Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

As I was watching War Horse (directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis based on the 1982 children's novel made also into an award winning play by Michael Morpurgo) it became increasingly clear to me why Steven Spielberg would have been interested in making this film.  All kinds of themes present in previous Spielberg films are present here (1) concern that E.T. [1982], Private Ryan [1998], even the Jewish captives on Schindler's List [1993] make it home safely, (2) depictions of complex heroes with their own stories who come to decide to risk their lives to help them reach safety, (3) the horror of war/terror (Schindler's List [1993], Saving Private Ryan [1998], Band of Brothers [2001]) and finally (4) war's moral ambiguity Saving Private Ryan [1998], Munich [2005]).

I write this because War Horse is not merely about a horse, even though the horse himself is important.  However, War Horse is at least as much about the various human caretakers that this poor suffering horse had over the years who helped him survive the all but unsurvivable, the cataclysm of World War I where people themselves (never mind the animals) were being gunned-down and gassed like roaches on a monstrous mechanized industrial scale.

In the midst of this slaughter, Joey the horse, passes from one temporary owner / caretaker to another and yes, makes it -- beaten, bruised but survives.  And through the sufferings of this poor horse the whole horror of that awful war is expressed.  Much of course happens as this horse passes from the care of Albert Narracott (played by Jeremy Irvine) and his parents Ted and Rose (played by Paul Mullan and Emily Watson respectively) to British Cavalry officer Captain Nichols (played by Tom Hiddleston) at the beginning of the war, then to two young German brothers, Gunther and Friedrich (played by David Kross and Nicolas Bro) in the German army after Captain Nichols is presumably killed in a Cavalry charge, then to a young Belgian girl named Emilie (played by Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (played by Niels Arestrup) who find the horse on their property one day, then to Brant (played by Rainer Bock) a German sergeant responsible for horses moving heavy artillery equipment when the German army comes back to requisition him and to finally two soldiers, one British, one German (played by Himmerk Schoenemann) who find the horse one day trapped in barbed-wire in no-man's and come-out of the trenches in order to set him free.

It's a lovely story and often often a very sad one for what happens to both the humans and the animals portrayed in the film during the course of the war.

The last incident when the two soldiers, one British and one German, come out to save the horse is an artistic expression of a phenomenon that occurred repeatedly on all fronts during the whole of World War I.  My grandparents' generation (in my family, my grandfathers and great uncles served in both the Austrian and Russian armies) had many similar stories about kindness shown by common soldiers on both sides of the trenches during the war.  World War I was still a war where most of the common soldiers really didn't see a purpose in the conflict and often just wanted to survive, _not commit mortal sin_ and go home.  Hence the British soldier's comment to the German one reassuring him: "I'm a terrible shot, and I'm absolutely certain that I'll come home having shot over the heads of every single German soldier I've ever seen," was almost certainly a sincere one.  During the first Christmas of war in 1914, French, German and British soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other over the trenches.  None of the common people on any of the sides really wanted that war.

Hence, I thank Steven Spielberg who grew-up certainly hearing many similar stories (as well as then stories of the horrors of the universally much more "bought-into" and hence crueler Second World War) for making this film.  9/11 did a lot to our country.  But I'm certainly of a generation (as I suspect that Steven Spielberg is) who still REALLY wants to "Give Peace a Chance" and remembers that for most people "War, what is it good for? Absolutely Nothing."

Finally, parents should note that the battle depictions in War Horse are at least as intense as those in Saving Private Ryan [1998] or Band of Brothers [2001].  Hence the PG-13 rating is fully appropriate and younger children should probably not be taken along to see this film.

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>


  1. wow...sounds like a real heavy movie. i'm not sure about this one. i think it's still difficult for me to get emotionally connected to a horse....

  2. Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments. Great review Dennis.

  3. Hi Candice and dtmmr, the first thing to remember here about this movie is that it's based on a children's book. From the times of Aesop's fables (which go back to 600 BC!) to Charlotte's Web, animals have often been the principle protagonists/heroes in children's stories.

    Then the story is easily as much about the various people who take care of the horse as the horse itself.

    Finally, Spielberg has made all kinds of movies about the lonely individual or small group who needs help to survive (or go home). Think of this movie as "E.T." (or Private Ryan) who happens to be a horse ;-).

    This still may not be enough to get you to see the movie. And that's certainly okay. I wouldn't call it exactly a "must see." And I myself was quite skeptical of the movie until I read some of the initial reviews of it. Roger Ebert was the one who I read who first compared War Horse to Saving Private Ryan (and Schindler's List).

    All I can say is that War Horse, like the other "animal movie" our this Christmas (We Bought a Zoo) do have more to them than perhaps initially meets the eye.

    Thanks much for your comments!