes are definitely intense, but the blood has been toned way down from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, essentially making this movie family friendly.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of War Horse.