Movie review: “War Horse” the tear-jerker

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Shot from War Horse

It pulls your heart strings right out of your chest.  Steven Spielberg, you stinking genius!  How do you do it, time and time again?

You start with a grown-up, flawed but wise.  Then you add a young person, precocious and special.  Mix in a creature, wild and untamed, that has a connection to the youth.  Then fold in tragic external events which complicate the bond between the youth and the enchanting animal.  Add dashes of evil, goodness, comedy, and syrup.  Bake for two hours and enjoy!  Or just cry your eyes out.

No, it’s not “E.T.,” “Gremlins” or “Jurassic Park,” but “War Horse” (2011).  Yes, I’m way overdue in watching it, but since it is set during World War I, it’s not a time-sensitive movie that requires immediate viewing.

That being said, there has been a great surge in interest in military working dogs since the inception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To me this movie felt like a natural extension of the newly rediscovered affection for animals in military service, but with horses instead of dogs.

The movie also gave Spielberg, and the rest of us, a chance to look back at the Great War.  Unlike World War II, which is the setting for many of Spielberg’s films, World War I is less morally clear, with good people on both sides of the conflict.  The English, French, and Germans are all presented sympathetically in “War Horse,” with horse-friendly humans among the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers.

The plot is not quite as predictable as I laid out in the Spielberg template above.  At the beginning, it seems that Joey, the leading horse, could become a racehorse (or maybe I had Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat on my mind).  Then it seems he’s destined to be a plow horse, then a cavalry horse, then fill other roles, but it’s rarely obvious where the war will lead Joey next.  Whether and how Joey will be reunited with Narracott, the boy who raised him, is key to the atmosphere of suspense and longing in the movie.

The landscapes of the English and French countrysides, including the Narracott cottage, are breathtaking.  The trenches and no man’s land of the battlefront are stark and horrifying.  The camera work and horse effects are real, even painful to watch at times, earning the movie its PG-13 rating.  It’s a beautiful film.

It is also maudlin and manipulative, sending stern Germans and stiff Englishmen into temporary truces for their mutual love of a beautiful, unfairly victimized horse.

Watch it, learn from it, and be prepared to discreetly wipe your eyes while you enjoy it.

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