That famous quote, attributed to Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, is a bluntly accurate description of war, though probably still something of an understatement. It’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t been on the front lines to imagine what it’s like to be caught in the crossfire of flying bullets and exploding bombs, sent into a living nightmare from which too few return.
Yet even though war time, with all of its horror, death and destruction, has produced some of the darkest hours in mankind’s history, ironically, it also has produced some of our greatest moments of courage, compassion and humanity — the soldiers who risk their lives to run back toward enemy lines to rescue a fallen comrade and bring him or her back to safety; the medics who tirelessly tend to the wounded, at all hours of the day and night; and many other unsung heroes who never give up hope because they know the storm won’t last forever, and someday the sun will shine again.
It’s this paradox — the horror and humanity of war — that is captured so eloquently in Steven Spielberg’s recent film “War Horse.” It’s a powerful, emotionally moving epic, and experts already have predicted this film will likely earn a spot on the list of Academy Awards “Best Picture” nominees.
The movie follows the story of a British teenager named Albert who trains a horse named Joey and the friendship the two develop. World War I breaks out, and Albert is heartbroken when his father sells Joey to an army officer headed to the front lines. After the officer is killed in battle, Joey changes hands many times, ending up in the care of two young German deserters, and then a little French girl. Eventually Albert is old enough to go to war, and although the odds are certainly against him, he refuses to give up hope he someday will be reunited with his beloved horse.
Though the film is called “War Horse,” it’s as much about the people who cross paths with Joey as it is about Joey himself. The middle of the film is somewhat episodic, but this doesn’t come across as a weakness. The vignettes about the different people Joey meets are brief, yet they are long enough to give us a heart-wrenching glimpse into how World War I ravaged the lives of people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.
Steven Spielberg directs the film, as always, with dignity and heart. He uses restraint in the battle scenes, and even though they aren’t overly gory, that doesn’t make them any less horrifying to watch.
People seem to spend a lot more time talking about World War II, and we’ve forgotten just how horrible World War I was, as well. World War I is unique in that it was both the last old-fashioned war and the first modern one, a period where new technology, such as tanks and machine guns, clashed with older battle strategies and methods of waging war, such as troops on horseback. For example, in one scene, a British cavalry charges towards a forest, only to have the horses and their riders mowed down by enemy machine guns.
I also liked how Spielberg portrayed the young soldiers in this film. We’re so used to seeing action heroes in movies, pumped full of testosterone, who charge into battle seemingly without fear. However, they’re just caricatures, while the young soldiers depicted in “War Horse” are real heroes. Although you can see the fear in their eyes as they prepare to climb up out of the trenches and run across “no man’s land” to the enemy lines (many of them charging to their deaths), they go anyway.
There are many sad moments in the film, details Spielberg doesn’t whitewash. But even amongst the tragedy of battle, he keeps alive a spark of hope, perhaps embodied best by the character Albert.
Jeremy Irvine gives one of the best performances of the film as Albert, communicating a depth of emotion in his wide, expressive eyes. He makes the bond his character shares with Joey feel absolutely real, and though his childlike innocence and sense of hope are daunted by the horrors he witnesses in the trenches on the battlefield, he never gives up.
I won’t give away the ending, but after watching the film, I can see why it’s earning buzz as a possible “Best Picture” nominee. It’s a film that deeply impacts its viewers, in a way merging the spirit of two other respected Spielberg films: “E.T.” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg has made many great movies throughout his career, but this can be counted as one of his best.