World War I, known then only as the Great War or World War, was one of the most brutal and utterly miserable periods in mankind’s history. In War Horse director Steven Spielberg, because the script is based on a children’s book, sets out to make war a family friendly affair. You won’t see a single battle wound in this war movie. The worst horrors of war are largely hidden by a camera that cuts away at all the right moments, and by focusing instead on the life of a horse.
After an interminably slow start in a quaint village populated by people who seem more like hobbits then men, eventually we end up following a horse named Joey as he’s sent off into battle carrying a British officer into the war against Germany. Seen through the eyes of a cavalry mount, it’s the story of how horses became utterly obsolete. The course of the war gradually changes around Joey, as for the first time in man’s history machines come into play to be used as engines of destruction. Glorious cavalry charges in the sun gradually turn into men hiding in muddy trenches clutching machine guns and massive metal tanks rolling down barbed-wire choked ditches.
Joey’s journey through war-torn Europe is really just an excuse to tell a series of short stories set during the Great War. War Horse soon settles in to a predictable formula of Joey meeting a new group of people, spending time with them, and being torn away to spend time with the next. Some of these stories are more successful than others. The nervousness of Joey’s rider as he charges in to battle the first time rings eerily true. The story of a sickly little French girl living with her Grandpa, as the booming sound of guns approaches, will break your heart.
But this isn’t Saving Private Ryan. It’s history seen through a lens that children can understand and, if you’re looking for a way to teach your kids about one of the darkest periods in human history, War Horse is the perfect way to do it. If you’re looking for something more than a few interesting stories in an overlong movie, you’ll walk away from War Horse disappointed. Spielberg’s film, despite a great deal of effort, feels like a good stage play that never quite makes a full transition into the world of movies.
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