Joey: A “War Horse” you’ll never forget
Opening Christmas day, director Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is a heartwarming epic of well, Spielbergian proportions and a fitting present for film fans of all ages. Even hardened critics who might like the film will find room to criticize the film’s relentless effort to charm and thrill without an ounce of cynicism. But Spielberg’s ability to pull it off in this day and age makes a beautiful story told so grandly all the more precious. Combining his skills for action and adventure, “War Horse” shows a director still at the top of his game, a man still looking for the wonder of his childhood and the human potential for goodness. It helps that nothing in film quite equals the majesty of a running horse in full gallop.
Yes, let’s not forget the star of “War Horse,” culled from Michael Morpugo’s 1982 best-seller. Told from the perspective of a gorgeous chestnut steed named Joey, the plot begins in the rough rural country of pre-WWI Britain where the horse is auctioned off to a drunken farmer (Peter Mullen). His teenage son Albert (James Irvine) grows to love Joey, and the bond increases as the thoroughbred demonstrates the will to plough even the unforgiving fields of Devonshire. These scenes, shot using artificial light and expansive panning recall Westerns of old yet give little inkling to the gripping drama to come. Like over a million horses that were called into duty during the Great War, Joey is sold into military duty where he serves first with the British cavalry, then an achingly painful turn in the German infantry, with a brief respite near a French farmhouse under the care of a loving grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens).
The emotional climax finds the horse thrown into “No Man’s Land,” among the trenches and barbed wire of the war’s most fiercely fought battles. It is here where Spielberg, no doubt relying on his “Saving Private Ryan” experience and, even more remarkably, few computer aided effects, displays some of recent cinema’s most unbelievably heart wrenching and authentically depicted scenes involving an animal of any kind.
Perhaps the key to appreciating “War Horse” is the way the film allows us, just like Albert, to fall in love with this magnificent stallion who exudes nobility and engenders affection with everyone who crosses his path. Anyone who has bonded with a horse knows how transcendent an experience this can be, and Spielberg has fashioned a timeless classic out of a horse’s journey that powerfully and memorably becomes our journey as well.
Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of war violence.