Steven Spielberg’s epic drama War Horse opened this week, banking on the raw cinematic power of horses to do what they do so well in their everyday lives: perform brute work for humans and get almost nothing for it.
War Horse does an unusually fair job of dealing with its equine characters while holding them at some distance from the viewer—an uncommon choice on the part of the director, given that this is Spielberg and Spielberg is all about sentiment.
The story is simple: Albert, a Devonshire country boy, meets Joey, a horse. Albert teaches Joey to pull a plow and save the farm. A natural disaster causes the farm to fail anyway; Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry to pay his debt to his landlord and the horse goes off to fight in the First World War (that’s two saves for Joey).
Albert swears he’ll find his four-footed friend and bring him home. Both heroes, boy and horse, go forward into a maelstrom of fear and violence that turns out to be far worse than anyone dreamed. Albert hopes for a positive outcome. Joey, of course, has no hope to nurture. But through persistence, bravery and improbable luck, they both gain shelter and (come on, you knew this was coming) a bittersweet end.
This is a remarkably restrained reading of the classic adolescent-meets-animal cliché, and it prepares the audience gently for the wrenching motion of the story. Spielberg’s first elegant move in War Horse is his depiction of an animal that becomes radiantly beautiful simply by being itself: frisking and rearing at his mother’s heels, refusing to come when called, bolting madly at a light snap of Albert’s whip.
The horse’s physicality is a crucial component of the story. Joey, with his burnished hide and enormously liquid eyes, is either going to meet death or crash violently into it. Either way, the scenes are going to be harrowing.
How is War Horse as a movie for children? Let’s start with a basic premise. The compassionate treatment of animals is an open question, if not an urgent one, in many American households. Most kids learn benevolence (if they do) by feel. The touch of warm fur is a powerful inducement toward nonverbal communication. Only by using gentleness can a child earn a response from a cat or dog. War is outside the emotional purview of children. Love is not.
Most of us aren’t capable of embracing the implication of war in all its dimensions. War Horse gets to the issue obliquely by giving viewers an innocent being to follow, one showing no human emotion. Joey can’t anticipate. He can only go forward. We can’t read his face. It’s also comforting to imagine, as the movie progresses, that there could be something occupying Albert’s imagination besides pointless death…..
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