2011-12-23

War Horse – Beauty And Nobility On Display

by Yo Snyder

One morning Steven Spielberg must have woken up and decided, “I want
to make a really beautiful movie.” That’s the only way I can think that
something like War Horse was conceived. If that was his goal,
then he’s certainly achieved it. As I was leaving the theater after our
screening, it’s the one word I heard repeated over and over by one and
all; beautiful. War Horse is a visual spectacle not because of
the amazing special effects or spectacular action sequence, but because
of its majestic beauty. Every frame, every shot, every scene looks like
it was carefully constructed to bring out as much beauty from it as
possible. Then there’s the haunting soundtrack from John Williams that
perfectly compliments what’s on the screen, and that combination creates
as truly mesmerizing experience at the movies unlike anything I can
think of in recent memory. Think of those amazing Technicolor epics from
the Golden Age of Hollywood like Gone With the Wind, and you’ll have an idea of what this looks like.

However, all that beauty on display would be of merely passing interest if there wasn’t a story worth telling here, but War Horse
has beauty in its plot as well. It’s a simple story about a boy and his
horse who are separated by the ravages war. Yet inexplicably, their
bond endures and it spoils nothing to say that eventually they’re
happily reunited. The story, however, is really about the horse.
Somehow, this horse is as a fully rounded character, something that I’m
still at a loss to explain how that’s possible. This horse is the thread
that ties together the lives of several people, and despite the short
time we spend with some of these characters, we still form an emotional
attachment to them. This is also an unique achievement as none of the
people are the stars of the movie, the horse really is, yet in the brief
time we spend with them, we care about what happens to them. Not an
easy thing to do, but Spielberg does it here. 

All of this plays out against the backdrop of World War I. I find
this particularly fascinating because that isn’t a war that typically
gets a lot of screen time. Spielberg treats this setting with the same
deft touch of respect that he showed WWII in Saving Private Ryan. In fact, there are moments where this film very much feels like the Private Ryan of the first World War. However, instead of showing in graphic detail the horrors of war like he did with Ryan,
here much of those horrors are implied. Yet despite the fact that they
aren’t explicitly shown, they’re no less horrifying and are perhaps more
emotionally impactful because of the very fact that they aren’t shown
in detail.

Is War Horse a little schmaltzy? Yeah, it can be at
times. However, it recaptures an era of filmmaking that’s long gone but
fondly remembered. Hollywood doesn’t make movies that look like this any
more, but I’m glad that Spielberg was willing to do it one more time.
The epic vistas, the careful framing of each shot to make the most
picturesque, the beautiful music that accompany the gorgeous and at
times harrowing images seen on the screen, the great use of color and
light and shadow; there really isn’t much more to say about War Horse
beyond it’s just a beautiful film. The war scenes might be a little
intense for some, as is the sadness that accompanies the ravages of war,
and some of the horse scenes might cause animal lovers to cringe (the
person I was with was practically in the fetal position during one
particular screen), but the beauty of the film and the heart of it’s
central character, the war horse, is an uplifting, inspiring and
enjoyable journey that epitomizes much of what the Christmas season is
about; hope and love.