Guest Review: War Horse

Another guest review by Elaine Teng! Much thanks for helping me get through the end-of-year crush, Elaine.

World War I gets the Spielberg treatment in the beautifully crafted epic "War Horse."

Maybe it’s because we like feeling like the good guys, or maybe it’s because Nazis are just so fascinating, but from George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” to Robert Wise’s “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood’s attention has for years twisted and twirled around World War II. From the horrors of the Holocaust to the Battle for the Pacific, both the European and the Pacific theaters of war have been dissected, romanticized, and recreated from every angle imaginable.

In this process, its predecessor has largely been shunted to the side. Though heralded as the War to End All Wars, World War I has largely lurked in the shadows in the century since the guns finally fell quiet on the Western front, consistently cast in a supporting role to help explain and contrast the Second World War.

With two classic World War II films under his belt, Hollywood’s golden boy Steven Spielberg is perhaps the ideal man to revive the Great War on the silver screen. Choosing to frame his war story with the traditional boy-and-his-horse narrative, Spielberg’s “War Horse” is a meditation on both the cruelty and the humanity of war, told in a breathtaking, emotional style.

From the sweeping, magnificent opening shots of the idyllic English countryside set to a typically grand John Williams score, “War Horse” seeks to awe us with its beauty and majesty, even if its characters are the poorest of the poor. Ted Narracott (a quietly haunted Peter Mullan) is a humble, alcoholic farmer who buys a thoroughbred colt at an auction in a bidding war with his insufferable landlord (David Thewlis). His son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine, who challenges “Hugo”’s Asa Butterfield in the contest for bluest eyes), takes immediately to the horse, which he names Joey, and together the two overcome the obstacles of early twentieth century farm life.

While the opening segment of the film is set in this sleepy English village surrounded by verdant hills and shimmering lakes, the specter of war is never far off. When Albert questions his father’s love for drink, his mother (an outstanding, fiery Emily Watson) shows him Ted’s medals from the Boer War and explains to the boy that some wounds are simply too deep to talk about. Albert soon gets more than his share of these experiences as World War I breaks out and he follows his beloved Joey to war after the horse is sold to partake in the ill-fated cavalry charge of the British Army. It is here that the film really assumes the perspective of its title character, following Joey as he passes from the British to the Germans to the French and back again.

Though many have ridiculed Spielberg for his use of an animal to depict a war in which millions of men lost their lives, Joey’s journey is ultimately a device to capture not only the senselessness and the slaughter of the war, but also the small moments of humanity that seep through the cracks of chaos. Spielberg harnesses the same audacity and technical expertise that proved so effective in “Saving Private Ryan” to recreate the gritty, visceral horror of trench warfare and the Germans’ seemingly endless marches. Despite a penchant for demonizing the Kaiser’s men, Spielberg provides a handful of touching moments, including one tragic example of brotherly love and a remarkable scene of Anglo-German teamwork and understanding in no man’s land.

The ensemble cast of mostly British (with a few German) males acquits itself admirably, with each encapsulating his historical role perfectly. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston (another contestant in the blue-eyes club) are the embodiment of the old English aristocracy, going to war with sketchpads and Shakespeare under their arms and clinging to outdated notions of warfare in the era of modern weaponry. Emily Watson steals the scene whenever she appears, her steely blue eyes carrying the soul of the film within them, while Peter Mullan’s communicates the sadness and weariness of the era.

David Kross (the young incarnation of Ralph Fiennes’ character in “The Reader”) makes a welcome reappearance in American cinema as a young German soldier who cares for Joey, and the various soldiers of both armies convey the hopelessness and the desperation of men nearly certain of their own deaths. The only weak link might be Emilie (Celine Buckens), the young French girl who falls in love with and cares for Joey, whose conversations with her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) seem stilted and exaggerated. Still, the actors truly inhabit their roles, transporting us to 1914 and the muddy trenches and the bloody fields of France.

Yes, there are moments of sentimentality in “War Horse” that might make the more cynical moviegoer snicker or roll his eyes, and Spielberg’s latest feature is not flawless. In the attempt to win our hearts, Spielberg is afraid to lose our sympathy and dictates exactly what we should be feeling at any given moment rather than letting us feel on our own. Nonetheless, the breathtaking cinematography alone should soften the hardest heart, and combined with a touching story, brilliant execution, and a superb cast, “War Horse” is well worth a watch and provides the Great War with another rare Hollywood representative.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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