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Boy meets horse, and the rest is history

Mary Claire O'Donnell | Monday, January 23, 2012

Yes, it’s about a horse. But it’s so much more than that. It’s about the death of the cavalry; the bonds of friendship between humans and animals; the ties that bind all of humanity together; perseverance; love. So yeah, it’s a tearjerker.

The film opens on the birth of the horse, Joey, in rural England. A young boy, later introduced as Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), watches fondly from a distance. He watches the horse grow up, trying to befriend it, but the horse belongs to someone else. Unknowingly, his father (Peter Mullan) buys Joey in an auction, inciting the anger of his landlord (David Thewlis). The Narracotts are poor farmers, leasing their land, and so Albert must train Joey to pull a plow, even though he not bred for the job. Albert and Joey succeed, though, and are fully devoted to one another.

But after the Narracott’s crop is destroyed and World War I comes England, Albert’s father sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a cavalry officer without a horse. Albert wants to follow Joey to war, but he is too young to enlist.

Tragedy seems to follow Joey through his life, but he also inspires the affection of all who come across him. He falls into the hands of the Germans, who use him to pull an ambulance, before two young brothers deserting the army use him to run away. He then falls into the hands of an elderly French jam-maker and his ill granddaughter. The Germans take Joey back from them and almost work him to death.

At this point in the film, the focus returns to Albert, who has enlisted in the army with a childhood friend, despite his age. He is somewhere in France, engaged in the horrific trench warfare that characterized World War I. And Joey is across No Man’s Land on the German side, each searching for the other. I won’t say anything more about the end of the movie, except that you might want to bring tissues with you to the theater.

The film is another fantastic Steven Spielberg war movie. It will never compare to “Saving Private Ryan,” but it looks at another side of war in a similarly compelling and moving way. “War Horse” focuses on the bonds that are forged and broken during the war, and not only among the soldiers. The scenes of appalling cruelty give way to powerful scenes of strength and kindness.

Spielberg does focus most of the movie on Joey, possibly too much. Irvine’s debut performance as Albert is excellent, beautifully capturing the right emotion for a teenager struggling to find his place at home and in the world. But he disappears for a large chunk of the movie unfortunately.

It is also often hard to tell which side of the war, German, French or English, the action is focused on because they all speak English with a British accent. Unless you have an in depth knowledge of World War I uniforms, it takes too long to figure out into whose hands Joey has fallen.

But these are minor complaints. “War Horse” is a beautifully done war film, evoking all the right emotions, even for its non-human star.

Contact Mary Claire O’Donnell at modnne4@nd.edu