Hope Personified

War Horse (December 25, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Touchstone Pictures)

The English play War Horse was a production built upon the premise of several genuine ideas, one of which being the emergence of life where none actually existed. The inanimate horses would become living, breathing organisms onstage, an experience I was lucky to have while seeing the play on Broadway. This was accomplished through the awe-inspiring skill of a quite talented group of puppeteers. Many have said Steven Spielberg (with a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall)  is cheating by making a film adaptation of War Horse, which was also based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. After all, he uses real animals, as well as all the movie magic at his disposal. There may be some truth here, but it is far easier to notice what a splendid film he has made.

Spielberg is one of the great directors of our time, a main reason being he can make an audience feel like no other can. He knows what functions movies can serve, and he caters to those who he hopes will enjoy his own. His films are also that of classical, narrative genius, accompanied by genuine emotion, and all wrapped within that “Spielbergian” sense of wonder. So who better to direct War Horse? This is a man, who after 40 years in the industry, can still breathe life into anything.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a teenage lad in Devon, England, who through the drunken purchase of his father (Peter Mullan), comes to raise a young horse into a strong, gorgeous animal named Joey, capable of plowing the family farm so that the property will not be taken away by a devious landlord, played by David Thewlis. It is fair to say Albert accomplishes something special, complete with the love and approval his mother (Emily Watson). But then a storm badly damages the crop, forcing Albert’s dad to sell Joey to the army as World War I begins to ravage Europe. The horse is cared for by a friendly captain, played by Tom Hiddleston, and from there, the film becomes a dual story between Joey’s experiences in the war, as well as Albert’s, once he is old enough to enlist. Things then go full circle, not only through a touching story of a boy and his horse, but also one of how the darkest of situations, often of our own causing, lead us to rediscover our humanity.

Spielberg stages this epic tale with the vision John Ford, visualizing both gorgeous, natural shots of England, as well as busy combat sequences with comparable beauty and intensity. It reminds you just how great a widescreen, theater experience can be. Many shots reminded me of such grand dramas such as Gone with the Wind, and others of westerns like The Searchers. And Spielberg never misses an opportunity to reminisce upon the great, old war films, including All Quiet on the Western Front. The silhouette of a mere boy, having witnessed hell on Earth, riding his horse amidst an empty landscape and blood-red sun, will surely impact you, and as he dismounts and embraces the family he holds so dear, the feeling will remain inside you.

This is Spielberg’s reawakening of such emotion, not just of Ford, but of an entire generation of filmmakers, artists who painted a sunset, which amidst the heart-wrenching strings of John Williams, in this case, would not soon be forgotten. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has been with Spielberg since Schindler’s List in 1993, photographs some of the most beautiful imagery that has ever bared a Spielberg label. Editor Michael Kahn, who also worked on Spielberg’s recently released, animated feature, The Adventures of Tintin, also uses fades and montage to great effect, simulating an editing style that has long gone out of style. Yes, War Horse is old-fashioned and proud, making it nothing other than something new.

But that doesn’t mean the film is a distinctly original product. The characters are all archetypal, Irvine playing a courageous, but slightly naive boy, who is able to recognize the humanity within a creature that is far from human. I enjoyed his performance, as of that by Mullan and Watson, as his parents. Albert, through the process of war, will soon learn to appreciate the courage of his sad and wounded father, as well as the lesson his favorite pal has taught all who have made contact with him. In terms of human friends, I found the character of softy mate Andrew, played by Matt Milne, to be fairly annoying. Thewlis, as the landlord, is never quite sinister enough, either. His son, played by Robert Emms, is also a slightly underplayed character. Meanwhile, the military characters are all decently played, but the subplots that really stand out are those featuring an elderly man, played by Niels Arestrup, and his granddaughter, Emilie (Celine Buckens), as well as that of two brothers (David Kross & Leonard Carow) who desert the German army. If nothing else, the latter displays what cruelty human beings can inflict, and the former what kindness they can show.

There is a scene in War Horse, also included in the play, with which I have had a hard time judging the quality of its execution. And days later, this conundrum still fascinates me. Joey is injured, trapped by barbed wire in no man’s land. Both the English and German armies spy him from their respective trenches, and a representative from each decides to go release the poor animal. Predictably so, the two “enemies” work together to trim the tangled wire. The twist is this – it took me until the middle of the sequence to realize that the men spying the horse, from inside the trench, were actually from separate sides. And I had seen the play! This is partially because Spielberg also has the Germans speak English, an aspect that both the film and play utilize in some cases for intentional, comedic effect. The filmmaker in me hopes that Spielberg also conveyed this confusion intentionally, in order to display the unifying elements of both sets of men, which war tells us should be different. This is obviously the meaning of the entire scene, as reflected through Joey, who represents hope in the best sense.

So poor or exceptional? It would take me a second viewing to decide, as it would for several other scenes. But it will only take one for me to proclaim that Spielberg so effortlessly transfers the tone and meaning of the play into a cinematic contraption, one that may not have the greatest acting or dialogue, but is a top-notch, technical production that touches our hearts to the core. Even when the darkness of our world takes hold, we are still subject to one idea – for the most part, we are all the same, and we all have the chance to be good. Sometimes it just takes a horse, or a movie to tell his coincidence-heavy tale, to make us realize this once again. Or as Spielberg would prefer, to make us see and feel it.

There is truly something for everyone in War Horse. An imaginative, fairly-tale-like story, fantastic imagery, pure emotion, and even the best action sequences Spielberg has shot since Saving Private Ryan in 1998. And whether we like it or not, its message applies to all of us. It has been awhile since the world-famous director has crafted the classics we love, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park. His previously mentioned war films of the 90s also seem enveloped within the distant past. But in the last 20 years, Spielberg has still made what I believe to be great films, including science-fiction pictures Minority Report and A.I. But the purists will always doubt whether the magic is still there, or whether our childhood, cinematic hero should consider himself retired. Luckily, there is an antithesis to that statement. His name is Joey.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent review, looking forward to this one. I am really glad you liked this one since so many people have been hating on it so far!

    • It’s definitely worth it! I understand where the nitpickers are coming from, but really, we gotta expect some level of predictability and corniness from a movie called “War Horse!” That doesn’t change the fact that this is superb filmmaking, and that Spielberg, even in a new era of cinema, continues to rank among the directors who inspired him.

  2. 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. Great review.

    • Thanks! It’s clear that this isn’t original material by any means, but I didn’t quite feel manipulated. I think Spielberg wants us to go into this film with the expectation that it will be a cheesy story about a boy and his horse, with semi-obvious meaning. But that’s not what evoked the emotion for me. It was how Spielberg used traditional cinematic techniques to tell that familiar story. It’s all very nostalgic, but not overdone in the way that I thought “Super 8” was. The method “War Horse” used to tug at my heartstrings was its graceful display of those beautiful / devastating compositions of both landscape and battle, all compiled into one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year. The characters do love that horse, almost creepily so, but in the end, I did too.


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