Before viewing War Horse, the latest Steven Spielberg film, my first thought was, “Oh no. Not another horse movie.” Horse movies tend to portray the underdog horse and its owner working together to beat the odds in some sort of contest. Next.
With War Horse, that’s only partly true. Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is a teenage farmer’s son who embraces the challenge of training Joey, a young horse his drunk and impulsive father bought at the market. Frustrated with Joey, Albert’s father sells him to the British military when World War I breaks out. From there the story follows Joey through his experience going from unlikely plow horse to war horse.
Although it’s nearly impossible to escape the routine theme of a majestic horse capturing the heart of some underdog boy, War Horse breaks away from the mold by throwing a little Homeward Bound in with the Hidalgo. Joey was never trained for war; he was trained for plowing and got thrown into war, all the while looking for a way back to Albert.
Even though the subplot involves English vs. Germans in the early days of WWI, the story develops characters from both sides. Germans and Englishmen alike possess both virtues and vices. A farm boy, an English officer, German soldiers, and bystanders: Joey captures the affection of all. Aside from our knowledge of history, the movie avoids portraying either side as particularly good or evil. Good and evil individuals exist on both sides, because it’s really about Joey’s journey, not the war.
Joey’s path resembles our walk through life as believers. We find enemies, find friends, experience pain, lose faith, and regain peace. We can do little if anything to control our own path. But no matter how far we’re separated, God finds ways to give us hope when hope is lost. Joey’s efforts and striving don’t get him anywhere. Neither does mine. Nor yours. God is ultimately in control, and He and He alone will bring us home. But not before making us stronger in His own special ways.
Despite its rich message, War Horse wasn’t as good as it could have been. Throughout the film Joey is a passive character blown around like a feather in the wind. He doesn’t make mistakes; he doesn’t experience success. He only has luck, good and bad. Much like some of Spielberg’s other films, such as A.I. and War of the Worlds, the protagonist lacks depth, as if he didn’t have much choice in the actions he took. This problem is just the risk you take when your protagonist is a horse, a robot…or Tom Cruise.
The film misses the mark in failing to account for why Albert admires Joey so much in the first place. We see a brief intro of Albert stumbling across Joey’s mother in the pasture as she gives birth, and we see Albert trying to feed him an apple when Joey is still a colt. But there is nothing all that remarkable about Joey compared to any other horse his age. Aside from Albert, some good characters respond to the horse realistically, recognizing his value. They respect Joey and genuinely look out for his well-being as best they can. But other characters who are ready to risk their lives after one look at Joey cross the believability line.
Regardless of the film’s mood, you won’t make it to the end without laughing. The humor is both subtle and unexpected: a territorial goose. A German and Englishman in no-man’s-land. Stubborn horses. These scenes, among others, work well to release tension that continues to build throughout the movie.
The fact that the German characters all speak English may distract some viewers. Their only distinguishing German trait, it seems, is their spiked helmets.
The casting director did well in selecting characters who succeed in making the viewer forget that he or she is watching a movie. Sometimes the characters’ reasoning is difficult to understand, but this is more of an issue with the script than the acting.
As the film takes place during a war, characters do die. No surprise there. Unfortunately, it’s also no surprise which ones.
Even though War Horse received a PG-13 rating, scenes of abuse to horses and horses in mortal peril may upset viewers. Overall, War Horse receives high marks as it works all the viewer’s emotions. Even without saying a word, Joey takes on his own personality, and the cinematographers shot the film in such a way that even if it were muted, viewers could easily tell what Joey might be thinking.
Trevor Main has a B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College, Chicago, and is working on his master’s degree in communication at Dallas Theological Seminary. His ministry experience with Youth With a Mission has taken him across Europe, Africa, and Asia.
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