War Horse

29 Dec

Title: War Horse
Year: 2011
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston
MPAA Rating: PG-13, intense sequences of war violence
Runtime: 146 min
IMDb Rating: 7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Metacritic: 72


The Oscar nomination ballots were mailed out to members of the Academy just a couple of days ago, and in the big race people are saying that it’s going to come down to a fight between this film, The Artist, and The Descendants, with the French black-and-white film having the edge. I’d have no problem with either The Artist or The Descendants taking it, I’ve given them both perfect grades, they currently sit as my fourth and seventh favorite films of the year, respectively, they’re both pretty damn masterful. War Horse, I’m kind of disappointed to say, isn’t a perfect film. It is, however, still damn great.

The film obviously had huge expectations, it started out as the front-runner for every awards race simply based on the pedigree: It has Steven Spielberg, a director beloved by the Academy who already has three Oscars (2 for directing, for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and the other for producing the latter), and it has him directing a film that will make you cry no matter what, a film about war, and a film about men. By which I mean, it has every single thing a Best Picture needs to walk away with the top trophy. However, coming in with such huge expectations always means the only place to go is down. That’s not why I don’t think War Horse isn’t perfect, since it never seemed like my personal cup of tea so I wasn’t holding it to such high standards, it’s just that I loved bits of it, and others didn’t do it for me. When the film was a down-and-dirty war epic, I loved it, some of the best minutes of film of the whole year done by the guy that does them best. But the lighter side to it, the family side just didn’t do it for me, even though I cried during much of it. I cried, yes, and you will, too, the score by John Williams is too emotionally manipulative to leave a dry eye in the room.

Plus, this is Steven Spielberg, people. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does this kind of stuff better than him, Saving Private Ryan‘s opening is still the definitive scene of wartime, the close-ups he makes on people’s faces to tug at your heartstrings always work, the guy is a master filmmaker for a reason, one of the greatest there’s ever been, for some people arguably the greatest. The control he has over his craft, the incredible level of artistry present in every single frame of this film is a thing of beauty. And in War Horse you have Mr. Spielberg playing at being John Ford a little bit (another thing that will make Oscar drool for this), showing us a film that’s not as edgy a look at war as Saving Private Ryan, but one that reflects stuff we’ve seen before, and displays it with an unfaltering sense of sincerity, which brings forth a lot of hugely sentimental moments, some of them quite earned, others not so much, but it still hits home in all the ways you might imagine with such a legend behind the director’s chair.

I think every person that really loves movies will love War Horse because of that, because it’s so reminiscent of those great films of a half-century ago, with hugely enchanting colors and emotions made to swell up even more behind such a powerful score by Mr. Williams, a five-time Oscar winner and loyal collaborator of Mr. Spielberg’s. This is such a Spielberg film, you have to be happy just to have this guy back, I mean I saw The Adventures of Tintin, his foray into motion-capture technology, two days ago, and it was an incredible film (I gave it an A-) and had a lot of his Raiders of the Lost Ark days, but this is a Spielberg film where tears abound and in which, amidst all the war going around, you know the man will always give you the happiest ending possible to make you smile at the end. And then you’ll cry a little more.

Even if you’re like me and this isn’t a perfect movie to you, you can’t deny that this one works like gangbusters. It works seeing a director like Steven Spielberg kind of paying homage to many directors that came before him, giving us an epic and uplifting film that will appeal to every single demographic, a film that’s not afraid about wearing a lot of heart on its sleeve, a film that’s well acted by a really dependable ensemble, and a film that technically is a supreme achievement by everybody involved. War Horse works, people, don’t try to deny it, no one can tell you what to feel and how to feel like Steven Spielberg can.

The movie is based on both a children’s book and a stage production that’s been hugely successful and renowned for how it acts out the horses from some really well-used puppets. And as it opens we’re in a small family farm in Devon, where Jeremy Irvine’s lead character, Albert, lives with his dad, a nice type of drunk, but drunk nevertheless, and mom, who’s just lovely, played by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, respectively. And there’s a horse auction going on, in which the father sees a really handsome horse, and manages to outbid his landowner, Lyons, played by David Thewlis, to whom he owes money for it, going back home to his wife’s shock that he has spend all of the rent money for a thoroughbred when what they needed was a cheap plow horse. Albert, however, forms an immediate bond with the horse, Joey, and trains him to put on a collar and plow the fields. Until one day, as World War I breaks out, his father, drunk again, sells the horse to the Army, Albert making a promise that he would see his equine friend again someday.

We then get to see what it was like for Joey during wartime, what it was like for him and the other horses thrown into a horrible kind of chaos, confused and scared, as Steven Spielberg gives us some scenes that do act like the savage scenes in Saving Private Ryan as far as the intensity they present on-screen, but that still feel very family-friendly. The shots Mr. Spielberg gives us as we follow Joey’s journey are truly something, showing us that when there’s a war going on these animals are seen as weapons that must be used, and showing us how the horses respond to this, not knowing what’s going on, running wild outside the trenches, going through barbed wire. Of course no real horses were actually hurt in these scenes, but when you’re seeing it take place you hurt profoundly for Joey and his friends, it’s a pretty damn agonizing view, incredibly realized by the only director that could do it like that.

Like I said, I loved these bits, the war bits, they were spectacular, amongst the best scenes Mr. Spielberg has ever given us, which is saying quite a bit, but it also means that Joey, and not Albert, is the one that’s carrying the narrative thread with him, and he’s a horse, and as many unbelievable things as Mr. Spielberg does with him here, there’s only so much a horse can do. But still, there’s no denying the emotion here, some will have a hard time giving into such huge amounts of sappiness, I can relate because I was there for a second, but then I realized that this was too much a majestic film not to give myself to it. So I could handle that emotion, I could handle the boy speaking clichés to his horse with a straight face, and you should too, because the pay-off by Mr. Spielberg is more than worth it.

War Horse isn’t my Best Picture winner, it’s only just a Top 40 film of the year for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy winner of that prize come Oscar night. Sure, I liked The Artist and The Descendants much more amongst its competition, but the stuff this film does is unbelievable, I fault this film because it wasn’t perfect, because I wanted a superior Spielberg, because I wanted just a tad less saccharine, more restraint; but mid-level Spielberg is still a beauty to behold, the war scenes are amazing, and the emotions it brings to the surface are outstanding. That really should be more than enough, it’s a film that’s just perfectly flawed.

Grade: A-


2 Responses to “War Horse”

  1. CMrok93 December 29, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments. The cat doesn’t really have any big-names either, but they are all great in each of their own respective roles as well. Great review.

  2. Soldiers' Mail December 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    It is nice to see a current treatment of the Great War which is now largely forgotten but yet so formative for the 20th Century. The juxtaposition of horses and 19th Century tactics with mechanized warfare was haunting. From the soldier’s point of view, dead horses behind the lines were a great source of extra food if they were not contaminated with gas: http://worldwar1letters.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/somewhere-in-france-7101918/

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