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War Horse (2011)

[This review was originally published at Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image.]

Was there a horse story in your childhood?

My wife Anne cherished Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, C.W. Anderson’sThe Blind Connemara, and Marguerite Henry’s Stormy and White Stallion of Lipizza. When she wasn’t reading about horses, she was riding them. In the saddle by the time she was in elementary school, Anne rode both English and Western. My favorite photograph from her childhood, she’s astride a leaping horse, looking like she was born for it.

Me, I treasured Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. I didn’t grow up around horses, but Carol Ballard’s fantastic 1979 big-screen adaptation of The Black Stallion made me fall in love with the sight of horses charging across an open field—or an open silver screen.

Steven Spielberg knows this. And by following a magnificent horse into a war zone, he finds a new way to reveal the best and the worst in humankind, even as he honors an animal often exploited and abused for our own violent purposes.

War Horse is an epic story about nobility, courage, endurance, humankind at its worst, creation at its best, and flickers of hope in the dark—a movie of emotions as large and forceful as the animal that inspires them.

Spielberg’s episodic tale starts at a comfortable storytelling pace, then slowly builds to a gallop. Each chapter gives us different views of human nature and the effects of war through the trials of a horse named Joey at the hands of different masters. War Horse is a sort of Au hasard Balthazar for the whole family.

Each episode leads us to indelible sights and sounds—a furrowed field revealed in a gorgeous transitional fade; horses pulling burdensome artillery up a steep incline; horses hurtling forward in the illusion of advantage toward a wall of death; a windmill that graciously turns to shield us from the sight of carnage; a silhouette of suffering amidst barbed wire that literally shook the moviegoers beside me until they were gasping.

Heavy stuff for a family movie.

And yet early reviews have called War Horse “torpid,” “lachrymose…buttery,” and even, “a piece of hopelessly middle-of-the-road entertainment and artificial uplift.”

To be fair, Spielberg usually deserves criticism for sentimentality. Just yesterday in aChristianity Today overview of Spielberg’s career, I noted that his movies often insist that we feel something before that feeling’s been earned, or, if the emotion has been earned, the movie goes on demanding it from us as if we’re unresponsive. We end up reacting orsurrendering to heavy-handed methods and belligerent musical cues, instead of freely discovering our own emotional reactions.

But I’ll fight for War Horse—its close-ups, its tidal waves of John Williams’ score, its painterly skies, even its simplistic character sketches.

Why? Three reasons: its source material, its intended audience, and its celebration of the romantic, emotional epics of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

It is crucial to remember what many critics who dismiss this film have forgotten: War Horse, recently a successful stage play, began as British author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for young readers. Critics who complain that the horse seems anthropomorphized should note: In the novel, the horse understands English, French, and German.

It’s a children’s story. “Once upon a time” would have been a fine way to start. Would you look a child in the eye and coldly announce that The Black Stallion is an artificial, unrealistic, sentimental fantasy?

A critic for The Guardian complained, “From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this War Horse is rooted in a buffed-up, sanded-down vision of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.” Go figure: It’s a storybook!

Spielberg could have given World War One its Saving Private Ryan. He almost does; these battlefield scenes are clearly staged and directed by the same man who brought us that film and Schindler’s List. But this time he’s respecting the younger audience he’s invited to tour these nightmares. He’s kneeling down to make eye contact and say, “Keep your eyes on the horse. Joey will carry you through this. Trust me.”

Considering the source and subject, why not embrace not only the conventions of treasured storybooks but also the look, emotions, and grandiosity of films that captivated audiences in the aftermath of World War One? There’s method in Spielberg’s nods to the vast battlefield spectacles that recall All Quiet on the Western Front and the Technicolor enthusiasm of Gone with the Wind.

Is it so episodic that its characters remain simplistic? Yes. But it’s a story about a horse on the move, traveling from chapter to chapter, from community to community, pulling a thread that ends up uniting otherwise disparate, warring characters and nations. Some complain that too many characters call Joey “a remarkable horse,” but that seemed like a meaningful storyteller’s ploy to me. Young and old, French and British and German, soldier and farmer—their differences seem to dissolve when they stop and really see the mystery that’s pawing at the ground in front of them.

Best of all, the film builds to one of the most powerful moments of crisis and resolution in all of Spielberg’s films, one that recalls a historical Christmas miracle.

Have you seen the films A Midnight Clear or Joyeux Noël? Both movies celebrate World War One’s Christmas Truce of 1914, when French, German, and Scottish soldiers set down their weapons in order to acknowledge and respect something more important than their violent quarrel—something heaven-sent, a mystery, a reminder that what divides us is not as powerful as what brings us together. It might be a song.

Or a horse.

The cinemas are crowded with fantasy films and war movies that seem to be in a contest. Who can stage the most elaborate battle? Who can give us the most sensational experience of battle?

War Horse shines out like a beacon of sanity in the madness, reminding us what’s really at stake, what war-making ways will cost us even if we have the best intentions, even if we win.

Thus, while it’s made to look like a movie made seventy years ago, War Horse is right on time—a Christmas movie for all of us, right now.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is an author, editor, and professor with an MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University, Covenant College) and film studies (Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's been a columnist and critic for Christianity Today, Image, and Books & Culture, and his writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly visits universities, conferences, and churches to lecture in the U.S. and abroad. Would you like him to edit your work? Want to have him speak to your community? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.