Based on the 2007 stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse tells an epic and episodic story of war and peace as seen through the eyes of Joey, a young thoroughbred horse who begins life in rural England on the eve of World War I. As Joey changes hands, he leaves England behind for the muddy, bloody horrors of war in Europe. He sees the fighting from both sides and from the perspective of innocent bystanders swept up in the conflict. In the end, he comes back out into a world that has changed forever.

War Horse is about the loss of innocence and, by design, the golden-hued opening sequences of the film are exaggeratedly corny and old-fashioned. Joey is purchased to do farm work for which he is ill-suited by a stubborn, alcoholic farmer and he is loved and trained by the farmer’s young son Albert. Albert typifies the square-jawed and straight-shouldered naivety of the early 20th Century before the world was ripped apart.

The turning point comes on the eve of World War I after Joey is purchased by a well-meaning English officer to ride into combat. A sneak cavalry attack upon a German camp at first appears to be a smashing success until the Germans are chased into the forest where a line of machine guns await to turn the tide. Joey survives the slaughter, but it’s clear the rules of combat have changed and large swaths of Europe are about to be turned into a muddy hell.

Innocence is lost, but the innocence is our own, not Joey’s. It’s one of the beautiful things about a horse and one of the interesting things about using a horse as a guide through the story. Joey changes owners and even changes sides several times throughout the story, but he’s neither good nor evil. He’s purely innocent and his endurance in itself is a thing of beauty. Joey has been compared to the donkey in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (perhaps by critics hoping to reestablish their cinematic bona fides after falling for the naked manipulations of a tear-jerker like War Horse), but there’s nothing Christ-like about Joey’s suffering. He’s never abused for the sake of abuse. He suffers simply because he’s unfortunate enough to have been caught up in a uniquely human folly.

Technically, War Horse is as excellent as we’ve learned to expect from a Steven Spielberg. Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography in the early scenes is the exact opposite of the icy cold work he did in the 1990s. The English countryside is captured with nearly Barry Lyndon-like beauty, but the look and tone of the film darkens as the world is consumed by war. Though the combat scenes are unsparing in their bleakness, the violence is more Paths of Glory than Saving Private Ryan. The fighting is intense and unsettling, but it’s very much in keeping with the film’s PG-13 rating and intended family audience.

John Williams’ lush and emotional score meanwhile is a perfect fit for the material. While he can sometimes be overbearing with his more emotive scores (and there’s a great danger of that here in a film that is already moving all by itself), this time somehow it never feels like too much. The score gently heightens the emotional impact without trampling all over it.

As for the cast, Jeremy Irvine is almost unbearably cornball as the boy Albert and the early scenes can be hard to swallow at first. This isn’t a slam against Irvine. He’s only acting as directed and Spielberg knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s all a set up for the horrors to come. Peter Mullan (Hunger) is terrific as Albert’s father, the drunken farmer who himself hides dark emotional scars from an earlier war. Emily Watson is as good as she always is as the flabbergasted but loving wife and David Thewlis is also excellent as the gruff landowner come to collect the rent. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston meanwhile are perfect as a couple of upper class English military officers unprepared for what we know they’re about to experience in war. Finally, Niels Arestrup, who was so fantastic as the Corsican in A Prophet, here does a complete 180 as a gentle French grandfather who has lost his whole family to war save for his young granddaughter.

While the acting all around is excellent, the real star of this show is the war horse Joey. He’s a stunningly beautiful and photogenic animal (several actually. 14 horses were used just for Joey), powerful and soulful and charismatic in his own equine way. You can’t help but gaze at him whenever he’s on screen, even among other horses. Though he’s made out to be highly intelligent, Spielberg wisely doesn’t try to anthropomorphize him too much. Joey isn’t a character in the human sense. Though he obviously has feelings and expresses them, they’re mostly basic, consisting of simple fear or contentment and the like. More than anything Joey is the connective tissue between larger human stories. He is the pair of eyes through which we see and the receptacle for the feelings we ourselves experience. War Horse is after all about us, not him.

This is through and through a proudly emotional film that never tries to conceal its manipulations. It’s not the kind of movie that is going to appeal to cynics but neither does not liking it automatically mean a person is cynical. Some will find its corniness refreshing and others laughable. Some maybe both. Personally, I think the world can endure such a film once or twice a year. It’s cathartic and deeply gratifying if you surrender to it.

In the end, when the war is finally over, War Horse returns to the idyllic tone with which it began and Spielberg’s old-fashioned method becomes clear. The sentiment this time has been well-earned and it is tempered by the sadness of everything that has come before. Innocence has endured, but even beneath an artificial Technicolor sunset, it is tinged with loss and the feeling that things will never be quite the same again.

30 Responses to “War Horse (2011)”

  1. I haven’t seen the film and won’t until tomorrow night (after the yuletide festivities) at our local festivities, but I couldn’t resist reading your beautifully-written review of it. Like you I am in large measure a fan of Spielberg’s emotional cinema, and have gleefully participated in the recent celebration of his prolific career here at LIC.

    But I will have to see the film to make a more meaningful comment on WAR HORSE.

    Merry Christmas to Craig and the LIC regulars!

  2. I just gave the orders to Lucille to pick me up a copy of John Williams’s score, which is his most magnificent in years. Arestrup is irresistible, and Kaminski’s work is extraordinary.

    I admit I succumbed, shed more than a few tears and felt it was in the end one of the best pictures of 2011 in a list that is becoming unweildy to finalize.

    Your final two paragraphs are brilliant.

    I am ready to go to the mat for this one.

  3. I guess I get the frustration and irritation some people have with this film, but seriously, come the fuck on: Spielberg makes a hell of a film out of a love story between a boy and his horse, and Spielberg never once shirks from nor downplays the horror of war. A lot has been made of the lack of the blood in these battle scenes, but so what? The film is painfully honest about the brutality and dehumanizing horror of industrialized warfare. It just doesn’t wallow in the grotesquery of combat.

    The film starts off feeling like Babe and in those early scenes the Albert character is corny as hell, but the film works for me because Joey is such an amazing character and that horse offers a rich performance. I also enjoyed the film’s narrative trick of showing war from virtually every perspective without breaking it into a series of vignettes.

    Great film. Sentimental? Sure, but honest too, and what’s wrong with sentiment if its done with honesty? And if you’re going to get played like a fiddle by the director, I’m perfectly content to be played by a virtuoso like Spielberg.

  4. The above comment by Joel is utterly brilliant in virtually every sense, if I may say so.

  5. I was annoyed with a number of mediocre reviews I had read, which lead to a bout of rhetorical sarcasm. So forgive me if I have left no room for discussion in my approach.

  6. I’m glad you guys enjoyed the film. I honestly haven’t bothered with some of the negative reviews because they pretty much write themselves with a movie like this.

    After the iffy trailer I was actually stunned that I fell for it. Turns out that Spielberg guy knows a thing or two about what he’s doing.

    As for the argument that the combat isn’t bloody enough, I don’t think people are putting the movie in its intended context. It’s based on a book written for children and its meant to be seen by many different ages. There’s really no reason for it to be more violent than it is.

  7. Complaints about the bloodiness of the combat or the unlikelihood of enemy soldiers bonding over a wounded horsey sorta miss the point: the picture is a parable, not Saving Private Ryan: The Early Years.

    As someone who had a problem with Ryan’s mixture of extreme gore with corn pone war cliches, I thought War Horse was more consistent and true to itself, while still offering battle scenes that are harrowing because of Spielberg’s considerable command of technique.

    I just about loved this picture, and it’s nice to see that Kaminski has other palettes up his sleeve other than “silver tinted melancholia”.

  8. I was honestly surprised to see Kaminski in the credits, but he did a great job. By my estimation there are at least a half dozen truly iconic shots in this, but what he does with the interplay of color and shadow at the end of the film is truly stunning.

    It’s a shame this has opened so late that it is being overlooked in nominations for cinematography (cough OFCS cough cough).

  9. Yeah, picking on the combat scenes is just looking for more reasons to feel smarter than this movie that had the nerve to actually make people want to feel something. The horrors of war are important to the story, but it’s not “about” the horrors of war.

    Spielberg said himself he had no intention of making Saving Private Joey

    I’m more ok with the more emotional parts of Private Ryan than I was back in the day, but yes War Horse is more tonally consistent and honest and actually less manipulative.

    Had I not known in advance that it was Kaminski, I never would’ve guessed it.

    Blame Disney Joel for not sending out screeners to the OFCS like just about every other studio except Sony did…. well SPC did, but not Sony major.

    For what it’s worth, I voted for it for cinematography.

  10. I agree with Chuck and Joel on these salient observations. And I am thrilled that Chuck feels so strongly about the film too.

    Somehow I wasn’t expecting it.

    Craig: Did you vote it for cinematography over Lubetzki?

  11. In the initial balloting, I voted for both among my 5 choices with Lubezki rated a bit higher.

    For the second round where I could pick only one and Kaminski was not a choice, I voted for Lubezki.

    We’ll find out in January how it turns out.

  12. Ah well, I figured there was a reason War Horse was getting so few mentions when a number of critics have rated it very highly, amongst the more average reviews. It would preferable if everyone waited until the year actually ended to make their choices, but we all know that time is long gone.

  13. I regretted not having more time myself, but the deadline was 12/24 and even at that the OFCS is far behind most of the other critics groups.

  14. I’ve been dragging my feet to see this — conflict, I guess, involving the sentiment factor. With Spielberg, I’ve come to be wary of what I regard as his stylized, overly glossy technique. It’s sorta the way I feel about Barbra Streisand’s directorial efforts: too perfect.

    On the other hand, ET lifted me up. . . .

  15. Pierre, I urge you to summon up your inner reserves!!!

    I went to see it a second time myelf last night.

  16. Pierre, fly to Arkansas and come see it with me this weekend. It’ll be 98% better that way.

  17. 98 percent? We could scrounge an extra 1% and Occupy Fort Smith!

  18. Sadly, I have yet to see War Horse, but upon skimming through a few lines and paragraphs of your review and seeing some highly positive reactions from such compelling and diverse voices as Sam, Joel and Chuck, my enthusiasm for making the journey to it has never been stronger. The main problem has been one of high demand on my part. It seems fair to say the film appears to require a most large screen on which to view it, if possible. There’s an impressive XD screen at the Century AMC in San Francisco where I saw No Country for Old Men that is showing it, but between the holidays, having the opportunity to see almost all of the other films out (still working on A Dangerous Method, but otherwise…) in towns like San Rafael, Novato and Corte Madera north of SF, save for the Mission: Impossible which was convenient to see on the IMAX screen in San Francisco due to a dental appointment last week, I have not seen the Spielberg drama yet.

    I enjoyed Tintin and think it’s more personal-from-Spielberg than it may initially appear, found Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a most compelling “shortened” version of the novel on which it’s based, found myself easily won over by the unassuming but powerfully-driven (by Charlize Theron) Young Adult, was receptive to The Artist if not entirely in love with it, wondered why on earth Fincher and co. spent all of that time and money on a thoroughly unnecessary remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, groaned at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows save for the nearly impeccable performance by Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty, found Mission: Impossible a shallow affair, not surprisingly, but with some tremendous moments of “pure cinema” embedded from time to time, consider A Separation a true masterpiece of form, style and thematic content, and one of the absolute best films of 2011, was, frankly, bored silly by the special screening of Albert Nobbs, good performances notwithstanding, thought My Week With Marilyn an amusing trifle of a film and yet another historical dramatic character study project, like Walk the Line or Capote or even Ed Wood and a bevy of others that shed more illumination about a supposed supporting player than the primary subject (as Branagh’s Olivier seemed to glisten, radiate and matter in ways that Marilyn as played by Michelle Williams, didn’t quite ever begin to notably register) and I continue to struggle with Payne’s The Descendants–a strong central turn from Clooney and a more emotionally disarming one by the lovely and mercurially vivid Shailene Woodley, and yet distinctly lacking in the kind of moderately high-brow gratification offered by Payne’s earlier work due to a kind of self-confinement presented by a dutiful but oddly workmanlike screenplay and, to be completely honest, a tone that never quite departs from feeling peculiarly safe and inoffensive, even when the film routinely flirts with breaking off from the course of the inevitable; strange that The Descendants arguably takes on more to chew than Election, About Schmidt or Sideways, in its number of storyline threads and potentially arresting characters, and yet in the respective cases of each of these, misses the mark all too often by curiously underdeveloping most all of them while simultaneously offering pages and pages’ worth of dialogue and angst-ridden hand-wringing over them. It’s like it wanted to tell you what it was about, and then proceeded to make sure you understood, only to never actively go anywhere especially interesting with what it could or even should be. And yet because it’s so well-performed by most everyone, it’s easy to succumb to it and accept it as a middling but fairly agreeable little family drama.

    So, in any event, I’m waiting to see if War Horse shows up anywhere closer to me, perhaps taking the Corte Madera “Cinema” away from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–which humorously drew audible sighs, wanton wristwatch-gazing, nearly ceaseless cellphone texting by a fifth of the audience and immediate vacating upon the beginning of the end credits with many muttering how “flawed” and “boring” it was (only adding for seasonal cinema-going flavoring on my part–there were eight or so walkouts from Tinker, Tailor…)–so I don’t have to make my lazy self go over the Golden Gate Bridge or take the ridiculously-priced ferry.

  19. Well if it isn’t Alexander Coleman. Long time no see, pal.

    War Horse is one of those movies where it’s impossible for me to predict people’s reactions so I have no idea whether you’ll love it or hate it. I hope you give it a shot though.

    I still need to see Tintin again. My response was that I liked it, though it did feel a little empty to me in the end.

    Tinker Tailor I liked too, but could never quite get over the fact that it wasn’t the book or the mini and wasn’t intended to be. I’d have liked to have much more time to spend with the great characters and performances, but it’s still good.

    Young Adult took me awhile to get into. I thought they spent a little too much time setting up Theron’s situation, but then about half way through it really started to click for me and I give it bonus points for going dark places most movies don’t.

    Had the exact same response to Dragon Tattoo, even if ultimately I liked it a bit better. It was an improvement over the original I think, but not enough to make it worth the time and trouble, especially not Fincher.

    With you on Separation and Nobbs, talk about opposite ends of the spectrum.

    Liked Marilyn a good deal more though I concede it isn’t much. I basically fell in love with Williams/Monroe. End of story.

    The Descendants is probably the most disappointing film for me this year. There is the widest gulf between my expectations and what I got, and also interestingly the widest gulf between my own rating and Metacritic. Clooney was great but I wish he’d punched out that tool of a boyfriend like the grandfather did and put the little fucker in the hospital so he wouldn’t be in the rest of the movie.

  20. Hey Alexander! Knowing your previously-stated interest in Spielberg, you should certainly see this and enjoy it on a large canvas. I would warn you that everyone seems to report frustration with the opening 20+ minutes, but once Tom Hiddleston shows up on screen things improve.

  21. Have yet to see this and I want to.

    I will try and do it before the weekend is out.

  22. I finally saw this film today and must say that the sentiment I was expecting was certainly there in spades. Despite the implausibilities of the story, I was swept up many times and shed more than a few tears.

    Just as in The Help, there were moments in this film intended to move me but that did not. I don’t mean to compare the two films — as I find War Horse better — I just wish there weren’t so many leaps of faith in the screenplay. A few moments of the moralizing about war and the irony of “sides” was a bit over the top to me.

    That said, I’m a sentimental enough guy to really get off on the simplicity of feeling that Spielberg has indulged us in.

  23. The thing about War Horse/Help is that I didn’t feel like War Horse altered history in order to have its cake and eat it too. The Help softballed the civil rights era, but War Horse allowed WWI to be suitably horrifying. It ended sweetly, but there was still a melancholy note. I sense of what had been lost.

    Having said that, yeah the scene with the English kid and the German was a wee bit too much, but remember this is a movie based on a children’s book and I think rightly it is tuned so pretty young kids can appreciate it. At the same time it manages to be palatable to those of us whose brains have finished forming. It found a nice middle ground.

  24. You’re certainly right about the altering history thing, Craig. STill, if I’m gonna single out an adult/children’s film, my vote goes for Hugo, though I totally get your well-made point about WH evolving from a children’s book.

    I really did get a kick out of the snippy English officer, though. And Niels Alstrup (from A Prophet) was such a great character.

  25. You’ll get no argument from me on Hugo, though it took me longer to fall in love with that one than War Horse.

    Niels Alstrup was indeed fantastic.

  26. It’s true, while Hugo may engage one’s curiousity from the start, War Horse goes for the heart from the get-go.

  27. War Horse is definitely one of the best movies of 2011. Old fashioned( for me, that is a compliment) movie making at its best. Beautifully photographed and scored -I’m not a John Williams fan – but his score here is pitch perfect.
    I gave up being a fan of the Academy Awards a couple of years ago when Sandra Bullock got Best Actress for that Halmark Hall of Fame movie over Meryl Streeps incredible portrayal of Julia Child. I’m still smarting from that one. This year the Academy stepped in it again by failing to nominate Spielberg for War Horse and instead nominating Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, a sweet but decidely minor entry into the mans body of work. Allen can’t hold a candle to Spielberg. In the past he was a great filmaker, one of the countrys best but his last several films have been barely watchable.

  28. It’s a shame that “old fashioned” is considered a dirty word in some circles because War Horse was simply lovely.

    I generally like John Williams, though I do think he can sometimes be overbearing and this film would’ve been destroyed if he’d gone over the top. Luckily he didn’t.

    I have to disagree with you about Midnight in Paris being minor though. If I was going to throw out one of the directors for spielberg, it would be Payne or Hazanavicius.

  29. I strongly believe that WAR HORSE will stand the test of time. I don’t like to put labels on people or films but the term old fashioned was overused by people who didn’t like the film. Does it matter though? There are no modern films, old fashioned films, b/w films, silent films. There are good or bad films. Another thing i would like to mention is that in the era of overanalysing the Oscar chances of films or people, many bloggers, journalists and commenters passionately support their favorite ones. I like that, but i believe that in order to support our preferences we tend to underappreciate other films, which we end up appreciating them later. I am sure that if WAR HORSE was not a contender, there would be more positive assessments. Just a thought.

  30. It’s sad really how much Oscar warps impressions of the year in films. Each film is put under a magnifying glass to determine if it’s “oscar worthy” whatever the hell that means and if it doesn’t pass muster, it gets thrown out and forgotten. At the same time, perfectly nice movies like The Artist get put under the spotlight and suffer backlash (including admittedly from me) by people who just don’t think it’s “the best”. Oscar has never measured the best. Once in a while they match, but really it’s a measure of a what a select group of people want you to believe is their favorite.

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