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War Horse: Swept Away with Nostalgia

By Meredith Alloway · December 26, 2011

A film like War Horse hasn’t come around in a long time. It’s an ode to the classics, to the age where cinema was sweetly entertaining and large, sweeping landscapes were something to be cherished rather than scoffed at. Within the first few minutes of the film, you feel restless in your seat: it’s a little too cheesy to be true. Spielberg’s famous “face”, where the dolly glides into the character’s vulnerable, glowing gaze may be overtly, unabashedly epic; but eventually the film’s grandeur sets in, and as usual with Spielberg, we’re swept away.

Bringing to life a complex, compelling and emotionally provoking protagonist isn’t an easy task, and not only does War Horse accomplish this, it does so with, most obviously, a horse. It’s quite possibly one of the most interesting non-human, non-verbal main characters cinema has seen, next to E.T. and Jurassic Park…oh, wait-wasn’t that? Yup, same guy.

Spielberg continues his exploration of humanity through human/non-human interactions beautifully with his new subject: Joey. We first meet the thoroughbred in the rolling green pastures of Devon, a small 20th century village where the land is your livelihood. Joey is bought at auction by a tiresome farmer, Ted (Peter Mullan), who hopes the horse can plow his fields and produce a good crop for his family. When the horse proves more difficult than expected, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) decides to train him. The boy forms a bond with Joey, who soon proves his worth.

Just as the First World War begins, Ted sells Joey to the Calvary. Captain Nicholls played elegantly and stoically by Tom Hiddleston, is the first of many faces Joey will encounter throughout the war, and luckily, he’s as compassionate as Albert. But Joey doesn’t stay anywhere for long, and like such films as Cold Mountain, we see into his character as he encounters people along his pathway home. There is the young German soldier Gunther (David Cross), who runs away from battle on Joey’s back, Emilie, a vivacious French girl who befriends him at her grandfather’s farm and then the ruthless army who use Joey to transport heavy weaponry. As the war continues, and the battles escalade, Joey fights to triumph through his own.

It’s a plot we’ve seen before, a love story to be quite honest; and, after all, screenwriter Richard Curtis did find greatest success in the romantic comedy genre. Boy meets horse, they fall in love, they’re separated, they fight to be reunited once again. I never said it wasn’t a classic. But War Horse finds its legs and races past many other attempts at this genre because of its characters. Spielberg is a master at characters.

Each person Joey meets is given undivided attention. You care about everyone. Screen-time is no gauge for Spielberg. He loads every image with exposition, insight and a measure of vulnerability and strength. As Emilie watches her beloved Joey being dragged away by Calvary, the camera lingers just long enough to show us the extremity of her devastation and also just how impacting her relationship with Joey has been. We fear for her; and we also hope.

Spielberg doesn’t use this method for no reason either. He knows he must hook his audience early on, so in the end, we feel for the characters and walk away affected. Some may call this manipulation, but others call it entertainment.

War Horse doesn’t pretend to be nuanced. It’s not trying to break barriers or be brutally honest or shock its viewers into an online blog-obsessed debate. It’s John Ford, it’s Gone With the Wind; it’s everything captivating about the age-old power of the American cinema. It’s something we’ve all forgotten, and this season, should try not to forget.