Acclaimed director Steven Spielberg’s latest film War Horse shows God’s providence in action.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
This ancient proverb shows us how even ostensibly insignificant things can be decisive in matters on a grand scale. The want of something as small as a nail could make or break the future of entire kingdoms. That is the way that Providence, the hand of God in human history, works. We do not always see the big picture; we are finite and can only see the present circumstances as we hope for a better tomorrow; but God is always in control, working out His ultimate purposes through our lives. Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse is a film that gives us a look at that big picture.
While of Jewish descent, the idea of God’s providence may or may not have been operating on the minds of Spielberg and his screenwriters or on the mind of Michael Morpurgo, (the author of the novel that this film is based on) but the film gives witness to it nonetheless.
War Horse is the tale of a thoroughbred steed named Joey, and the people that he comes across during the bloody turmoil of the First World War. It starts off intimate and beautiful in the sweeping landscape of rural Ireland before the war. After the title comes up, we are at a village horse auction. The people gather around as the auctioneer calls for the bidding to begin on a fine running horse. Everyone believes that the only man to buy the beast will be Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis), the richest man in the parish, because everyone else will be looking for a strong workhorse. All of a sudden, Ted Narracott, (Peter Mullan) an old farmer and a drunk, throws his hat into the ring. They bid higher and higher, until the rich man yields to the farmer at the price of 30 guineas. Narracott’s friends call him a fool – what could he use a running horse for, and where would he get the money for the horse and the rent he owed on the family farm, leased to them by none other than Mr. Lyons? In his drunken stupor, Ted Narracott offers a bit of wisdom that he likely could not understand himself at the time, “Some days are small days, and others are big. This is a big day.” Yet, after the excitement of the auction wears off it doesn’t feel very big – he has just put his family into a terrible financial fix. Could anything good come out of such a blunder? Only by the gracious providence of God. Frequently inebriated, Narracott is hardly able to provide for his family as it is. His wife Rose (Emily Watson) has taken on the responsibilities and burdens of leading the family, as her husband wallows in his beer and pain over a past war. He has been so devastated by the horrors of his time as a solider that he drinks until he forgets the pain, and in effect his family as well. Rose nearly has a conniption upon hearing about the new horse, but their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is ecstatic. He names the horse Joey and they bond immediately. He breaks-in, trains and cares for the animal, even teaching the horse to plow (something that will prove to be providential), until the announcement of war reaches their village. Soldiers are heading out to go fight in France across the Channel and so Ted Narracott, still desperate for the funds to pay his rent, sells Joey to a young Captain (Tom Hiddleston) in the English cavalry. The captain promises the brokenhearted Albert that he will return the horse should they both survive the war.
The rest is a ride, sometimes a wild gallop other times a light canter, across war-torn Europe as Joey is passed from owner to owner under various circumstances. The concept of providence is displayed in that each new owner furthers the story of the horse’s journey through WWI. They care for the beast, and yet there are plenty of tribulations and difficulties to overcome as poor Joey finds himself in the company and service of people on all sides of the war: from British soldiers like Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a young French girl, to the very Germans they are fighting. Even the fact that Joey had been exposed to the collar of a plow, something warhorses would normally would not have been used to, came into play for the better. I won’t tell you how it ends, but for better or worse, this film shows an overarching hand following the animal and the people that he touches (Ps. 147:9; Matt. 6:26). Some of you may say that comparing the events of a film to the idea of providence is a stretch: “it’s only a movie,” some skeptics might insist, and they assert that the screenwriter needed this or that to happen to tell his story. Beyond just the actual events of the film, which I believe point to God’s sovereign hand in history, (even if the filmmakers themselves were unaware of it); the very act of writing a screenplay lends itself to the concept of providence. In a screenplay nothing happens by accident, coincidence or chance; everything in the script is carefully planned out and put onto page by the writer, who molds and crafts the world and characters of the film to achieve the purposes of his story. The screenwriter brings trials, obstacles and antagonists into the hero’s life to grow him and bring him to the climax and resolution of the movie. Sometimes the story ends happily and sometimes tragically; but regardless, it is the goals of the screenwriter that prevail. When we are watching the events unfold on screen we don’t always understand why things happen the way they do or what the hero must do to overcome the forces of antagonism he faces, but we know that the film will end the way the writer and director design it to, and (unless you are watching some nonconforming artsy film) all the loose ends will be tied up at the end. This is generally how we like the cinema to be, because that’s how the world is wired: to God’s purposes and providential action and decree. In this sense, every film is a witness to providence, but War Horse in particular seemed to display the invisible workings of God, never explicitly acknowledge in the movie, through its events.
The worldview seems to be primarily Christian, with several references to God as protector and the One who blesses nations. Psalm 23 is quoted by a frightened solider in No Man’s Land. This implicit framework of Christianity is syncretized to a degree with fatalistic lines about “luck”, but they are few. For the most part, the film portrays the WWI generation as it was, fundamentally Christian.
There is much good to be seen in this film, but as every film will, it has some problems that should be addressed.
Probably the worst aspect of this film is the common Hollywood blight of its depiction of family. The fathers in the film get a bad wrap: from the drunken abdicating Narracott, to the nationalistic German who forces his teenage sons to join the army, to the French grandfather who is, in the words of his own granddaughter, deceitful and cowardly. Still the negative portrayal of patriarchy is not as wanton as in other motion pictures, and it is balanced out by a few noteworthy scenes:
First, there is a scene where Albert is struggling with the fact that his father does not lead his home; that he leaves Albert and Rose to clean up his messes. The young man speaks ill of his father while he and his mother are in the barn together, she quickly rebukes him for his dishonoring words, and tells him of the sacrifices and the humble character of his father. On the one hand, this film shows the damage to families that drunkenness and irresponsible fathers bring, yet it maintains the necessity to honor and respect them, in spite of weakness and sin. I’m not sure this film goes far enough with this to say it upholds the Fifth Commandment, but I’ll at least say that it comes very close.
Second, the Frenchman, though accused by his impertinent and somewhat spoiled granddaughter of being a coward, puts his life on the line to protect her when German soldiers invade their farm for food and supplies.
Another worthy message in this film is perseverance. This is seen both in the trench warfare in France and in the farm work in Ireland.
Rated PG-13 for “Intense sequences of war violence”, War Horse may not be a good film to let younger children see. However, Spielberg handles the hard aesthetics with care, often using cinematography to imply rather than show violence; and of the violence that happens on screen, none of it is overly graphic or gory. The scenes in No Man’s Land are rightly frightening and it displays the horror of WWI without being gratuitous. There is only one time where the Lord’s name is taken in vain, and only a sprinkling of language through the film, surprisingly clean for a Hollywood war film.
With a massive scope, and the sweeping beauty of early 20th century Europe, this film is truly worth viewing. A refreshing change among the more poisonous wares at the theater, War Horse has some problems and flaws, but is overall a well-made, moving production.
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
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