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War Horse (2011)

December 29, 2011


written by: Richard Curtis and Lee Hall

produced by: Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy

directed by: Steven Spielberg

rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)

runtime: 146 min. 

U.S. release date: December 25, 2011


There must be some hardened hearts sitting in theaters watching “War Horse”, at least that’s what I gather based on some responses from certain reviewers. It’s being called sappy, schmaltzy, and manipulative, and to that I will wholeheartedly agree – but in the best sense possible. It’d be one thing if Spielberg was coming from a cynical place, or delivering this 1982 children’s novel by British author Michael Morpurgo (told from the POV of a horse) in a heavy-handed manner, but that’s not the case here (although some will most certainly disagree). What Spielberg is doing here may be considered a regression by some from the realistic, compelling dramas he’s known for (“Schindler’s List” and “Munich”), in that it’s a lighter, straightforward, and simplistic look at a boy and his horse in tumultuous times. I’d rather see it as an ode to old-fashioned filmmaking, with Spielberg paying respects to those directors who’ve previously delivered sweeping, heartfelt epics that you just don’t find anymore.

The story opens in 1912, just before World War I in the southern part of Devon, England, on the rocky farmland hilltops of Dartmoor. There we meet a stubborn and mostly drunk farmer (Peter Mullan) who surprises his tough and sensible wife (Emily Watson) by buying a beautiful young horse at an auction. It was an impulsive purchase that was more than the man could afford, but his prideful bidding war with his landowner (David Thewlis), was much too tempting to resist. What the farmer really needed was a strong plough horse, not the spirited equine character that seems just as stubborn as him. His teenage son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is taken with the horse, naming him Joey and promising to train him to tend their neglected fields. An inseparable and loving bond is built between the boy and his horse, seemingly filling a need that each of them had.

Despite Joey and Albert proving to everyone that the feisty horse has become an impressive work horse, his family still can’t seem to recover from hard times. Albert’s father winds up selling Joey to the British calvary in order to save their farm. Although Albert is crushed, he takes some comfort in knowing that Joey will be the personal steed of Commander Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor” and “Midnight in Paris”), a compassionate man who promises to care for the horse. From here on, the story follows Joey, as we experience an animal’s perspective of war and all its perils.



Along the way, Joey befriends a black horse named Tripthorn, and shows an extraordinary amount of bravery and courage. As he changes owners and sides, the horse encounters a variety of (surprisingly) caring people who look after him. From the two German brothers who use him to pull an ambulance wagon to the French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, if you remember him from “A Prophet”, you won’t recognize him here) who take in the abandoned horse, the horse’s adventures provide unique perspectives from the many different types of people who are impacted by war.

During this time, we also see Albert enlist in the war, where he is sent to the perilous battlefield of the Western Front. In the harrowing and visceral confusion of war, both Albert and Joey witness their own miseries and hardships. Survival is at the forefront of their minds, with the faint hope of a reunion barely registering as a reality amid their harsh surroundings.

The thought of Steven Spielberg directing a movie about a horse that goes off to war held zero appeal to me when I first heard about it. Then I learned that it was a beloved book that was turned into a Tony-winning Broadway play, and something in me envisioned a sweeping epic. The more I read about it and his other movie in the works, “The Adventures of Tintin”  the more anticipated I become. After all, here was one of my favorite directors, a man who has shaped my childhood (as cliched as it sounds, it’s true – and the same can be said about his partner, composer John Williams) finding new territory for himself in his filmmaking journey. How could I not at least be curious about that? Even though he was clearly returning to mainstream family fare (some are considering it a regression), at least he was challenging himself.

The challenge here is in telling the story through the perspective of a horse, something you can get away with that in the written word, since the reader imagines everything in their head. But on the big-screen all the visuals are out there for the viewer to take in. 1994’s “Black Beauty” told such a tale quite well, with the horse basically narrating the entire movie. In fact, there are uncanny similarities between that horse and Joey. Both experienced a continuous change in owners and both witnessed harrowing lows and jubilant highs.



It helps that Spielberg has quite an admirable gathering of UK talent at his disposal. Mullan and Watson have long been two of the most captivating and venerable character actors on-screen, and to it’s a treat to see the cast rounded out with some fine work by Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, and Liam Cunningham, however brief they may be. One could say that the weakest link could be Irvine as the protagonist’s BFF, but I found what he’s doing (intentional or not) is some old school style studio acting that we aren’t too used to seeing anymore. Sure he’s a little green and overly earnest, but it’s quite fitting for the role and sells us on this impenetrable bond that we have to be sold on.

What works here, first and foremost, is Spielberg’s impeccable film crew. He’s had cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with him since “Schindler’s List” and the man’s talent just gets more and more impressive. Both of them fill the screen with exquisite shots, using silhouettes against breathtaking landscapes and frightening rain-soaked fields of war, almost as if the land or the scenes themselves are their own character. These are compelling cinematic scenes that harken back to John Ford films, or even a classic like “Gone With the Wind”. With the horse encountering so many different people and places, it takes a crafty editor to maintain a certain flow, which is exactly what Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s longtime editor does. Therefore, this is quite an amazing picture – on a technical level, but “War Horse” is saddled with some flaws both quite noticeable and tolerable by this viewer.

Although the war scenes are brilliantly designed (no surprise with four WWII films under Spielberg’s belt) and there is a good deal of humanity injected into many of the scenes (the best is an exchange between a British and German soldier, as they put the war around them on pause), there is a fair amount of hokum to deal with as well. Some of that is brought on by the slightly overwrought score by Williams, but there are enough movie clichés in the script that will cause some to do more than one eye-roll.

But despite noticing these flaws, I was at no point pulled out of the movie.  I was absorbed and quite taken by this story, wondering where it would take me each turn. I found myself surprisingly drawn to this expressive horse and all that he showed me. In the end, I was unabashedly moved by “War Horse” and, as cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t help but think – this is why we go to the movies. In fact, I’d bet on this horse to win over even the most cynical of hearts.



RATING: ***1/2



4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 2:24 am

    I wanted to love this movie so much. I even teared up while watching it, more than once. But the manipulation was so overwhelming that it actually got me paranoid! I left the theatre trying to put words to the ideas and themes that someone, it seemed, wanted to push a little too forcefully into my mind. It didn’t feel right. Or honest.

    Perhaps I have seen “Inception” one too many times, but I really couldn’t help but feel, and I mean this – violated. I don’t think I can trust Spieberg anymore, and I won’t go and see another of his movies without first reading the reviews, to look for a similar complaint.

    John Williams’ score was way over the top. I’d like to see a Spielberg film with an edgier, non-Williams score. Philip Glass? Or better still, how about Spielberg makes a film with no score! I wonder if he could do it?! I feel like it’s time for Spielberg to once again deliver something specifically for a mature, grown-up audience with mature, grown-up sensibilities. I’ll take a “Munich” or a “Schindler’s List” over this (or even “The Terminal” – one of his most underrated).

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 3, 2012 9:26 am

      I hear ya. While not reprehensibly pandering or cloying as Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, the manipulative schmaltz is still unavoidable. So, I embraced it, and in doing so, I enjoyed it – even while acknowledging all the legitimate bemoaning this film has received. It seemed inevitable that The Academy would nominate it as Best Picture, not that there’s anyway for this horse to win. Spielberg and Glass? That’d be cool, but unlikely. I would wager his symbiotic friendship with Williams would prevent him from using any other composer. Williams score is fitting here, yet his blatant “Feel this!” aura is very apparent. More mature, eh? Well, you might get that this year with “Lincoln” – although do we really need another biopic come Oscar season? Sigh. Then he’ll move back into sci-fi mode with “Robopacalypse”. I guess I’m an apologist of The Beard – based on his indelible impact in my life, his films will always have my time.


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