War Horse

Abandon thy cynicism, all who enter the theater to see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, the most unashamedly sentimental film the crowd-pleasing director has directed in twenty years.

A year ago, Steven Spielberg went to see a play in London called War Horse, based on a children’s book by MIchael Morpurgo also called War Horse. The famed director was so moved by the play, he immediately optioned the story and set about making the film. Only Spielberg, perhaps, has the panache to bring such an ambitious tale to cinematic life in the space of a year, and only Spielberg, perhaps, would be able to do so in a way that warrants an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

The nomination is well-deserved. War Horse is a fantastically good movie. Even if the story weren’t worth your time, the lighting, cinematography, score, acting, and effects would be worthy recompense for the price of admission. This is Spielberg in top form, charming his audience with rich colors, sounds, and other cinematic elements in an effort to pluck our heart-strings with crowd-pleasing virtuosity. Fortunately, the story is great as well. War Horse is the story of a horse and the boy who loves him, and while we’ve seen that story many times before, it is worth experiencing again.

I don’t know what it is about horses that make them so endearing. Dogs may be “man’s best friend,” but the bond between horse and human seems to transcend simple friendship. Horses are so noble, and the connection between horse and rider seems so unique. Horses and humans are able to work together, to play together, to compete together, to war together, and to live together in such remarkable harmony. Horses and humans seem to have the ability to love each other in a very tangible, action-oriented way, and so stories about horses and humans are often so powerful.

War Horse takes its audience on a trip through the world of World War I. We follow the horse, not the boy, as the horse comes into the boy’s life, is taken from him by war, and then comes back into his life later on. The story is compelling from the get-go, and it never lags. The bond between the horse and his boy also binds the audience’s attention to the screen. Also, I don’t think World War I has ever been captured as harrowingly as in this film. Next time I watch a film which depicts The Great War, like one of my favorites, Sergeant York, I’ll have new respect for the terrors of trench warfare. (If you haven’t seen Sergeant York, by the way, do so immediately. That’s a freebie.)

What’s the message of War Horse? “Love conquers all” is its most obvious theme, but “all” is too broad a word. What, in particular, does love conquer in this film?  Believe it or not, in a movie call “War Horse,” love conquers war, and that includes the wars between nations and the wars between individuals. “Love” is also too broad a word, because love manifests itself in all sorts of ways. How is love exemplified in War Horse? Love is exemplified as devotion, as steady, consistent commitment between two loving entities, be those entities a horse and his boy or a boy and his father. So, War Horse isn’t just about how “love conquers all.” It’s really about how “unflinching devotion brings about reconciliation,” and that is a message worth hearing and seeing beautifully displayed on a screen with a room full of likewise attentive filmgoers.

That is a message worth living out every moment of our lives. It can only be lived that way, moment by moment, because while Spielberg may be able to make us feel the power of unflinching devotion in a theater, only we can translate that feeling into concrete reality in the real world.

Let’s abandon our cynicism as we leave the theater too and do that.