Saturday, January 07, 2012

From plow horse to "War Horse"

A movie that tracks the book on which it's based while breathing life into the story beyond its words is what makes the movie "War Horse" something special for horse lovers.

"War Horse" the movie thrills and hurts and inspires and sends you out of the theater knowing you've just been taken on a journey you would not have had simply reading.

The movie is based on the children's book written by Michael Morpurgo and published by Scholastic in 1982, telling the story of World War I from the view of a British cavalry horse named Joey.

Movie director Steven Spielberg, however, would have nothing to do with a talking horse narrating a movie.

Instead, "War Horse" takes the perspective of the people with whom Joey touches as he moves through life beginning with a harsh, yet charming start as a plow horse on a poor tenant farm in rural England. It's on the farm where we meet Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a young farm boy who teaches Joey how to pull a plow.

The war keeps looming into the film, drawing closer and closer with each day.

Finally, when the movie goes to war, the deep-seated feelings humans have for horses are used to draw the viewer into the story. In a metaphor-a-minute pace, "War Horse" shows the terror and brutality of the war as people struggle to stay alive and to remain human in a place gone mad.

Holding it all together is the thread of the relationship between young Albert and the horse Joey. As the war begins, Joey is separated from Albert and sold to the British army to help pay the farm rent after a heroic effort to plow an untilled field and plant it to turnips.

Knowing how to pull a plow is what keeps Joey alive on the battlefield after being captured by the Germans at the end of his first cavalry charge. The people Joey encounters as he goes from the hands of the Germans to the care of an isolated French farm girl and her grandfather and back again to the Germans share perspectives of the war.

People are threatening at times but war is the real enemy in this movie. Each person Joey meets is trying to cope, to make it through another minute in a ghastly situation.

Albert joins the army hoping to find his horse. His journey through the trenches of the First World War heighten the tension and keep the thread of the story simple and compelling: boy falls in love with horse, loses horse, goes in search of horse.

In the signature moment of the movie, Joey is freed from his harness and goes on a wild gallop tearing into the brutal barbed-wire center of No Man's Land. There, hopelessly tangled and exhausted, Joey is aided by two soldiers, a German and a Brit.

Up to 14 different horses were used to play Joey in the filming of the story. Hundreds more horses were used in the show.

The entertainment trade press has said "War Horse" is Steven Spielberg's deliberate effort to earn an Oscar. Certainly, Spielberg knows how to tell a story and has used a very tried-and-true formula with "War Horse." The colors are deep and rich like old-fashioned film movies. Each frame is loaded with completely authentic and researched locations and props.

Is it sentimental? Unabashedly so. Sappy? At times. But make no mistake. This is a war story and it's when Spielberg takes us to war that we get the full treatment from this movie.

War scenes are graphic enough to keep "War Horse" on the edge of its PG-13 rating. It's no little kid's movie even if based on a children's book. Depictions of the final battle and last war in which cavalry were used in any large and meaningful way are as unsettling as they should be.

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