When I went to see War Horse the other night, I had my doubts about the film. Though I try to avoid other opinions, I had heard it called “a sleeper” and imagined what I fear in all horse movies: too many graceful jumps showcasing the horses beauty, a child with an unrealistic emotional attached to the creature and the possibility of an Old Yeller end where I cynically cheer on the gunman. Thankfully, Steven Spielberg has made War Horse was like no other horse movie I had ever seen.
In England, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is fascinated by a beautiful newborn colt. At the auction, his father gets in a bidding war with their landlord and ends up buying the colt for more than they can afford. The only thing that will keep the family on their land is getting the new horse to plow a rocky field. With the whole town watching, Albert and the colt, Joey (Finder Key, the same horse that played Seabiscuit), pull off only the first miraculous moment of the film.
Now, the relationship between Albert and Joey does get a bit emotional. Seeing a boy in his mid-teens get all starry eyed over a horse might be an eye-roll for some. I felt that way only for a little while. Albert has enough good qualities (patience, determination, strength to keep his family together) that we allow him a few tears as a boy. The war will make a man out of him soon enough.
When Wold War I starts up, the family is still not financially well, so they sell the horse to the army. Albert vows that he will find Joey again, attaching an old banner his father brought home when he returned from war to the horse. What follows is one hell of a journey for a horse, through battlefields on either side of the war. He becomes instrumental in the fate of nearly every person that he encounters during the war, and their kindness towards him and others is remarkable.
One of my favorite scenes is when Joey is discovered in no-man’s-land. During battle, he ran blindly, scared and got tangled in barbed wire. The trench warfare scenes are some of the best I’ve seen since All Quiet on the Western Front. While the firing has stopped, soldiers from both sides help free him from the wire. For a few moments, there is peace between the two enemies as they work together and peacefully decide which side will take the horse. They even trade names and shake hands. Somehow, the animal bring out the humanity in both sides, and it feels authentic, not overplayed.
Those who are very sensitive to pain in animals may want to reconsider seeing War Horse. The gritty realities of war are shown here, and they affect the horses just as much as the humans. Some scenes depict the horses being shot in battle, worked to death and horribly tangled in barbed wire. The mass grave of dead horses left my jaw hanging for a moment. This is certainly not a horse movie for little girls.
War Horse is nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Original Score. Obviously, the film excels technically. For what lag there may be in plot or a lack of big name actors, the sound quality and beauty of the film more than makes up for it. It is the only Best Picture nominations that can feel like an epic, and leaves you with an old world sense of beauty and bravery.
While I had prepared myself to be bored with War Horse, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Visually, it was beautifully rich and my eyes gladly soaked it all in. The story kept me engaged for the most part, though there was one very predictable climactic moment. What I think I enjoyed the most was the intensity and reality depicted, both during the war and before it on the family farm. There was purpose, meaning and a drive behind everything Albert and Joey did. And that makes for a pretty good movie, that just happens to be about a horse.
“It is an honor to ride beside you.”
If the Academy is looking to award an epic film that draws on technical beauty and a sense of duty and bravery, the Oscar for Best Picture will go to War Horse.