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.
Filed under: Review
Tags: Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Janusz Kaminski, Jeremy Irvine, John Williams, Michael Morpurgo, Niels Arestrup, Peter Mullan, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hiddleston, War Horse