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.