Spielberg's 'War Horse' is sentimental but strong

2011-12-25T00:00:00Z 2012-02-22T19:58:13Z Spielberg's 'War Horse' is sentimental but strongBY JOE WILLIAMS • Post-Dispatch Film Critic • joewilliams@post-dispatch.com • 314-340-8344 stltoday.com

An epic such as "War Horse" distills the qualities of Steven Spielberg's storytelling that some people find great and other people find grating. Unashamedly old-fashioned, it's the equine equivalent of "Lassie, Come Home." But while the PG-13 approach to the most brutally sustained war the world has ever known makes it suitable for mature children, some cynical adults may resent the tug of the reins.

Me, I cried like a grandmother.

Although "War Horse" is based on a book and a stage play, it's cinematic to a fault. There's a golden glow across the English countryside on the day about a hundred years ago when a colt is born in a meadow. The colt is bought at auction by Ted Narracutt (Peter Mullan), a hard-bitten Boer War veteran who needs a plow horse for the rocky hillside he rents from a cruel landlord (David Thewlis). But it's loved and trained by Narracutt's strapping, apple-cheeked son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who names the colt Joey.

When England is pulled into the First World War (for reasons that the movie can't adequately explain), horses are needed for the cavalry, and the cash-strapped father sells Joey to gallant Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who pledges to return it to the heartbroken Albert when the war is won.

But this is a new kind of war, and its fiery first skirmish on a Belgian battlefield leaves scores of horses slain — and Joey separated from Capt. Nicholls.

The chestnut colt and a mighty, dark-coated companion pass from the Germans, who harness them to pull an ambulance, to a French farmer and his granddaughter, who hide them from hungry soldiers, to a no-man's land of blood-soaked trenches between the warring armies.

An instant-classic scene in which Joey charges through barbed wire, dragging fence posts in his wake, will reverberate through children's dreams for generations. But the subsequent scene, in which opposing soldiers toss a coin for ownership of the wounded horse, sends Spielbergian overkill into the homestretch, where several resurrected characters wait at a far-fetched finish line.

Yet even while it's whipping us into submission, "War Horse" feeds us enough sugar to enjoy the ride. The horse-and-boy bonding is irresistibly sweet, the pastoral vistas are reminiscent of "The Quiet Man," and even the charging armies are a splendid sight. Spielberg remains a consummate craftsman of action scenes, and here he wisely stops short of the gore he splayed around "Saving Private Ryan."

Although it's saddled with sentiment, "War Horse" is strong and noble enough to carry us away.

'War Horse'

Three stars (out of four) • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:26 • Content Intense scenes of war violence

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