There’s something very old and classic and pure about Steven Spielberg’s highly touted new film, “War Horse.”
Perhaps it’s the film’s foundation on the nostalgic boy-and-his-dog (er, horse) storyline.
Perhaps it’s the quaint and rustic village where it takes place, or the simpler, nobler – if a bit one-dimensional – characters who fill that village in a way that feels more like memories walking around, like people you or your parents once knew, their rough edges worn off by time, so all you remember is their endearing qualities.
“War Horse,” in fact, isn’t just a film about the days before and during World War I, it’s also a throwback to days when Hollywood wasn’t trying to be so clever and gritty and “real” and just told stories that made the audience feel good.
There aren’t many World War I vets alive anymore; most would have been your parent or grandparent or even great-grandparent.
And, in a way, “War Horse” feels like just the kind of old Disney flick your grandfather would have loved.
I’m not sure, however, that the children of my generation, born during Vietnam, are really going to click with what Spielberg is doing.
The story itself contains no surprises whatsoever, no plot twists, merely exactly what the trailer promises: A boy falls in love with a young horse, trains it, is separated from it by war and reunited with it in the darkest days of battle, only to ride home together with it in the sunset.
The characters that live out this somewhat bland, if feel-good, drama are uncomplicated, a bit melodramatic and mostly uninteresting.
To put it bluntly: If you love horses, this may well be an inspiring and heartwarming film. If you don’t … well, it’s going to be a bit dull.
The film does excel, however, in depicting the humanity of the battlefield, particularly in the muddy and horrifying conditions of WWI trench warfare. The fear evident on the boys’ faces, the uncomfortable attempts to find humor among the dead and dying, the courage to charge across the mud to take one more trench and the reality that many of the German men were brave and noble soldiers, too – all of these elements and more come to live convincingly and movingly during the film’s third act.
The worldview messages are mostly positive as well, focusing on the horse’s owner as a boy of determination, faith and hard work committing to the ones he loves and stepping up to serve family, God and king.
The theme of God and king, of doing your duty with honor and valor, is frequently affirmed through the film, as are the sacrifices that soldiers, their families and even the European innocents who watched as war tore through their fields and farms made.
“Be brave, fear God, honor the king!” shouts the British commander in his rallying cry, while a meek yet daring foot soldier walks alone across no-man’s land, the German guns trained on his every move, while he quietly recites the 23rd psalm.
I don’t suspect Spielberg set out to make an overly religious film, but there’s no question some of the sweeping themes of war, death, life and salvation, of tragedies and miracles, cannot be expressed in merely human terms. The characters often must turn their eyes toward something greater to help make sense of it all, to keep their sanity, to express their gratitude and joy.
“War Horse,” for me, wasn’t particularly entertaining, but it was an old-fashioned sort of reminder that we rely on providence in times of tragedy and long for someone to praise in times of triumph, that there are no atheists in foxholes and that there are few doubters among the mothers who welcome their boys home.
- “War Horse” contains about a half-dozen minor profanities and three uses of the term “bugger,” which I understand in England is considered a strong obscenity.
- The film’s only sexuality is a playful discussion among two brothers about the qualities of Italian women, and the discussion does not stoop to innuendo or lewdness.
- Violence, however, may serve as a caution for younger viewers, as the horrors of the battlefield are given some screen time, including many soldiers falling to gunshots, bodies being thrown through the air from explosions, corpses and even a medical unit with amputees writhing in pain. While effort is clearly made not to be gory or gruesome (in fact, some clever camera angles are used to hide what reason dictates would be some gruesome scenes), the director’s intention to portray trench warfare as realistically as possible without pulling a “Private Ryan” is still, and rightfully so, somewhat disturbing in effect.
- As mentioned earlier in the review, there are several generic references to God, whether in times of need or of gratitude, references to serving “God and king” and a character who recites Scripture to calm his fears. A man also bemoans that he does not feel God deals each man “his portion of bad luck.”