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David Poland

By David Poland

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?

24 Responses to “War Horse (Spoiler-Free)”

  1. Joe Leydon says:

    Er… isn’t this an embargo-buster?

  2. David Poland says:


    Screenings are going on for guilds here since yesterday and door was wide open on reviews. Not sure what you were told.

  3. anghus says:

    “There are moments when the great Peter Mullan and Emily Watson almost seem to be doing those fake freeze frames from Police Squad”

    That sentence was simultaneously funny and troubling.

  4. The invite indeed says “hold all official reviews until 12/21.” I asked Disney before writing, considering the spillage elsewhere. But just about everyone else was told to hold.

    Very bizarre, how they’ve been handling this. Anyway…

  5. Kallyia says:

    “There is a Captain who is emotionally generous to the boy and then the horse as well.”
    Well, that’s refreshing, isn’t it? A captain of an army who respects an animal as an equal. Let’s hope they don’t decide to kill him off…

  6. I was initially told to hold untl 12.21. Then that ended (in some part due to Pete Hammond insisting that the public Sunday sneaks meant all bets were off), and then I was told it’s okay to write about it but not to formally review it. The above sure looks and sounds like a full-fledged review to me.

  7. JS Partisan says:

    Yeah someone didn’t explain things to Dave and boom goes a review for a movie that doesn’t come out for a month!

  8. anghus says:

    “then I was told it’s okay to write about it but not to formally review it. The above sure looks and sounds like a full-fledged review to me.”

    This is why the embargo system is so puzzling to me.

    How can you write about a movie and not review it.

    I’d love to see dave’s piece and someone else ‘just writing about the movie but not reviewing it’


  9. Joe Leydon says:

    Er… wasn’t the word “Review” in the headline of this just a little while ago?

  10. LexG says:

    It has an UTR sneak screening at a major LA theater Sunday morning that any member o’ the general public can see. If mass audience yokels like myself are able to buy a ticket to see the movie like any ol’ Friday release, how can it be embargoed past this weekend?

  11. JE Vizzusi says:

    “Cannot we the people just wait for the Chrismas Day Release so we can all make judgement for ourselves?

  12. Joe Leydon says:

    LexG: You might be surprised. Several years ago, when It’s Pat opened for test engagements in Houston and a few other cities, a Disney rep tried to, ahem, convince me not to file a review of the film for Variety, even though I had already reviewed it for The Houston Post. I was told that the film had not yet officially opened — the test engagements were, well, just test engagements — and that if I did file a Variety review, Disney “might not be as co-operative” with me in the future.

  13. David Poland says:

    Speaking to this very important issue… I was not embargoed. The studio would like, it seems, “official reviews” to hold until 12/21 aka closer to the release date.

    My history with this thinking is that the studio wants to have the media push for release and not a month earlier.

    In the meanwhile, the film has been sneaking and will continue to sneak. The argument of critics has always been that any screening that does not directly require a studio invite opens the door… whether a festival screening, a sneak, or even industry screenings.

    I did remove the word “review” to indulge this comfort zone. I didn’t touch any other part of what I wrote nor did the studio request that I change anything else.

    Had I not seen reviews – or what seemed like reviews – elsewhere, I would have actually asked the studio before posting anything, even without an embargo being discussed.

    I also would like to note that I think that dancing around intent is bullshit, on either side. Whether I like it or not, if I indicate how I feel about a movie in any way, including a tweet, it is taken by some to be a review. This is silly, but it’s reality and I acknowledge that the line is now there. On the other hand, playing games with who you show a movie to and how it is reacted to in public is crap too. I guess we all have our idea of a fair standard.

    The last time I had a fight about a Thanksgiving Day weekend screening was about RENT, which I slaughtered and was accused of jumping the gun on. But I was in a room filled with awards voters and critics… and was not embargoed.

    There are always movies that I have seen that almost no one else has seen… and I am perfectly happy to keep my mouth shut. It’s an agreement between professionals.

    On the other hand, am I seeing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo next week? Or is Sony gaming NYFCC by showing it to them “first” to try to get an easy award or two?

    I don’t want to play games, to my benefit or against my interests. I just want a fairly balanced playing field and clear, enforced rules. I am perfectly happy playing by those rules and when I disagree with them, I have a long history of changing the rules by negotiation, not breaking or skirting them.


  14. Joe Leydon says:

    But again: You yourself use the term “review” in the very first sentence of your piece. So how is this not an “official” review?

    Actually, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. But (a)David has been quite critical of people who have jumped the gun on reviews before, and (b)Disney seems to be at once unusually controlling and oddly contradictory in the case of this specific film. Given those two factors, any review (official or otherwise) is bound to raise eyebrows and cause comment.

  15. Keil Shults says:

    He was reviewing the documentary Zoo, not War Horse. Leave him alone.

  16. Bob Burns says:

    Re: the film…..

    In the play I felt that the horrors Joey endured in war represented the animal horror endured by all caught up in it… a long grinding torture (that we could not have watched had the play used a live horse as Joey). The animal experience of war without human rationalization.

    I am curious whether Joey in the movie feels like the universal symbol he was, for me, in the play which conjured up for me a pure anti-war intensity of feeling that I understand was widely felt in the WWI aftermath. Does the film do something similar?

  17. Matt P. says:

    Didn’t Nordling review this at AICN a week ago. I don’t care about embargoes. Let’s talk about what it’s in the review itself. Thanks, Dave, this has got me even more excited than before. I’m hoping this isn’t Williams’ last, great score.

  18. Shawna D. says:

    Somebody’s jealous. Somebody’s jealous. Somebody’s jealous.

  19. anghus says:

    Yes. Aicn had a review up for this a week and a half ago.

    If theres an embargo theyre doing a shit job at educating people on it.

  20. EthanG says:

    Interesting that Spielberg will likely get his seventh nomination (he has two wins) for Director for WAR HORSE. David Lean just happens to have seven nomination with two wins since this movies sounds so Leanesque.

  21. Hank Graham says:

    Who was the doctor near the end of the movie? My date and I have a disagreement about it, though neither of us is sure, and the part is uncredited.

  22. saw see says:

    —World War I horse worship, second hand, as Hollywood, once again, BALKS and RUNS from ALLLLL mention of the cosmically relevant, urgently important,
    RED China Halocaust ‘unfriendly’

    ———————–KOREAN WAR————————–

    AS ther Siberian winter sweeps down across Manchuria and North Korea,
    and their prison camps, —enjoy the horsey show.

  23. lds temple says:

    Attractive part of content. I simply stumbled upon your website and in accession capital to claim that I acquire in fact loved account your blog posts. Any way I will be subscribing in your feeds and even I success you get admission to constantly quickly.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin