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War Horse: Movie Review

Submitted by on January 6, 2012 – 10:18 am4 Comments
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Steven Spielberg‘s latest film isn’t narrated by the horse. Of course, two-and-a-half hours of a  constant equine voice-over (or, God forbid, a 3-D, CGI talking animal) might have gotten tedious. But the young adults novel on which the movie is based was indeed narrated by Joey, the titular animal; and this particular diversion illustrates an overall move away from Joey as the central character in the film. What’s left are practically independent stories and characters that rarely delve past simple sentimentality, and a horse that loses almost all of his potency as a symbol for universal hope and humanity.

War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo‘s 1982 novel of the same name, and follows the plot fairly faithfully. Joey is bought by an alcoholic farmer in rural England, but immediately develops a deep, unbreakable bond with the man’s son, Albert. But Joey is soon sold to the army at the outbreak of World War I. In France, Joey is captured and recaptured by the Germans, but in between is cared for by a kind Frenchman and his granddaughter, and is even nursed to health by a German soldier. After escaping on to a battlefield, Joey eventually brings together a German and British soldier who cross lines to free him from barbed wire. Meanwhile, Albert lies about his age to join the army, and sets out on a daring quest to find his horse and survive the horrors of war.

I fully admit that my opinion is totally biased from having seen the brilliant New York stage adaptation of War Horse. That version might actually have made the story darker, but it produced a more complex picture of the confusion and terror of war. The moral lines in Spielberg’s War Horse are still drawn pretty clearly: any possibility of serious conflict within the family is removed; notions of bravery are discussed, but not really challenged; and any unlikeable British soldier characters are brushed aside, while the sympathetic German characters are reduced to token inclusions. And while the movie is nowhere near “sanitized”, the graphic battle scenes seem to lack the stomach-turning realism of, for example, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

The movie does feature some stunning cinematography, benefiting greatly from shooting on location in the green English countryside.

Did you see the film? What did you think?

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