Sunday, December 25, 2011

“War Horse” Directed by Steven Spielberg

Film Review by Jack Silbert
In my lifetime, there have been many notable horse movies: International Velvet, Black Stallion, Phar Lap, Sylvester, and Seabiscuit quickly come to mind. And I didn't see ANY of them. Why? Horses are for girls! (Though I did think Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken was an awesome title, and I used it as the chorus of a song I wrote. I didn't write a song, just a chorus.)

But war is for boys. So could this be the equine flick that would finally make me saddle up? Add my man Spielberg to the proceedings and the answer was a resounding yes. And I almost liked this movie a whole lot. Almost.

Immediately, the movie has a different feel to it. An old-fashioned feel. You're almost surprised that War Horse is filmed in color. There isn't any cynicism here, or bad language, or graphic violence. And not a lot of subtlety either. The plot is straightforward: Crusty farmer outbids conniving land owner for wild young horse. That horse will never plow a field, ha ha! Farmer's strident son trains the horse and proves everyone wrong. The British army take the horse away to World War I. Will the boy and horse be reunited? Well, this is a Spielberg movie.

But is it a children's movie? I'll say yes, but certainly for kids of a particular age, temperament, and maturity. Its official rating is PG-13 “for intense sequences of war violence,” and there are a couple of battlefield scenes here—during and after—that are pretty intense. Not in terms of gore or bullets, mind you. But war is scary, and this movie definitely conveys that idea. For a kid who can handle that, there are some important lessons here: of friendship, loyalty, fear, bravery, determination, and the classic soldier's dilemma—how can you fight someone when you realize he's not that different from you?

Okay, that's all well and good for the kids, but, is this also a movie for adults? For more than half of it, I absolutely thought so. There was a consistency of tone and some real Spielbergian brilliance. A scene is which soldiers on horseback rise out a wheat field—pollen floating into the air, the pounding sound of galloping horses contrasting with the rustled wheat, with the camera ingeniously placed just below the top of the stalks—that is in my opinion one of his greatest film moments. There are beautiful panoramas, and we already know Spielberg can handle his way around a battlefield. (Troops advancing on foot into "No Man's Land" quickly reminded me of Band of Brothers.)

But the elements that make this palatable for young viewers ultimately stretch believability too far for the discerning adult. What began as a hokey-but-realistic tale starts to take on the obviousness of allegory. We jump from vignette to vignette, locale to locale, each exposing a different aspect of the folly and horror of war. (The actors are generally excellent, especially Niels Arestrup, the windmill-dwelling grandfather, who I hope gets a Best Supporting Actor nomination.) A scene late in the film with a British soldier and his German counterpart was entirely too corny (was it directly from the Broadway version?), and at that moment I realized that this was more for kids than for me.

Still, Spielberg is a master, and he knows how to end a movie, so he ... excuse me ... reins us back in. A tug on the heartstrings here, some gorgeous cinematography there, and we all live happily ever after.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.


  1. Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments. The cat doesn't really have any big-names either, but they are all great in each of their own respective roles as well. Great review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

  2. "Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate … his audience but somehow it works" describes a LOT of his work. He's a master storyteller, but seems to prefer simple formulas. We can see his story constructions coming from a mile down the road, but it's often an enjoyable ride; he knows how to build up to the emotional wallop.