Words that have been used to describe Steven Spielberg's World War I-era epic, 'War Horse': sentimental, earnest, cheesy, sugary. Try as I might, I just can't believe that any story can be this goody-goody. Spielberg has been at this a long time and there just has to be a hidden meaning inside 'War Horse.' Perhaps this is it: Joey, the titular war horse is cursed demon beast.
Obviously, spoiler alerts are in effect from this point forward. Now, on the surface, 'War Horse' presents itself as the straightforward story of Joey, a horse who experiences a plethora of adventures under a series of owners during the First World War. Though, beneath the swelling John Williams score and surface-level inspiration lies something sinister: For two-and-a-half hours we watch Joey (only the most despicable of beasts would answer to such an affable name) blaze a path of destruction against any who dare try to claim ownership of this obviously possessed steed.

Let's examine the evidence by recounting just how many people are killed during Joey's reign of terror. First up, poor Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston). Captain Nichols purchases Joey from the Narracott family to serve as his personal battle horse during the war. Nichols, who honestly could not be more of a gentleman, even promises young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) -- oh, we'll come back to him later -- that Joey will be returned safely to the family once the war is over. Off-screen, Joey laughs at this promise, since he knows it will never be kept. During the very first battle that Nichols enters, Joey steers the captain directly into machine-gun fire. The scene ends on a close-up of a wide-eyed and shocked Nichols. Not because of the surprise of the German attack, but because of the realization he purchased a cursed demon beast that deliberately rode him into the line of fire. One down for our possessed horse, Joey.

After Joey disposes of Nichols, he's "captured" by the German army. At least, that's what Joey would want them to believe; in reality, the Germans have fallen into his trap. Two young German soldiers named Gunther and Michael tend to Joey, eventually using Joey and another horse named Topthorn to desert the army and flee from the war. This is how Joey is the most sinister: he earns the owner's trust. While Gunther and Michael are hiding overnight in a windmill, Joey (in a scene that's not shown on screen, but we must assumed happened) alerts the German authorities, resulting in Gunter and Michael's execution. Three souls now lost.

Of course, Joey doesn't get captured at this point by the Germans. He and his non-possessed horse friend, Topthorn, find solace with a young girl named Emilie and her grandfather, the owner of the windmill. After Joey's had enough of this nice family's food and care, Joey rides Emilie over a hill and, of course, directly into a field of German soldiers. Later, we learn that Emilie is dead. Four down.

Once back in the hand of the Germans, Joey and Topthorn are used to pull artillery. I'll say this for the German army: by this time they're fully aware of the consequences of getting too close to Joey -- because they know he's a cursed demon beast. Without any human sacrifices available, Joey turns his attention to Topthorn, his closest friend. The records will show that Topthorn died from "exhaustion," but we all know that when someone dies or checks into the hospital for "exhaustion," there are ulterior factors at play. The fact remains, Topthorn's last moments on Earth were spent with Joey. Five kills for our possessed demon beast.

But, oh, Joey has something truly special for his first owner, young Albert. You see, Joey hasn't forgotten about Albert and truly wants to be reunited ... so he can kill him. But, wait: Joey obviously rethinks this: Maybe death is just too good for the human being who once made me plow an entire field by myself. Joey escapes from German hands, trying desperately to find Albert. Albert, who is now serving in the British military, has fended for himself pretty well up to this point. That is, until Joey renters his life. Some may call it a coincidence, but once Albert leaves the German army behind, it's absolutely no surprise -- at least to this reporter -- that Albert is gassed by the enemy and loses his sight. Joey, with one final curse, blinds the very man who raised him: his sixth victim.

General consensus hails the best scene in 'War Horse' as a conversation between a British soldier, Colin, and a German soldier, Peter, in the "no man's land" between two warring trenches. They are both there to free Joey, who appears to be trapped in barbed wire -- but, in reality, it's a trap set by a cursed demon beast for one of these unsuspecting soldiers. After "freeing" Joey, the two soldiers flip a coin to decide who will own Joey. Colin leaves with the horse. The audience is left to believe that Colin won the coin flip. But, now, we know that isn't the case. Colin lost that coin flip. And even though 'War Horse' is ambiguous about what is to become of Colin's fate -- we just know. Colin lost that coin flip in every possible way.

Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter

[Photo: DreamWorks]

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War Horse
Based on 40 critics

A remarkable horse experiences life and death on the battlefields of World War I. Read More

categories Movies