As humans, we are capable of some horrible things. We betray, we abandon, we quarrel, and we kill. We have evolved to the top of the food chain, and yet our animal instinct is to act so badly towards each other. Strange as it seems sometimes true humanity exists more in the animal kingdom than it does in mankind.
WAR HORSE begins with a colt named Joey being born. As he is brought into this world, he instantly captures the imagination of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a boy who lives in the property next door. One day, his imagination is turned loose when his father comes home having bought Joey from auction. Despite the fact that Albert trains Joey to be a very valuable asset to the family’s meager farm, his father sees the purchase as a mistake and sells Joey into the war effort in the hopes that the money will keep the family afloat.
Before he is taken away, Albert pleads with the captain (Tom Hiddleston)who buys Joey to do the right thing. The Captain rebukes Albert politely, but assures him that he will take excellent care of Joey and make efforts to return him to Albert when the war ends. As The British Army begins to break Joey, it at first appears that he is too wild to make a good war horse. However, he soon proves himself a valuable asset – as strong and as fast as any horse in the regiment.
As the war goes on, Joey finds himself drifting from owner to owner as events happen. Sometimes his efforts are going towards one side, sometimes the other. Other times he is able to gain some respite as he finds places unaffiliated with the war effort. As we follow Joey from pale to place, we see The Great War through many people’s eyes and slowly start to wonder if Joey can ever find a peaceful and permanent home amongst so much madness.
My wife has always told me about the loyalty animals are capable of, and it anything demonstrates that argument it’s this story. Joey doesn’t feel resentment, or cynicism, or anger – he is only determined. He is determined to stay alive, to keep others alive, and prove himself. He is noble and driven – all very human qualities that many humans can lack. While he shares a deep affinity for Albert, he is no less true to anyone who shows him respect, regardless of the flag they fly. Be it the French girl, the German master of arms, or the English officer, Joey’s nature is very simple: Be good to me and I’ll be good to you. Watching him continually observe this rule for citizen and soldier on both sides of the line is both beautiful and encouraging.
The other uplifting element of the story is the idea that we are all capable of exceeding expectation. Time and again, Joey is regarded as “The Wrong Horse”. He’s too small, too wild, too hurt. Right from his beginnings, when Albert prods him to plow a field, he proves that notions should never be regarded as gospel. Just as a race horse can be a work horse, we’re all capable of anything with the right amount of determination and motivation. It’s the sort of story element consistent with many other Spielberg films, and one that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been called too slow, too small, too old, or any other “too”.
On the surface, WAR HORSE might be about a noble pony, but it’s about much more than that. For starters, it’s about a war that much of this generation knows little about. That war, besides tearing up much of a continent and bringing the fight to people’s backyards, was one that was particularly brutal. Men would sacrifice their lives on muddy battlefields just to advance their army’s position fifty yards. Often their orders were essentially suicide missions, and all of the fighting involved close-contact. It’s a war that has been largely forgotten almost 100 years later, and one that sets an emotional stage for Steven Spielberg to tell his tale from.
It is these scenes set on and around the battlefield where WAR HORSE excels. The visual bloodshed has been toned down, but the realization of what we are seeing is no less intense. These scenes also allow the film to take a haunting turn sometimes as we pull back to see the carnage the violence has left behind. While nobody will confuse these moments for the shock and awe of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Spielberg has nevertheless proved that he can capture the horror of war like few others. It’s in these scenes, where we find ourselves worrying not about a soldier but a steed that the film earns its stripes.
The overall tone of the film is one of majesty – one where every shot and musical note are designed to evoke something grand. For some, this could be off-putting as it could feel like the film is overplaying its hand. I, for one, believe that the film is trying to think long-term and try to be something that ages well. Whether it achieves that will remain to be seen.
What will surprise anyone who can see past the ill-conceived marketing of this film is how many moments of humour, intensity, and true beauty lay within. Yes, on the surface it’s “a movie about a horse”, but where that horse goes and who he interacts with make for a wonderful film. In some ways, it feels like a timeless story – not sappy or corny but instead warm and inspiring. It includes some incredible sequences and paints a more violent picture than one would think at first glance. It’s a movie filled with gorgeous photography, some unforgettable scenes, and true humanity.
Those who pass on it because it’s “a movie about a horse” are missing out.