War Horse (2011) Review (PG-13)
The story of War Horse begins with the birth of a thoroghbred in a small town in England a short time before the start of ‘The Big One’. A teen named Albert (played by relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine) admires the horse from afar right from the start. Albert is thrilled when his father outbids his landlord partially out of pride. His mother (Emily Watson), not so much, seeing that it may jeopardize their home.
Albert names the horse Joey and takes on training the horse to plow their fields after the father nearly shoots the horse in frustration. Saving the family home hinges on whether or not Joey can learn to pull a plow and the entire town soon gathers to watch Albert try to coax the horse into doing just that. I won’t tell you how that works out, but the horse is soon being sold by the father to the military. War has broken out and good horses are needed. Albert is heartbroken, and not yet old enough to go into the military but he vows to find the horse and bring him home. He attaches a flag from his father’s regiment (from the Boer war) to the horse for luck (and as a storytelling device for the audience). So the story moves on to the next owner.
I’m of the kind to let you, the reader find out for yourself as to what happens next. The film gallops through the years and across Europe as the war moves along. Joey falls into the hands of various people involved and affected by the war. There are many scenes that are classic Spielberg; touches of humor, serendipity, and lots of sentimentality. Human touches. There are quiet moments to underscore the horror of the surrounding war. Spielberg doesn’t simply shoot a scene, he creates the perfect image to get not a reality across to the audience, but mood and ideals. He’s like a cinematic Norman Rockwell. For instance, a British regiment mounting their horses becomes like a moving painting. The frame is entirely filled by a golden field of wheat, the horses and men becoming visible as they mount. The air is filled with floating wheat particles, the sun casting a golden light over everything.
The old visual stand-bys of the director are omnipresent. Those shots of light illuminating dust particles. Silhouettes under orange-red skies or seen in the distance of a vast barren landscape like something out of a David Lean classic. Embers soaring into a night sky. There were even compositions that reminded me of Hollywood golden age classics like Gone With The Wind.
This is very much a work of art. Combine that with regular collaborator John Williams’ soundtrack and… just “wow”. There are some directors who get their hackles up by the idea of a score ‘artificially’ evoking emotion from the audience. Speilberg has no such qualms and rightly so. I have to say one of my favorite parts of this film was when I thought that I was hearing very deliberate traces of prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf ” accompanying a scene that involved a goose on Albert’s farm.
Speilberg works with the best, so it’s no wonder the acting is top notch in War-Horse. It features some lesser known actors and actresses, but most of them are brilliant in their own right. Peter Mullan (Children of Men, Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur), who plays Albert’s flawed father, makes every part he plays interesting. At the beginning, he isn’t just placing bid on a horse. You really get the idea that it means a lot to him. he shakes. He mutters. He frets at the prospect of losing. He grits his teeth while doubling down and literally betting the farm. He’s fun to watch. He worked well with Emily Watson as the wife. The scene where she gives the landlord a piece of her mind was entertaining. There are many great actors in this, though. It would take to long to highlight them all. I did enjoy seeing Eddie Marsan in a small part, also. I do wish he would get some bigger parts, though. He’s a great actor and seems to be wasted a lot. I think he said one line in the last Sherlock Holmes film, as an example. I’d be remiss to fail to mention that he horses and their trainers were every bit as important as the actors were. There were some pretty impressive things that the horses do in the film. Such shots, I fail to see how they could get on film, especially the one that involves barb wire.
To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in seeing a ‘horse movie’ even if Steven Spielberg was back in the directing chair, but I’m glad I did. It is very much in the vein of Spielberg’s films over the last 15 years. It seems a little more cynicism, a little more of the harshness of the world has seeped into his consiousness. Where the films of his early career were mostly rousing adventures (Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders Of The lost Ark), the stories he’s told in the last 2 decades (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Of The Worlds) have tended to be a little more on the dark side . War is often the backdrop as it is in War Horse.
There is something a little different about War Horse, though, that is a little bit of a return to the sentimentality of his earlier films. There is an overriding hopefulness in the film that everything will work out, no matter how bad things are going. Some way, some how, things will work out.
Despite what some critics have complained about (I’m talkin’ to YOU Roger Ebert), I do not think Spielberg sidestepped the horrors of war in this story. I think he actually did a better job showing that in this PG-13 film than a lot of Rated R films. The film isn’t about the bleakness of war, though. Its about hope in the the face of that bleakness.
The narrative device utilized by the director is definitely ‘modern Spielberg’, using the horse to move the film from the beginnings of WWI to the end. The story follows the horse through the hands of various owners and through the various stages of war. The horse endures much. But no matter what nationality, the horse ends up in the hands of someone who love horses. Who has possession of him is often in question. The horse is always regarded as valuable even if he isn’t handled with respect. The best and worst in men comes out wherever the horse is concerned. Think Spielberg was trying to say something there?
This was a great film to end the year on. I haven’t been terribly impressed with what hollywood offered this year, so at least the year in film ended strong. this one made my Top 10 of 2011. Click on the link to see where. It’s worth seeing. It pretty intense for a PG-13 film. The violence in the film is treated far more realistically than in your typical action flick. There are consequences to the violence here. It’s uplifting for a war film, though, and has a little bit different of a point than the usual “War is bad” theme. I know that it is ‘bad’, but there are other things to be learned from war than that. Great film. Great time at the movie theater. Don’t wait for the DVD. See this one with an audience on the big screen. You won’t be disappointed.