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Arts and Culture

A ‘War Horse’ and His Boy

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Posted on Dec 24, 2011

By Richard Schickel

Boy gets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy (after many adventures, especially by the horse) is reunited with the animal. In terms of narrative, that’s all there is to “War Horse”—except to say that Steven Spielberg’s film is a lovely and touching movie, representing, among other things, a vast improvement on the extraordinarily successful novel and stage play.

That production, as you have doubtless seen, or at least heard about, was a kind of coup de theatre, in which Joey the horse and other equine characters were represented by skeletal life-sized puppets, manipulated on stage by entirely visible puppeteers. As far as I know, nothing like that had been attempted previously in the theater, and the effect was exciting. For a while. There came a time—for me at least—when that excitement waned considerably. A kind of “What have you done for me lately?” feeling began to take over. 

Such devices are, rather obviously, non-starters when it comes to the movies. In adapting the piece for film, it is clearly necessary to rely entirely on the strength of the story—and the power of romantic realism—to sustain our interest, and I was not at all certain that “War Horse” had that force.

But it does. That’s because Spielberg, working from a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, maintains a powerful tension between the pastoral and the battlefield action. Albert (Jeremy Irvine) lives on an English farm, perpetually endangered by bankruptcy. His father, almost whimsically (but also angrily) buys a horse that the lad names Joey. In the course of gently training the animal, boy and horse bond. These scenes are set in the heartbreakingly rendered English countryside. This side of Spielberg’s talent has not, so far as I can remember, been previously explored, and he does a lovely job of establishing an entirely enviable home place. But then World War I is declared and Joey is, in effect, drafted for service in it. The young officer who will ride him promises Albert to do his best to return him home unscathed. Good intentions aside, we do not entirely believe him.

This takes us into territory that is more familiar to Spielberg, though I must say the sheer terror that Joey endures at the front has rarely been rendered with the power he achieves here. The animal becomes a kind of wild thing, frightened yet brave and, admittedly, very lucky to survive more than a few minutes, let alone some four years of war. Indeed, the war lasts so long that Albert ends up serving in it and spending much of his time searching for the beloved creature.

Are we more or less convinced that somehow, against all the terrible odds, horse and horseman will be reunited? Yes, I suppose we are. What would be the point of telling this story if it ended tragically? But that reckons without Spielberg’s sheer skill as a director. Scene for terrible scene, the horse remains in peril. Even after the war is over, he is in danger of being put down.

I think perhaps the best aspect of “War Horse” is a sort of refusal. Albert and Joey certainly acknowledge their bond. They recognize each other across the years, across all the bloodshed. But the horse remains resolutely—a horse. Maybe this is, in the end, a variation on “Lassie Come Home.” But you will recall that in that story, the dog acts on her own volition. As she makes her way home to Roddy McDowall over several hundred dangerous miles, several characters comment on the fact that she appears to be a dog on a mission. Somehow she has needs, or sentiments, if you will, that must will out. That is not true of Joey. As far as he knows, he has been abandoned to a highly dubious fate. He does not, for a moment, suspect that Albert is mourning his absence and searching desperately for him. He is—pardon me for putting it almost comically—just a horse, as surprised as anyone by his eventual reunion with Albert.

Spielberg has often been accused of sentimentality, perhaps on occasion justifiably. And certainly, as far Albert is concerned, that is to a certain extent true (though you could as easily read his activities as obsessive). But that is not true of Joey. He lives only moment to (largely terrible) moment, the past irrelevant, the future unknown and unknowable. He is the honest soul of this picture, which could quite easily have been something else, something far less honorable and absorbing. As far as the movies are concerned, “War Horse” seems to me the great gift of this holiday season. 

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By kristolnicht, January 3, 2012 at 7:19 am Link to this comment

I thought I was tired of beating a live horse, but my crank handle has been
Spielbergered again. Now the NY Times is crediting HisSelf with introducing
Tan-Tan to America. Not the worst idea in the world until you look at the
animation. It’s about 10% as good, if that, as pixar might have made it, and
even pixar wouldn’t have been able to (or willing to) use the wonderful Clearline
technique of the Herge originals. And though I will NOT see it, it’s a safe bet
that the naivete of Herge’s colonialist (racist, xenophobic) vision will be
nowhere to be found. I will confess to having liked a number of Shpielberg’s films
to one degree or another, especiall Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, Band of
Brothers, and, yes, Schindler’s List. So if he had introduced the REAL Tin-Tin to
America, without the cold and stupid animated form he has chosen, I would
have been amongst the early happy chappies. But, in the end, Steve Jobs and
pixar created the baseline with pixar. A tough technical act to follow. But for me,
the Triplets of Belleville and the Illusionist still carry the day, and South Park makes me gag.

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By lpat, January 1, 2012 at 9:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Speilberg, the novelist and those who produced the play should all be horse-whipped! Gag me with a spoon, this is ridiculous. WWI was a meat-grinder for man and beast. Nobody escaped it unscathed. This is (small-h) holocaust denial. How a rag with left-leaning pretenses could publish this review is beyond me.

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By kristolnicht, December 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm Link to this comment

Not only Richard Schickel, but A.O. Scott at the NY Times, has been blinded by the
light(ing). I suppose when a studio spends so much money on a Oscar(from the get-
go)bound film, especially in the holiday season, it has an expectation that it has to
go for the lowest common, really common, denominator. And in this particular
holiday season, when the very lowest common denominators have been the field of
Republican hopefuls and the Walmart shopper youtube videos, there should have
been no surprise to see this piece of milk chocolate bolt out of the gate. I thought I
was tired of being cranky. Guess not.

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By John Boyle, December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Soldiers (and horses) did what they were told.

Ignorance is not a disability.

Truth is found through diminishing ignorance.

When you’re ready_ _ _ _ _ _ for it.

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By Arabian Sinbad, December 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment

As a horse-lover, I was curious to go and see a movie featuring a horse as a hero, but as a war-hater I was hesitant. So I agonized over whether to go and see it. Finally, curiosity overcame my hesitation and I went to see it.

The good part of the movie is the horse surviving the terrible war and returning to its owner at the end of the war.

The sad and ugly part is the staged ugly war and destruction, as if we didn’t have had enough real destructive wars to go and stage artificial ones and spend huge amount of money in the name of human entertainment!

Another sad aspect of this movie is that so many humans and horses have perished in order to save one!

All in all, I feel more negatives than positives about this work. It would have been better to leave this work of fiction in a novel book form and not enact it as an entertaining movie!

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By notagain, December 26, 2011 at 4:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Watching a Spielberg movie is like watching a long commercial. The characters are
superficial,premise is shallow, and your emotional investment leads to someone
getting rich.

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By mrfreeze, December 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm Link to this comment

kristolnicht - Thanks for that…and, sciencehighway, yes, I’ll be the first to admit I can be incredibly cynical. I apologize if my tone comes off that way. I sincerely believe that at this point in our history, many more of the Hollywood czars could put themselves to work creating film that might transform the world in meaningful ways.

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By LocalHero, December 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm Link to this comment

Well, hopefully, it’s aimed at recruiting horses for the wonderful Dept. of Indiscriminate Slaughter and not empty-headed arrested adolescents like most Hollywood productions (Transformers, Battle L.A.) these days.

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By kristolnicht, December 26, 2011 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment

mrfreeze: I am in 100% agreement with you and the other commentators vis-a-vis
Spielberg. I was just trying to say that had I read the comments BEFORE I saw the
film, I would never have gone in the first palce. My own comments were about the film, not the

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By mrfreeze, December 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment

sciencehighway - I’m sorry that you’re “offended” by the tone of the commentators on TD. In my own defense, I have watched plenty Spielberg’s films and, to this day, he never fails to disappoint me: His work is maudlin at best and just plain manipulative at its worst. I’ve TRIED to appreciate his world view as a director and I do not find the core of his work to be authentic. I’m sure you might feel the same about some of my favorite directors.

Would that someone of Spielberg’s wealth and fame were put to work on the political/cultural stage where his talent (I never said he wasn’t talented) might be used to do something other than “poke at our heat strings.” Hollywood produces far too much of that nonsense….....

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By sciencehighway, December 26, 2011 at 2:46 pm Link to this comment

Why do you suppose this site boast the rudest, most cynical posters of all the (somewhat) progressive news sites I visit, no matter what the topic? It’s a mystery I would very much like to see solved in the new year.

I’ve followed Mr. Spielberg’s work since “Duel” and while I haven’t been a fan of every project I certainly consider him a filmmaker of heart, vision and profound technical skill. I’m not sure if my wife and I will be seeing this one theatrically (animal cruelty doesn’t appeal to us) but I’m more tempted to now thanks to Mr. Schickel’s thoughtful and well-considered review. Still, I sure wish I knew what gets under the skin of so many Truthdig responders. Is it cynicism run rampant or missplaced idealism? Either way, the majority of you anonymous angry pajamas should be ashamed of yourselves. Mr. Schickel has done nothing to deserve such ignorant, insulting replies.

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By kristolnicht, December 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm Link to this comment

Desperately needing a xmas night movie in my rural environs I get this very
positive review by Richard Schickel. Should have scrawled down to see the
comments. What a saccharine piece of garbage. The worst acting, writing, staging,
colorizing - everything - wrong and gooey. Schickel was a washed up critic
decades ago. How does he wind up on a site that gets almost everything right?
The only honest moment (and one I could have done without; talk about
gratuitous violence) was the horse in the barbed wire (a perfect spot for the ‘no
animals harmed notice’ you usually get in the credits). And all this zo Schpielberg
can slo-mo the wirecutters in mid-air. I could, but won’t, go on and on.

As a postscript, I was surrounded by an audience of at least 50 people who
laughed (without derision) at every hoked up scene, oohing and ahhh-in at the
breathtaking scenery and the Aflac goose bopping around the farm).

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By mrfreeze, December 26, 2011 at 10:50 am Link to this comment

Spielberg’s body of work…hmm…for the most part here’s a list of words that describe it (my humble opinion):

maudlin, bathetic, drippy, hokey, mawkish, mushy….

and these adjectives only describe the “serious” stuff like Schindler’s List and “The Color Purple…” Blah

Just put an “uber” in front of the words above to describe the rest.

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By ongre11, December 25, 2011 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

When I first heard about this movie, as a person who worked on a trail ride ranch and got to know many great horses, all I could think of was the pictures of the dead bloated remains of “war horses” during the “Great War”. Also the fact that when food got scarce the horses were eaten by the troops. And they were gassed. Sorry Steven I think I’ll pass on this one.

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By Briar, December 25, 2011 at 1:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It certainly wasn’t the first time puppets had been used on stage.  Equus used them, and so did the stage version (hugely more successful than the compromised and aborted film version) of His Dark Materials.  There are theatrical traditions that rely on puppetry.  I have still to be convinced that any film can be a vast improvement on on a extraordinarily successful play and book - especially one scripted by the archly sentimental and irremediably shallow Richard Curtis (whose most recent claims to fame have been a ridiculous Doctor Who episode that claimed Van Gogh was the greatest human being that ever lived and the sinking of what should have been a triumphant transfer to the screen of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency).  He should stick to rustic farce, as in the Vicar of Dibley.

As for greeting the season of love, peace and goodwill to all men with a war film - just how far can the militarisation of our culture go before someone notices we are wading through blood?

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By anon Ymous, December 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

—-Over-produced, self-sensitive horse worship and moral alibis galore,
as Hollywood, once again, BALKS and RUNS from the—20th—30thj—40th
—50th and now 60th Anniversary of the awesomely important

———————————-KOREAN WAR————————————-.


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By rumblingspire, December 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So, this is not a movie about the evil Germans and the good old USA?

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By Fibonacci65, December 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm Link to this comment

There was a film of the 50’s very similar to this one—why does it appear now as some great new idea?  Oh right, that was about a WW II war horse!  My aren’t we original?

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