When I saw scenes from War Horse, the Broadway production, on the Tony Awards early this year, I was mesmerized and thought I would love to see this story in person. When I later heard that it was going to be a live-action movie from Steven Spielberg, I knew I’d probably never watch it.
As much as I love Mr. Spielberg, I just cannot watch movies where I know going in that animals will appear to be hurt. Even with that disclaimer at the end about no animals being harmed, my little brain cannot get past what the filmmakers want me to believe, that the animals are being hurt.
So when the opportunity to preview War Horse came about, I asked my movie buff husband, J.F. DiMarzio, to see the film and review it here. Now that I know a little more about it (I actually like spoilers with movies like this so I know what to expect) I may even see it myself. Spoilers are marked at the end if you’d like to avoid them:
When the Oscars come around a few weeks, War Horse will most likely win everything it is nominated for, and deservedly so. Steven Speilberg has crafted an amazing movie. If you are familiar with, and a fan of, Spielberg movies you will not be let down. The lighting, cinematography, and sound design are impeccable.
All of the standard elements of a Spielberg movie are present and accounted for: close up on emotional facial reaction shot, check; obligatory crowd scene where everyone is looking at something that you cant see, check; locations are as much a character in the movie as the people, check; amazing John Williams score, check. Honestly, this is all I was expecting out of War Horse. After seeing the trailer I was not interested in the story at all, I did not want to see a glorified war movie about a boy missing his horsey..boo hoo. That is what I was expecting going into War Horse.
However, what Steven Spielberg managed to do is divided the 2 hour and 20 minute movie into five distinct parts; five distinct stories about people that are woven together by the story of the horse. This is not to say that the horse is a secondary character in the film, you are aware of its presence throughout every minute of the journey, but you find yourself gravitating more to the stories of the people who come into contact with the horse, than the horse itself. Each story in the movie is unique and each one could have been an amazing short on it’s own.
The story of War Horse plays out over the backdrop of World War I. Given Spielberg’s track record for war films (WWII ala Saving Private Ryan), you may be expecting a violent and realistically gritty portrayal of World War I, and you would be only half right. Yes, the war is gritty and dirty, but because of the delicate handling of a very complex story 95% of all of the violence is shielded from the camera’s immediate view. Showing realistic war violence would surely have overshadowed the surrounding story.
This does not mean that the story is violence-free. There are some scenes that are very tough to take, even without the violence, but again Spielberg tempers this. He manages to take the most harsh and violent scene in the movie and, before letting the audience get lost in greif, follows it up with the funniest scene of the film. In short, the overall theme of the movie is brought home beautifully in the line: there are big days, and there are small days, and this is a very big day.
Is War Horse perfect? No, it has its faults (to read about those however, requires a few spoilers), but you will quickly forgive its faults after getting lost in its story.
Spoiler Alert below the photo >>>
So what is wrong with War Horse? Steven Spielberg managed to figuratively turn a horse into Jesus, and it wasn’t necessary. Lest you think I’m exaggerating: The opening scene of the moving has the horse being born to a mare with no stallion in sight, symbolic of the virgin birth. A stretch you say? Wait, it gets better. The horse is immediately labeled as ‘miraculous’, for no apparent plot reason. Over the course of the movie it is crucified, dies for the sins of the warring nations, is resurrected after they realize the error of their ways, has its feet washed to reveal its divinity, and even heals the blind. A better name for this movie might have been Jesus Christ Superhorse – I kid.
Does it really detract all that much from the overall story? Only slightly, and only depending on how much thought you put into it. Is the horse (Joey) literally crucified? No. However, it what is the most disturbing scenes in the movie, the horse runs head long through a battlefield. Because the horse never learned to jump (a running theme in he movie) he barrels through barbed-wire barricades, eventually becoming so entangled in the barbs that he is flipped motionless through the air and comes to rest on the ground in a mass of wire with a cross shaped wooden support on its back. The warring nations break from their fighting and each sends a representative into the middle of the battlefield to cut free (resurrect) the horse.
If you can get past the overt correlation between the bible narrative and War Horse then it is still an amazing movie that will surely go down as one of history’s finest.
For real Spielberg fans, or those wishing to learn more about the filming process and story, watch this Q&A with director Steven Spielberg: