Steven Spielberg’s War Horse follows the unlikely journey of Joey, a thoroughbred sorrel from the English countryside, through the leisures of peace to the harrows of the western front. Joey’s epic march from green pastures into hideous peril traces the general shape of the Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien penned the earliest histories of Middle-earth while recovering from injuries sustained in the same liceridden trenches that host the climactic scene of War Horse.

In the opening segment of Spielberg’s film, young Albert Narracot tames Joey’s skittery spirit among the rolling hills and thatched cob cottages of Devon. There, boy and horse become bosom friends. Albert’s devotion to Joey echoes Samwise Gamgee’s stubborn loyalty to Frodo – Albert even speaks in the same West Country accent as Sean Astin’s Sam from the Peter Jackson adaptation. And Joey’s backbreaking labors dragging German guns through the squelching mud toward the valley of the Somme is no less of a Mordor than Frodo’s whipdriven march from the orc hold at Durthang.

But where Tolkien’s stout champions willingly quested forth to defend their green shires against the taints of evil, the first world war has a pulling gravity that sucks Albert and Joey and the other reluctant victims into its greedy maw. Joey himself is mute and led by the bridle from one disaster into the next. He is hardly a hero. In a war where human beings are bullet fodder, beasts of burden are treated with as much dignity as plastic forks. If Lord of the Rings shows that even the smallest among us can topple a mighty evil, then Joey represents the neutered helplessness of the footsoldier in the face of catastrophe.

There is no glory in this war, according to Spielberg’s portrayal. He pays tribute instead to the strength of bonds like sympathy and love, which somehow seem to survive the idiot futility of poison gas and trench warfare. It’s different from Spielberg’s interpretation of World War II. Saving Private Ryan ended on a brave last stand, as American soldiers righteously defend against overwhelming Nazi assault. (The heroes are, in their moment of dire need, rescued by deus ex caelo, or god from the sky – a favored device of Tolkien.) War Horse, on the other hand, shows both cruelty and tenderness on either side of the trenches. It’s a tearjerker, there’s no denying that. But like a hurdler on a steeplechase, War Horse leaps over the cloying marshes and lands on the solid ground of heartfelt artistry.

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