Popcorn Picks: War Horse

By Mike Crisolago

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre: War/Drama

Rated: PG-13

Choice Quote: “The war has taken everything from everyone.”

What’s it about?: The year is 1914, and the Narracotts cannot catch a break. Residing on a modest farm in the English county of Devon, father Ted (Mullan), mother Rose (Watson) and teenage son Albert (Irvine) face losing their home after the hard-drinking patriarch spends all the family’s money at a horse auction. To make things worse, the steed he purchases, named Joey, isn’t cut out for farm work. In order to keep the horse and help his parents pay the rent, Albert trains Joey to plow the rugged landscape.

Albert and Joey develop a deep and sincere bond based partly on the fact that they’re kindred spirits of sorts – each in their own way possessing both the energy and optimism of youth, while at the same time naïve to the realities closing in on them. Those realities include the onset of the First World War.

As conscription goes, Albert is too young to head into war but Joey isn’t. Sold to the English cavalry for some much-needed funds, Joey’s journey that takes him to the front lines of the war, from fighting on both sides of the conflict to back-breaking labour to the pastoral French countryside to the hellish, barbed wire-laced trenches.

As combat rages on, claiming men and steed at a rapid pace, Albert (who, by then, is of age) enters the battle to serve his country while clinging to the very slim possibility that among the gunfire and mangled corpses he’ll somehow find Joey, and bring him home.

Is it any good?: War Horse is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, a story at once improbable yet engrossing. The film showcases the best of Steven Spielberg, from the unforgiving brutality of war (Saving Private Ryan) to inter-species compassion that transcends language (E.T.) to tragic sentimentality (Schindler’s List) and even a touch of the old “surprise around the corner” trick (Jaws/Jurassic Park).

The acting throughout is solid, though the film is much more an ensemble piece than a vehicle for a particular break-out star (though special mention should go to Thewlis who, as the grandfather of an orphaned French girl, is the only person able to rival Joey and Albert for the audience’s sympathy). The superb action sequences, featuring cavalry charges and ambush attacks and frenzied horses charging uncontrollably through battle-torn trenches, will leave viewers marvelling at the magnificent animals.

However, it’s the tender, quiet, dare we say “humanity-redeeming,” scenes that truly elevate this film from a tale about war to a tale about living creatures who happen to go to war. In particular, a scene where the British and the Germans call a ceasefire to the war to free Joey – bloodied and entangled, almost Christ-like, in barbed wire against a wooden post – is more moving and riveting than almost any battle scene in the film. And all we’ll say about the ending is be prepared to reach for a tissue.

Can I bring my kinds and grandkids to see it?: Yes. In fact, it’s an uplifting and emotional tale of heroism, love and determination to share with them.

While the film follows Saving Private Ryan‘s lead in its unromantic, gritty depiction of the war, very little blood is actually seen on screen. Gruesome injuries and deaths are only alluded to but not shown (though a few wide-angle shots of battlefields strewn with the bodies of men and horses occur, they are relatively benign and gore-free). One of the few instances of blood in the film occurs when Joey is being freed from the barbed wire and subsequently examined by a vet. While the lesions look extremely painful, they aren’t overdone. Foul language and nudity are a non-issue as well.

Also, it is certainly worth noting that the American Human Association published a complete review of the film and ensured that none of the animals used, from the horses to the farm animals to the rats in the trenches, were ever placed in any harm.

See it in theatres or rent it?: To get the full effect of the power and beauty of the horses, plus the thunder and terror of the war, see it in theatres. If you’re forced to rent it, by all means make sure you watch it in HD.

Overall Popcorn Rating: 4 kernels (out of 5)

War Horse opens Sunday, Dec. 25 nationwide.