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By Ryan Wilson

What is it about our unyielding affection for horses on the big screen? Why does the mount, mare, steed or charger tug at our heartstrings even more than man’s best friend? Perhaps it’s because a horse is simply the most beautiful and elegant creature to capture with a motion picture. We romanticize and mythologize its place in our consciousness. From The Black Stallion to Seabiscuit the horse is always more than a horse of course. The horse is a symbol for whatever it is we feel missing from the world, be it innocence or optimism.

Steven Spielberg rides this well-worn tale in War Horse, a deceptively simple allegory about innocence and optimism during World War I. But in Spielberg’s hands the horse literally represents the end of an era, that time before gasoline and metal dominated our lives. The horse, here named “Joey,” might well symbolize nature’s last stand at the threshold of the industrial revolution.

We glean this through the mood and photography of the film, which begins at Joey’s birth in those lush green rolling hills of England, a tranquil psychic home to the audience where we are free to roam with Joey until the human uses of the world intrude to ruin that peace. After this blissful beginning it’s all downhill. When he’s big enough, Joey is sold at auction and bought by a dreaming farmer who foolishly believes Joey will be a good plow horse. With the farmer’s son Joey syncs himself throughout the rest of the narrative, your typical animal love story about a boy and his horse parting ways and finding each other anew.

Personally, I’m not so sentimental about these partings and findings, maybe because I’m not a pet person. But when the music rises in context with their long separation at the end of the film, even I surrendered. It’s a funny sort of manipulation, distinctly Spielberg. I dare you to find another director confident enough to attempt such a well-worn cliché. We even get big fat snowflakes falling to make the moment especially moving and magical.

The scene only works because of the preceding horrors we witness through Joey’s journey through the war. When he’s sold to a kind British Calvary officer at the start of the war, we can’t imagine where Joey will take us. We end up seeing the life of that officer, then the life of a German ambulance driver, followed by a French granddaughter on a farm, then a German artillery officer, then finally to the trenches where Joey’s plight alarms both sides enough for them to stop their shooting to free him from their barbed wire. These vignettes, especially the last one, create a much fuller view of the war than most traditional war films.

Yet the film will also remind astute Spielberg fans of his other war films, most notably 1987’s Empire of The Sun. In that masterpiece we follow a young Christian Bale separated from his British parents in Japan during World War II. Like the boy in that film, here the horse, also a symbol of something pure, is somewhat adrift throughout the carnage of war. If you’ll recall Empire of the Sun, Bale’s character witnesses the bombing of Hiroshima from a great distance but can’t understand what he’s seen. Similarly, Joey is present during various war terrors but of course meets them with the indifference of an animal.

A smart-aleck colleague of mine, upon seeing the trailer for War Horse, commented that any horse roaming around the trenches during World War I might just as well become food. Spielberg never takes us to that grizzly place of realism, but instead pits Joey against a tank during a climactic moment of the film. The scene will remind some of Tom Hanks futilely shooting a World War II tank with his pistol in Saving Private Ryan. Like that scene, Joey’s plight with his tank is fraught with meaning: the instruments of war have changed, and it’s the new world versus the old.

War Horse is a clinic in formalistic framing and editing, all meant to provoke deep emotions. It might be the most exhausting film to watch of Spielberg’s since Schindler’s List, given the sheer amount of suffering Joey encounters. And yet, like many classic horse tales put to film, it winds up back at that mythic place we expect. Spielberg has no doubt studied how to shoot myth from the best. War Horse begins by looking like scenes from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and ends by looking like the closing shot from Ford’s The Searchers. Like the best westerns or war films, we end up where we expect but also deeply scarred. In the end we’re grateful that some constants endure.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012