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War Horse
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and the stageplay by Nick Stafford)
Stars: Jeremy Irvine (Albert Narracott), Peter Mullan (Ted Narracott), Emily Watson (Rose Narracott), Niels Arestrup (Grandfather), David Thewlis (Lyons), Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls), Benedict Cumberbatch (Maj. Jamie Stewart), Celine Buckens (Emilie), Toby Kebbell (Geordie Soldier), Patrick Kennedy (Lt. Charlier Waverly), Leonard Carow (Michael), David Kross (Gunther), Matt Milne (Andrew Easton), Robert Emms (David Lyons), Eddie Marsan (Sgt. Fry), Nicolas Bro (Friedrich), Rainer Bock (Brandt)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
War Horse
War Horse Set against the backdrop of World War I, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an ambitious, anthological portrait of both the devastation of war and the potential for human decency seen through the eyes of a horse. It is unabashedly romantic in the way it uses the horse, who is named Joey, as a mythical, almost supernatural embodiment of everything we deem good: loyal, noble, determined, strong. Yet, Joey is not just a simplistic vessel of universal values, as he is also at times stubborn, willful, disruptive, and, most human of all, scared. Fear, in fact, is the overriding emotion throughout War Horse, particularly the fear of loss. Joey has his moments of greatness, but also his moments of weakness and fright. To wit, the film’s most powerful and moving sequence does not depict Joey racing bravely into battle or saving the life of a beloved owner as we might expect, but rather him running terrified through the muddy battlefields of Northern France, lit against the night sky by hellish red flares as he tears across a barren wasteland, over and through the trenches, eventually becoming ensnared—perhaps fatally—in coil after coil of barbed wire. It is as wrenching and painful a sequence as Spielberg has ever produced, and this from the man who has dealt cinematically with the Holocaust (1993’s Schindler’s List), the Middle Passage (1997’s Amistad), and the invasion of Normandy (1998’s Saving Private Ryan).

War Horse, which was adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) from the best-selling 1982 children’s novel by British author Michael Marpurgo, as well as the 2007 stage adaption by Nick Stafford, does not begin in battle, but rather in the English countryside, where a teenage farm boy named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses Joey’s birth in a neighboring field. Joey comes into his possession when his father Ted (Peter Mullan), a tenant farmer and veteran of the Boer War who drinks too much and often acts foolishly, bids for the horse at an auction primarily to keep it away from Lyons (David Thewlis), the wealthy landowner from whom he leases his farm. Thus, Joey comes into the Narracott family, which also includes the long-suffering mother Rose (Emily Watson), through an imprudent, impulsive act that could potentially spell financial doom for them (being a thoroughbred, Joey is not physically equipped to pull a plow).

Desperate for money, Ted later sells Joey to the British army when they arrive in town to buy horses and sign up eligible men for service with the outbreak of the Great War. Albert, who is too young to enlist, is distraught over losing Joey, who he has trained and with whom he has forged a strong bond, but the captain (Tom Hiddleston) who purchases him assures the boy that he will take excellent care of the horse and bring him back at the end of the war. This is only the first of several times that Joey will change owners, as his service with the British army ends in a battlefield slaughter and he changes hands to the German army. Later, he and another horse are taken when two German brothers desert the army and wind up at a farm in northern France owned by a kindly grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his adolescent granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens), who hide him from French soldiers ransacking the farm for provisions.

Like Robert Bresson’s austere masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which some have seen echoed in Spielberg’s film, War Horse uses Joey and his constant movement among owners as a means of reflecting on the differing faces of humanity, both good and bad (Bresson’s film featured a donkey as the central character). While Spielberg’s unique formulation of the classical Hollywood style has little in common with the intense, spare aesthetic favored by Bresson, War Horse is similarly powerful in its symbolic use of a “beast of burden” to evoke the pains and joys of the human experience. For the most part, Joey’s owners respect and in some sense love him, and that emotional connection is all the more powerful for being set against a world in flames. More than any other filmmaker who has worked in the war genre, Spielberg is a master of making us feel the enormity of humankind’s war machines and their destructive capacity, and War Horse is no different. From the surprise revelation of a bank of German machine guns that quickly and brutally ends a British charge, to the thunderous emergence of a massive iron tank, to the use of mustard gas in the trenches, Spielberg chronicles the devastating mechanics of war, which seem all the more cruel and unnatural when set against the natural beauty and grace of Joey and the other horses harnessed to the war machines.

Thus, the inevitable charges of sentimentality that will likely be leveled at War Horse are more knee-jerk than perceptive, as the film’s redemptive ending and sense of reassurance is counterbalanced by a clear-eyed view of the horrors of humankind’s self-destruction. The film is impressively robust in terms of tonal shifts, with the idyllic, often comical opening third in the English countryside standing in stark contrast to the war sequences, which Spielberg handles with the same command and intensity that made Saving Private Ryan a cinematic landmark of violent verisimilitude. However, because War Horse is aimed for general audiences, he withholds from view the gory details of bloody bullet holes and dismembered limbs and instead finds abstract and poetic means of depicting the bloodshed. Thus, rather than showing the British cavalry being brutally machine-gunned, Spielberg cuts from direct shots of the firing barrels to extreme high-angle shots of riderless horses sprinting into the forest. Similarly, his depiction of the charge through “No Man’s Land” between the British and German trenches (which Stanley Kubrick memorably depicted in 1957’s Paths of Glory, a film Spielberg greatly admires) is brutal without being graphic, relying primarily on the expressionistic devastation of the landscape to stand in for all the mutilated bodies.

While these sequences contain visual allusions to both Kubrick’s film and Andrei Tarkovsky’s feature debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962), other elements of War Horse recall David Lean’s epics and John Ford’s westerns, particularly the painterly final images that could have very well been shot in three-strip Technicolor on a soundstage (the cinematography is by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski). More than any film Spielberg has made in the past decade, War Horse embodies the great characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema. In particular, he demonstrates his mastery of the fine art—ungraspable by filmmakers who trade regularly in irony and cynicism—of infusing the bleakest of material with a sense of optimism that swells in your heart without blotting out the tragedies and losses that came before. The film is as humane as it is severe, a stirring contradiction at the heart of Spielberg’s finest works.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © Touchstone Pictures and DreamWorks SKG

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