War Horse (2011)

It is very rare that our pastor recommends movies from the pulpit. Usually he preaches about...well, you know, God, the Trinity, Mary, the Eucharist and so forth. That's why when he waxed eloquently about the merits of Steven Spielberg's War Horse during a homily last year, I took note. After seeing the film, I can see why my pastor was so impressed with it.

War Horse (2011, PG-13) is about an English farm boy at the turn of the 20th century who adopts a young colt, Joey, much to the dismay of his parents who think the horse is too weak for farm work. The boy, Albert, has a extraordinary connection with the horse and lovingly trains him against all odds. This idyllic existence is threatened, however, when World War I breaks out and Joey is requisitioned by the British army. What follows is a series of calamities as Joey sees how horrid the human world can be. Meanwhile, Albert enlists in the army for the sole purpose of finding Joey and bringing him back home. 

The protagonist of this film is really Joey the horse. He is the only character who is constant, and the film is done sort of from his point of view. Joey's human owners come and go in a succession of tragedy and coincidence. Yet, while Joey is the protagonist, the one we are cheering for, the human background characters are not irrelevant. In fact, through the meaning that the various characters invest in the horse, we learn a lot about the human condition. For two German brothers looking to desert the war, Joey represents a chance at freedom; for a little sick French girl, a way to connect with her deceased parents; for a British captain to requisitions Joey, he represents the honor of the British officer class; for a German artillery division, Joey is simply a machine to pull equipment. And of course for Albert, Joey represents innocence and love.

Joey's tender youth on the farm with Albert, his capture and terrible ordeal throughout the war, and his subsequent return to Albert at the end of the horror is a classic story of departure and return, of paradise lost and regained. His youth was a kind of Eden; the war scars him and his owner on multiple levels, but when they both return to Devon at war's end, their love remains intact, although transfigured by the sufferings they endured. Ultimately the story is about the redemptive power of suffering when born for love.

Spielberg is a really great director, and there is a lot of subtle symbolism throughout this film. Towards the end of the movie, there is a part where Joey runs across the no-man's land at the Battle of the Somme and gets hopelessly tangled in some barbed wire. The soldiers of both sides find something pitiful in this condition and white flags of truce go up while a British and German soldier jointly work on getting Joey untangled. It was such a beautiful image - the tangled horse representing all the evil that man unleashes, often to such a degree that we don't know how to get ourselves out of it. Nobody knew how Joey got all tangled, and it took the cooperation of both sides, German and British, to get him out.

Yep, it's a tear-jerker. My wife cried several times. I got misty eyed a couple times, as well.

The film does have a raw edge to it. It is sentimental, but not sentimentalized; though there are several tender moments, the brutality of the period always intrudes upon them, reminding us that there is no ultimate safe haven as long as we are in this valley of tears. The film continually has us get attached to characters only to kill them off in short order. Don't get too attached to anybody! 

I am really unable to find anything bad about this movie. I don't recall there being any blasphemy. There is no sensuality. The symbolism is powerful but not overdone. Cinematography is great. Actors well chosen. As I said, sentimental, but not sentimentalizing. There are no superfluous scenes and nothing is wasted. Very masterfully done by Dreamworks. Spielberg really pulled it off with this one. I give it 3 tiaras.