December 31, 2011
Review - " War Horse " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup,
Davis Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston & Emily Watson
A horse is a horse, of course, of course---but the horse in director
Steven Spielberg's sweeping, sentimental new drama is no
wisecracking Mr. Ed.
War Horse, based on the children's book that became a hit Broadway
play, is the powerful tale of a spirited stallion sold off his farmland
home in the English countryside and pressed into military service on
the muddy, bloody battlefields of World War I.
Joey, as he's named by Albert, the young British teen who raises him,
is an exceptional steed who touches the lives of everyone with whom
he comes in contact - the British cavalry officer who rides him into a
spray of bullets, the soldiers who harness him to haul the machinery
of war, the kindly French farmer and his granddaughter who shelter
But will Joey and Albert ever be reunited?
That's the heart-tugging question that drives War Horse, even when
Albert gets news that makes him think his beloved warmblood has
surely been lost.
As producer and director of this very beautiful motion picture,
Spielberg has delivered on all his promises to make a film on the
scale of 1960’s classics like David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago,” Robert Wise’
s “The Sound of Music,” and even his own more recent “Saving Private Ryan” crafted to satisfy everyone in the family.
Whether you’re looking for a new “Lassie,” or just need a good cry, whether you’re hooked on the beautiful English
countryside or on the tragic consequences of World War I, this is the movie to see over the holidays.
Yes, there are some stilted performances and wooden dialog, and the tale of young Albert Narracott and his beloved horse
Joey through every major episode of “The War to End All Wars” may stretch your credulity to the breaking point — but
hopefully not until after you leave the theater!
Albert, just a teenager when the story begins, develops an almost anthropomorphic bond with the feisty thoroughbred his
stubborn, wastrel father buys on a dare at auction. In fact, since the only animals worth owning on the far from user-friendly
farmland of Devon are plow-horses, the Narracotts’ impulsive father Ted (Peter Mullan), long-suffering wife Rosie, (Emily
Watson) and earnest young Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) are derided and laughed at by both villagers and their wealthy,
villainous landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). If Albert can’t keep his promise to teach Joey how to plow their rocky terrain,
the horse will have to be sold for rent money.
In the scene that follows, you will probably learn more
about early 20th century plowing than you ever wanted to
know, but thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Janusz
Kaminski’s magnificent camera work, it is remarkable and
heart-wrenching to watch.
When World War I breaks out in 1914, Albert is too young
to enlist, but that doesn’t stop Ted from selling Joey to a
British cavalry officer, the aristocratic Capt. Nicholls (Tom
Hiddleston) who promises the devastated Albert that he
will care for the horse and do his best to return him after
From this point on, the film follows Joey through the war
and the war through Joey: the horror of early British
defeats, respite with a French resistance family, German
capture and forced labor, and the remarkable rescue from
barbed wire in No-Man’s-Land that is the definitive take-away from the irony of that war. German machine guns mow down
British cavalry, Joey loses the black stallion that has been his constant companion since enlistment, leaps over trenches
through dark, war-torn countryside to deafening sounds and lightning flashes of canon fire.
What kind of an ‘orse is that?” asks an enlisted man watching Joey from the trenches? The answer (as you’ve no doubt
heard in previews): “A damn miraculous horse!”
Spielberg gives us all the benefits and pleasures of masterful filmmaking—scenery, settings (like the Narracotts’ beautifully
rendered stone cottage), John Williams’ typically emotion-charged score, sound, light and action.
But the real star is the horse - or, rather, the horses - that play Joey, upon which the focus remains although the settings
change and other characters come and go, often tragically. Spielberg, his longtime, go-to cinematographer Jasusz
Kaminski, and the animal trainers do a truly masterful job of conveying the personality, emotions and thoughts of the
beautiful, magnificent "beast" whose amazing journey takes him so far, far away from home. Except for Joey’s, the
performances, while adequate, won’t garner any Oscars; the performers don’t have much to work with in the way of
dialogue, and star that he is, Joey has none at all!
But Best Pictures don’t always rest on best performances by their actors. “War Horse” is a perfect illustration.
The movie looks gorgeous and grand, befitting its epic expanse of hardship, heartache and hope. It doesn't flinch from the
historical realities of a war in which hundreds of thousands of horses perished, killed by artillery fire, consumed by disease
or starvation, or worked literally to death.
It's not gory, but it's reassuring to know that no animals were actually in any way harmed in the moviemaking process. Keep
reminding yourself of that.
One episode, in which a panicked Joey
becomes entangled in barbed wire, is
especially wrenching to watch. That
incident, however, sets up the movie's most
uplifting scene, in which a British soldier
and his German counterpart meet in the
middle of the "no man's land" battlefield and
work together to free him.
When the story finally comes back around
in a marvelous full circle, and Spielberg's
closing plays out wordlessly against a
spectacular orange and golden sunset, it's
one of the most beautiful, shamelessly
sentimental movie moments of the year.
Make sure you've packed some tissues in
the saddlebag. You're gonna need 'em.