War Horse (2011)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddlestone, Benedict Cumberbatch
Plot: Young Albert enlists to service in WWI after his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry. Albert's hopeful journey takes him out of England and across Europe as the war rages on.
Genre: Drama / War
Awards: Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing.
Rating: PG for intense sequences of war violence.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
I say with some sadness in my eyes that Steven Spielberg and John Williams are old men now. Time is not on their side, but their ingenious talents remain, and their fruitful collaboration on film over nearly four decades remains unsurpassed.
War Horse, one of the best films of 2011, is a testament to that collaboration. Both are back in fine form with a film and score reminiscent of their earlier works. Drawing heavy influences from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), War Horse is a film as musically rich and beautifully shot as any in the Spielberg canon of great films.
The film begins in 1912 in Dartmoor, England, with Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose drunkard of a father foolishly bids for an inexperienced and seemingly weak horse at the local auction. Albert trains the horse that he calls Joey to plow the fields.
But a chronic lack of money to pay for their rent leads Albert’s father to sell Joey to the cavalry, who are preparing for war with the Germans in what is now known as World War I. Albert and Joey are separated. Years later, Albert enlists to fight in the war in the hope that he will see Joey again.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is a story tailor-made for Spielberg, who with Williams, work our tear ducts with aplomb in this highly sentimental tale of loss and reunion, and the suffering and hardship in between as the result of the great war.
Spielberg is the undisputed master of emotional manipulation, and I say that as a compliment because he manipulates us with a childlike innocence rarely seen in Hollywood cinema. He knows why we go to the movies, and why we continue to watch his films. He occasionally disappoints with the odd dud, but War Horse is no doubt excellent.
This simple yet touching tale of a boy and his horse features more than decent performances from the supporting cast and Irvine, who makes his screen debut. Much is said about Irvine’s flat acting, but I beg to differ. His chemistry with Joey, while not entirely outstanding, is enough to be convincing, and more importantly, naturalistic.
The film’s episodic nature, as Joey falls under the hands of British and German soldiers, and in a quiet, lovely sequence, finding itself with a little French girl and her protective grandfather, prolongs the film’s runtime. But while the film feels lengthy, it never feels too long because, like E.T., we want to be with Joey as long as we can.
Amid the misty eyes and soulful glances, War Horse is also a staggering technical feat as Spielberg recreates trench warfare of WWI, with homage to classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), while drawing some of his experiences from shooting Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Eschewing the documentary, hand-held camera look of the latter, the battles in War Horse are largely visualized with wide, panning and tracking shots from a stable camera, yet remain ultra-realistic because of its sound mixing and editing. However, rest assured this is not a violent film, and is perfectly comfortable for family viewing.
Speaking of homages, the master director fittingly concludes his film with a heartfelt tribute to the classic American Western, a cinematic love letter to John Ford. In the entirely silent epilogue, accompanied by Williams’ heart-tugging score, we struggle to hold back our tears as we believe, not for the first time, in the magic of Steven Spielberg.
Verdict: Some may find this terribly mawkish, but Spielberg is still the undisputed master of emotional manipulation, and I say this with gratitude, because it reminds me of the magic of moviemaking.