War Horse (2011)

I find it much harder to watch anything depicting cruelty to animals than to humans. I can’t help it. And despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is decidedly tacky at times, it really upset me. Not so much the movie – things are toned down to make it suitable for all ages, I guess, – as to think about what those horses went through in WWI.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, War Horse tells of the friendship of a farm boy with a horse. It’s very Black Beauty in the beginning. Out of sheer folly Albert’s father buys an expensive race horse that he can neither afford nor use. Albert manages to save his father’s farm and the horse and trains the animal until it is able to perform the duties of a workhorse. He also teaches him to come when he whistles and many other tricks.

When the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to a British officer who takes the horse to France. This almost breaks Albert’s heart but the officer, a kind man, promises to take care of Joey. Sadly he is killed in a reckless cavalry attack that goes very wrong. The horse, one of the rare that survives, can escape but is captured by the Germans. After this an odessey begins in which Joey changes hands more than once and more than once faces death.

Albert who has sworn to find his horse wherever it is (a bit of a Last of the Mohicans moment), has heard of the death of the officer and signed up. Soon he finds himself in the trenches in France.

The movie isn’t too graphic, we don’t see wounds and atrocities that you would normally see in a war movie, still it manages to convey the horror. It just does it by focussing on other elements. We see how many horses died in cavalry attacks and how thousands were overworked until they died from exhaustion.

The parts related to the war were, in my opinion, well done. Without being too graphic they illustrated a lot that was typical for WWI like the trenches, the mud, the gas. What was tacky was how the story was told at times and the end which didn’t seem very realistic. On the other hand the scene of Joey who runs down No Man’s Land and gets caught in barbed wire, manages to convey a better anti-war statement than many other movies.

The acting is quite good and in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, in a very short but effective role as British Major, and Emily Watson, as the mother of Albert, even excellent.

Apart from showing the harrowing destinies of horses in WWI the movie captures the beauty of the bond that can exist between a human being and an animal.

20 thoughts on “War Horse (2011)

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    You liked it better than I did. I agree with most of what you say but I just found parts of it to be ridiculous. Too Spielbergian. Too manipulative of the audiences’ emotions.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I gave up on Spielberg after Amistad. I wanted to leave after 5 mins with that one.

    I won’t be seeing War Horse. If people want to be stupid that’s up to them, but when they drag animals into it, well..it’s something else.

    Agree about the emotional manipulation of Spielberg films BTW.

    • That’s my point exactly, that’s why I find it harder to watch with animals. And I never watch Spielberg movies usually, haven’t seen Amistad. It’s very manipulative.
      Having a specialized blog like this, I cover more than what would normally appeal to me.

  3. tuulenhaiven says:

    I kind of avoid “horse movies” like the plague… Unless they’re one of The Black Stalion movies! I probably won’t watch this, although I appreciate the review. Have you read Our Horses in Egypt? I read and reviewed it at the beginning of last year – it’s about a horse used in the calvery during WWI and it’s recovery by it’s owner after the war. I really liked it. This story of this movie reminded me of it…

    • I saw your review and bought the book as well but then I was a bit afraid I might not be up to it. I had to be dragged to watch this one. It wasn’t much different than going to the dentist, but those are my issues.

  4. TBM says:

    I can’t watch any movies with animals for the most part. I’m too sensitive when it comes to animals. In fact, I only skimmed your review for fear of reading something upsetting. Let’s just say, I won’t be watching this movie.

  5. Novroz says:

    Interesting review Caroline. I think I have read similar opinion,but you’re nicer than the others, everywhere.
    The horse in war is one thing that will make me sad. I might not want to watch this if not for that man in short role as British Major…you know who 😉
    Because of him, I am waiting to see this movie, either in cinema or DVD

    • He was remarkable, I almost didn’t recognize him, the voice was so different. He is a good actor.
      It’s tacky, Novroz and sad at the same time, I understand why many would criticize it but on the other hand raising awareness, make people realize that animals suffer too, just like we do, is a good thing and if a child learns this early on…(I still think it is a chlidren’s movie, although Kevin said it isn’t) Many children are very cruel to animals.

  6. I haven’t seen the movie yet, although I will simply because I think WWI deserves some modern cinematic treatment regardless of quality. Thought it was at least interesting that the movie came out at the same time as this letter from US Cpl Joe Maus writing home about the aftermath of Boche bombing on an American rear area. Dead horses = good eating if they weren’t contaminated by gas.

    • Thanks for the link.
      I agree, WWI isn’t covered enough in US movies, it’s far more frequent that we see WWII. There are much more French movies than I was aware of.
      War Horse still surves a purposes and shows a few important things.

  7. I finally saw this movie with my 14 yo son last night. Didn’t mind it at all, thought it was very watchable for kids. It gave my son a chance to learn a little bit about the folly and horrors of the Great War, although there are other movies better for that. Definitely a lot more froth than beer, however.

    Where I thought the movie really lacked was in not explaining how Albert manages to finally join up and find himself in the trenches, and what that experience would have been like. Suddenly you just see him in a trench scene with his friends and rivals from “before”. The other thing was the whole collapsed timeline. It takes you from the beginning of the war in 1914 to suddenly the war being over, without any real sense of how an infantryman like Albert and the horse could possibly survive the Western Front for 4 years.

    The movie seemed to be simply a series of vignettes strung together that served as snapshots of the war experience on the Western Front for both horses and soldiers. It would have been a much better movie if it expanded on the teenage characters like Albert and the French girl more.

    • I’m glad you sort of liked it. It’s for children and as such certainly not bad but I suppose what I found tacky at times, is what you would call the lack in back story. It’s abrupt indeed. That they should have survided and found each other again makes it a miracle tale.
      I wonder if the novel is like that as well.
      I’ve got Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful here. I’m interested to see how you write about the war for children.
      The Lighthorsemen is certainly a far better movie but would it not be too brutal for a child? Or My Boy Jack?

  8. nem baj says:

    Mr. Spielberg’s late works remind me more and more of Michael Curtiz movies: as somebody wrote before me, it’s a collection of vignettes… with no meaning in sight. I watched The Charge of the Light Brigade the day before, which left the same taste of emptiness in my mouth.

    Here also, it’s cliché after cliché, with one spectacular ‘pièce de résistance’ (the horse’s run in the no man’s land) except in the Curtiz the horses were actually butchered, which one might add was an honest testimony of how those extraordinary animals were treated at war and… in the movies.

    Of course it is also a success story, which is a strange – but quite spielbergesque – way to see World War I. In the end, it’s not that I would want my money back – but my emotions, whether sentimental or aesthetic, surely.

    • Spielberg is a Master Manipulator. 🙂
      War Horse is corny but on the other hand it opened a few people’s eyes about what happened to Horses during WWI and it was meant for children.
      I don’t think it’s aceptable to harm animals in a film shoot. That type of honesty – I can do without.
      I suffered while wathing Waterloo, one my favourite movies.

      • nem baj says:

        I don’t think this one is masterful, even for kids, as many things start but they soon fall short. Hence the ‘collection’ effect. Not sure either horses were treated any better in WWII. Many were involved in the European theater, although WWII movies often tend to forget them.

        The charge scene in the 1936 Light Brigade is truly horrendous, and Hollywood had to stop doing such things afterwards. Yet, it is a reminder that big productions at the time were seriously at grips with the actual world. In Brownlow & Gill’s documentary Hollywood Goes to War William Wellman recalls (human) extras were actually hurt by explosions during the shooting of the huge battle scene in Wings

        Naturally, I wouldn’t favor hurting animals nor people in the process of making movies, nevertheless I’m a bit puzzled by the implications of the abuse of CGI in the graphic depiction of violence in films today. As if audiences wanted the thrill without the risk.

      • In calling him a Master Manipulator I didn’t mean the film is masterful, I just meant Spielberg is good at manipulating people and create an emotional response.
        But moving away from CGI would bring us back to the days of the Gladiators, no?

      • nem baj says:

        Indeed. But did we ever left the age of gladiators – or do we just pretend we did? You may have noticed the debate in France over the scarcity of images coming from the current war in Mali…

      • I’m bad when it comes to following the news these days. Not enough time that’s why I’m not posting much.
        I find it problematic when they want more and more pictures. I gues we haven’t really left the gae of the gladiators completely.

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