by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.