Of Mounts and Men – “War Horse” Review

First a popular children’s book, then a popular stage play, now Steven Spielberg has turned War Horse into a major motion picture. I know many people hear the title and groan. I also know others who would rather avoid Spielberg when he’s in sticky-sweet mode. I don’t expect everyone will be able to stop being a cynic for 2+ hours, but for those who can, you’ll be able to enjoy watching a master at work.

The story begins in England with the birth of the colt, Joey. A local farmer’s son, Albert, takes a shine to the horse and their friendship forms the backbone of the story. WWI breaks out and Joey is sold to the army. Then the movie jumps from vignette to vignette as Joey miraculously endures. Joey does some remarkable things during the war and is also quite lucky. I don’t want to get too specific since how Joey changes owners, and sides, is one of the film’s great joys. It’s amazing how Joey feels like a fully formed character despite being a horse, and we never stop hoping he finds his way back home.

I’m a big fan of the vignette structure of the film, which doesn’t actually kick in until the war begins. Before that, the film takes its time setting up Albert and Joey’s friendship, and the dynamic between Albert and his father and mother, played wonderfully by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson. Because of the time spent at the start, we become invested in the character’s fates. This also allows the film to easily jump into new scenarios with new characters because the movie has built a solid foundation. Plus, I found it a great way to cover many aspects of the war in one story. We get to see English officers, German grunts, the French countryside, the dreaded no-man’s land, and the best-ever postcard shot for England.

I’m sure some might find Joey’s journey a little too unbelievable, but that’s not the point. This isn’t some “real” or “authentic” look at WWI. It’s a fairy tale. In fact, you could just as well of called the movie “Jesus Horse,” the miracles Joey performs being one of several correlations. (Anyone else notice the crown of thorns and cross to bear?) What matters is that you believe the emotion of the story. Do you cheer Joey on and are you thrilled and amazed watching the story unfold? That’s what matters.

And I have to say I was most certainly taken by this journey. Not only because of the structure, but because Spielberg has crafted a technical marvel of a movie. Janusz Kaminski shoots the film as a golden throwback to John Ford and it is beautiful. Some have said it’s too beautiful, but that doesn’t even make sense. The acting is great. It isn’t too showy, but a lot of wonderful work from some classic character actors and a few up and comers. You can’t really complain when watching a movie with David Thewlis (Naked), Peter Mullan (Tyrannosaur), Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love), Tom Hiddleston (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement), Toby Kebbell (Control), Niels Arestrup (Un Prophete), Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky), and Liam Cunningham (The Wind That Shakes The Barley). I also found the young acting from newcomers Jeremy Irvine and Celine Buckens to be very effective.

Aside from the obvious great sound and picture editing you find in every Spielberg film, War Horse features one of my favorite scores from John Williams. It’s memorable and bombastic when it needs to be but knows just when to go quiet and blend into the background. It’s his best work since Catch Me If You Can.

There is a part of me that wishes Spielberg gave WWI the Saving Private Ryan treatment, but he is still able to wow the audience without the grit of that film. The war sequences are rather limited, but like most Spielberg set-pieces completely memorable. The film isn’t that complicated and its themes are rather simple, but it’s not trying to be anything else. War is bad, friendship is good, miracles happen, and everyone has to find their own way in this world. If you can accept it for what it is, War Horse will enthrall you.

Grade: A

6 responses to “Of Mounts and Men – “War Horse” Review

  1. As a WW1 buff, I just wish it had been a stronger movie. The acting, in too many places, outright SUUUUCCCCKKKKED! It’s a sad day in film history when the best actor in a movie is the horse. Seriously, the acting on the part of the main characters was just awful. Sure, they didn’t have a great script, and maybe the director’s all-too-obvious urging to ‘Do it once more with feeling!’ might have played a role, but jeez! There were two breaks in this extravaganza of poor acting – one was when the horse was pulling the German guns and the actor playing the sympathetic artillery soldier did a believable job, while the second was when two soldiers from opposing armies meet in no-man’s-land in an attempt to free the horse.

    War Horse seemed to me to be Spielberg phoning it in. Yes, he can be relied upon to make lovely looking movies, but can he get actors to perform? Judging by War Horse, only if they have no lines, four hooves and a team of CGI wizards to make the ‘actor’ trip and stumble convincingly (yeah, the CGI wasn’t that good either, since I could recognize where it entered the picture).

    Again, as with Tintin, I enjoyed the movie. I just wish I could have enjoyed it more.

  2. I guess I couldn’t disagree more. I thought the acting was pretty good. Not the best ever, but good.

    I keep hearing complaints about the CGI horse but I’ve read multiple accounts about how there are only 2 uses of CGI horses…all other instances it was a real horse performing real stunts. So don’t know what you’re talking about there.

    It’s certainly no Paths of Glory, but I think it is a very fine picture.

  3. I didn’t know there were only two, but if so, I think I saw both of them (I have not looked them up, so maybe I’m wrong) – one is when the horse’s front legs collapse when pulling the plough – the other is when the horse is balancing on the tips of its hooves when pulling the German gun. The first one looked good, but it looked like CGI. The second looked artificial.

    About the film’s merits, I guess we have to agree to disagree.

  4. Yes I think so. I feel like this year more than most there is such a wide discrepancy in what people agree on as good/bad movies.

    As for the CGI, yeah that plough shot jumped out, but it was oh so brief. That’s the only one I noticed. I assume the second was the tank or something. Something that put the horse in danger.

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