Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse

Grade: 91 (A)

War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s finest film since 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg’s other film this year, The Adventures of Tintin, revisited his glorious adventure-movie past while playing with a new technology in moviemaking. War Horse brings together Spielberg’s glorious, innocent past, his marvelous prestige pictures, and even plays with a new structure worthy of his more exploratory works from the past decade. The film is a combination of E.T. and Saving Private Ryan, bringing together his ability to celebrate childhood innocence and depict its end. The film does not have a human protagonist, but rather uses a horse as a window to the horrors of war.

Joey, pure-bred animal bought by local drunken farmer Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan). Narracot’s wife Rose (Emily Watson) laments that they needed a work-horse, and that her husband’s folly will ruin them. But his teenaged son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine in a memorable debut), trains Joey and develops a friendship with the animal. Joey and Albert’s pluck nearly save the farm from their landlord (David Thewlis), but when disaster strikes the farm and the Great War comes to Europe, Ted must sell Joey to Captain Lyons of the British Army (Tom Hiddleston). Lyons promises to take good care of Joey and return him if he can, but when he’s killed in battle, Joey goes through extraordinary circumstances, traveling through German, British, and French territory, until he finds his way home.

Spielberg is in top form with War Horse: the film begins as a “boy and his dog” story as filmed by John Ford; the English location is as painterly and gorgeous as any shot in The Quiet Man. Yet the beautiful village of Devin is not without its strife: Albert’s parents are together, but that’s no doubt in part because of the time period. They have as complicated a marriage as any in a Spielberg film. The consequences of a failed harvest will put the Narracots out of their home, and no doubt Albert’s beloved horse, his only companion, would be lost. Yet, through great perseverance, Albert and Joey fight to keep the farm going. The scene in which Albert and Joey manage to plow the field, however simple, is one of the most affecting Spielberg scenes in recent memory.

The film explores several classic Spielbergian themes: the dark side of technology as World War I makes mince meat out of men. Selfishness blinds men to the treatment of others: a local farmer (Niels Arestrup) is barely able to keep any food for himself and his sickly granddaughter after the French soldiers claim they need all the food they can get; when they discover Joey in their barn, they take him too. The film’s horses are treated terribly in order to keep the war effort going; it may be a necessary evil, but the evil of the carnage is unmistakable.

More than anything else, the film shows an end to childhood innocence. Albert complains that his father is a drunk, and that he should be proud of his participation in the Boer War rather than ashamed. But Albert and others will learn too well the horrors of war: young British soldiers (including Captain Lyons) are killed in a cavalry charge, and Joey is taken by the German army; two young German soldiers, barely old enough to fight, desert, and are shot for their troubles. The lush and fertile lands of France are destroyed by the carnage. Albert enlists in the war effort, and only near the end does he understand the difference between doing what’s necessary and doing good. Saving a young man who treated him callously, for example, is damn near the only decent thing he can do in the middle of this mess.

Spielberg’s use of horses (pure and simple creatures) as symbols for men (just as many animals die in the war as men) could come off as heavy-handed, even hokey. But Spielberg’s honesty and earnestness in every frame of the film, not to mention his mastery of empathy, sells every moment and earns every catharsis. It is only through great struggle that something good comes from something horrible. It’s a story Spielberg has spent the past thirty-five years telling, masterfully each time. Spielberg expresses his view in a sage line from Arestrup: “What could be braver than that?”

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