Or rather, woe the barbarity of Man who inflicts war, terror, and violence on another creature he dares to call “beast”. This is the sentimental, delicately heart-pounding platform upon which Steven Spielberg mounts the enormous canvas of War Horse. It is among Spielberg’s best efforts, not only because his artistry is at full display, but because it provides a glimpse into the man’s inner workings and, frankly, his utter disdain for violence and war. If Albert Camus and Walt Disney had teamed up to make a live action film, it would be War Horse.
Many millions have seen the stage show in its various stage incarnations from New York to London to Tokyo. But the story is best told on screen where the emotions of both man and horse can be detailed in ways that are too subtle to be conveyed on stage.
The story is not that different from most child-animal companion stories: an impoverished child happens to come into the possession of a noble animal in troubled times. In War Horse, this means that a young English boy named Albert Narracott from an impoverished family comes to befriend a horse named Joey his drunken father impulsively buys at auction. The father uses the family’s rent money to buy the horse, which naturally puts them at peril, but which later seems a wise decision when one considers how magnificent the steed is. Joey brings a certain magic and freedom to the lives of the Narracott clan, whose lives are burdened not only by the constant pressure of poverty, but of the impending disaster of World War I.
In time, and as the war escalates, Joey ends up in the possession of the enemy: the Germans. It is during the sections of the movie where we see Joey separated from Albert that Spielberg uses a slew of poetic montages to convey the brutality of War and the stupidity of Man through the suffering of the Animals. No creature has been more attached to human war and conflict as the Horse, and no other has observed more pointless human engineered violence and peril. None has carried more men to more meaningless death and destruction as the Horse. Why they have served us so is one of the things Spielberg wants us to ponder. I still have no answer.
Some will fault the film for being overly sentimental and for playing as more a collection of vignettes than as a single, solid narrative. Such arguments are valid, but I think beside the point to Spielberg’s aim in making the movie. The story is designed to uplift and to devastate at the same time, to honor and shame simultaneously. We raise the mantle of our humanity – constantly – as proof that we are the superior species on the planet. But, Spielberg hints, perhaps superiority is not the goal. Rather, simple existence and co-existence, sans violence and coercion, should be the goal. And this no human has ever achieved.
A must see.