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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘War Horse’ brings little-told story to screen

Published: January 20, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

Steven Spielberg’s new epic film “War Horse” is about a boy and his horse whose bond cannot be broken by World War I.

In this film, a horse named Joey and his original owner, Albert, hope to be reunited despite the slim chance that either of them will survive. “War Horse” was originally a children’s novel written in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo and is told in Joey’s point of view as he narrates his travels from fighting in the British cavalry to pulling heavy machinery for the Germans. “War Horse” was later adapted into a play in 2007, a remarkable feat within itself since Joey is depicted as a life-size puppet horse. Spielberg, who has directed eight films set around the time of World War II, read the “War Horse” script and reportedly became invested in not only the story but also World War I itself.

From the farms of Britain to the battlefields, from rolling hills to grisly battle wounds, each camera angle places the audience in the present. In one particular scene early in the movie, Albert desperately tries to get Joey, who is not a plow horse, to plow an entire field himself in order to save the farm. The camera zooms out to include the rolling countryside and you feel yourself standing nearby, cheering Joey on.

From the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan,” World War II has been frequently covered by movies. There is much less coverage in cinema of World War I, and consequently there’s much to be learned here. For one, I never knew cavalry was used in World War I, and, as the movie indicates, it was not done very successfully—most of the horses got gunned down. “War Horse” illustrates the grittiness of trench warfare and the perils of the poisoned gas that was thrown in the trenches. Historically, “War Horse” proves interesting since it presents what is almost America’s forgotten war—a war in which success crept along in inches, with few gains in ground made while millions of lives were lost.

Spielberg also deserves credit for making Joey interesting to watch and investing viewers in his outcome. While not told from Joey’s point of view like in the novel, it is impossible to watch “War Horse” and not care about Joey’s survival. The camera focuses constantly on Joey, and it helps that he was played by very expressive horses. Watching Joey onscreen when he is in distress is disheartening. In a terrifying scene, Joey tries to escape from pulling machinery by running through trenches and into No Man’s Land. Panting furiously, he becomes tangled up in barbed wire until he is unable to move. The scene takes a tremendously long minute: Spielberg makes the audience care enough about Joey that we watch with deep anxiety as he endures that much pain.

During filming, 14 different horses were used to play Joey. Representatives from the American Humane Society were on the set at all times, and they gave “War Horse” an outstanding rating for the treatment of the animals. Some of the main actors even underwent two months of horse training. While some movies have taken to phasing out the use of live animals in order to avoid dealing with the American Humane Society (such as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), movies like “War Horse” would be cheapened by computer animation. The fact that Joey is played by a live horse (except in perilous scenes such as the barbed wire one) is integral to the honesty of the film.

Despite all the non-animal lovers out there, “War Horse” deserves whatever Oscar acclaim it might eventually win. Though some parts of the film are not worthy of praise (the ending was particularly cliche), the movie immerses the audience in the setting while making them actually care about the characters, both equine and not.