By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
War Horse (Spoiler-Free)
(NOTE: If you consider any discussion of story structure a spoiler, you should not read this review. I saw the stage show and for me, the story structure and the visceral experience of the film was still a bit of a surprise. So fair warning… though I do avoid anything that might traditionally be considered a spoiler.)
Somewhere between “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” and “they never made ‘em quite like that” lies War Horse, a Steven Spielberg epic that would serve as a glorious career wrap-up for many 65-year-old (when the film’s released) filmmakers… though Spielberg has two films out in the next month and another, now in production, that will be will us next fall. Talk about your war horses!
War Horse is deceptive to the viewer, in that there are a few different films in the deck from which Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis are dealing. (It all started, btw, with Michael Morpurgo’s book.) For half an hour or so, you settle into the idea that this is a family film with a gorgeous landscape, a mustache twirling villain (“But I can’t pay the rent… but you have to pay the rent!”), and a boy and his horse who will make the world right again in 96 tidy minutes.
But the war is coming… what will it bring?
Well, it would be odd to call this “the Contagion of World War One movies,” but there is a similar narrative structure. The life of this horse, named “Joey” by young “Albert Narracott,” the boy-turning-man who raised him, is one of many adventures and many handlers. The story-telling always manages to keep things on the right side of too-clever, which can also be said of the anthropomorphic nature of the war horse, Joey. You never get the Mr. Ed moment, though you do see this horse as a thinking being that gets ideas. But they are never ideas so complex that they seem absurd. They are more on the level of my near-2-year-old son, who can sense the need for caution, knows things he wants, and will actually negotiate with some clarity amongst other 2-year-olds… all in the body of a beautiful race horse.
As Joey travels through his life, he encounters a surprising number of people who really appreciate a smart and beautiful horse. There is a Captain who is emotionally generous to the boy and then the horse as well. There is a young girl played by Celine Buckens who sees the horse as a representative of her freedom. There are a variety of characters who see the horse as more than the potential of the work that can be drained from him. And there are soldiers who see the horse as a symbol of their humanity, trapped in this pointed, sticky war that they are waging in the dirt. And of course, there is Albert, who simply loves his horse as anyone might love a sibling or a child.
I don’t really want to give any of this story away. It is well enough structured a piece that its many small miracles never feel cheap or gimmicky. And Spielberg & Co. change speeds with each new part of the adventure.
It’s a kind of fascinating film in combination with Spielberg’s other Dec release, The Adventures of Tintin. This is the unanimated adventure… but it’s equally ambitious in many ways. From lush countryside to trench warfare to classic villages to the French countryside, War Horse travels. And the look of the film travels with our equine hero. When we are in the early stages of the boy-meets-horse movie, it looks like the old films of that genre. And when we get to the war zone, we get the full Barry Lyndon. And then, we get the full Paths of Glory. It doesn’t look like either of those films. And obviously, the content is not the same. But Spielberg and Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter and even Michael Kahn’s cutting style seems to shift to a slightly different voice.
The ensemble feel of the film doesn’t bode well for acting nominations. There are excellent performances to spare (especially Arestrup, Kebbell, Hiddleston, and Cumberbatch), but no one but the horse really has the time to either be the show or steal the show in a way that makes a nomination seem obvious. There are some moments and some speeches that would look good on an Oscar reel, but as much of a melodrama as this film is, it is pretty careful about not going too big… not calling that kind of attention to any character except for Joey.
Whatever the fate of the rest of the group, I think it’s likely that John Williams will not have to wait until Lincoln to score another Oscar, while many others involved may have to settle for nominations and not wins.
I will admit now that I shed tears watching this film. More than I’d like to admit. And I don’t feel like I was manipulated at all. I felt like I was a witness to some very powerful, very real human emotions. And one cannot help but to root for this horse like you would root for any of the great heroes of the movies. He is not anthropomorphic, but he does embody the traits of persistence, courage, and survival that most people would love to feel in themselves and certainly would love to see in those they love.
And most importantly, you want him to be loved… to not have to show that persistence and courage and survival under fire, even though we know it’s there. This is, really, what all the characters want for themselves and their loved ones in this film… whether the soldiers or the parents or the grandparents or the crowds that gather now and again through the story.
I can pick nits over various things, though by the end of the film, I felt that most of my red flags were really style choices to draw the audience into the film, not unlike Saving Private Ryan. (Watch for the Saving Private Joey sequence here.) There are moments when the great Peter Mullan and Emily Watson almost seem to be doing those fake freeze frames from Police Squad… but again… those shots feel like they were from those movies of the 50s. Eddie Marsan turns for a dark moment, almost as though his part was cut down. Same with a very familiar face playing a doctor for about 2 minutes of the film. But like I say… nit picking. Kaminski’s light will drive some people crazy… as it always does. But I found it breathtaking and fresh many times throughout the film (even in the Gone With The Wind homage).
I can’t wait to take my wife to the film and for my son to be old enough to watch it and be challenged by it himself.
Expectations were high for this film. And they are surpassed. What else is there to ask?