Steven Spielberg | 147 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13
After decades telling tales from the Second World War, Spielberg moves back a conflict. That said, the BD’s special features make sure to point out this “is not his First World War movie” — it’s just a good tale about a boy and his horse.
Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, plus the 2000 stage adaptation that inspired Spielberg to make the film, War Horse follows Joey, a thoroughbred born in 1910s Devon, and his loving owner, Alby. When their farm faces tough times, Alby’s father sells Joey to the army as the Great War starts, initiating a trot across Britain and France that takes in both sides of the conflict over the course of the war.
It might be best to define the film as an epic. It’s a relatively intimate one, focusing in on a handful of characters at a time rather than cutting back and forth between various groups, but the way it does move along several sets of characters, across varied locations, and through a lengthy stretch of time, all command a feeling of a grand story. The special features are right in that it’s not really the story of the war, but what it does show is something of the experience of living through that war, and of the humanity that was still present within it.
I imagine some would level accusations of implausibility, but stranger things have happened in the real world than much of what we witness here. Take a late-occurring scene of British-German co-operation in No Man’s Land, for instance — surely two sides at war would never work together! Well, this is the same war that saw the opposing sides play a football match on Christmas Day, remember? It can’t be denied that there’s factual inaccuracy here (the climax takes place at the Somme in the lead up to Armistice Day in 1918, but that battle was actually fought in 1916), or the occasional heavy dose of sentimentality (it’s directed by Spielberg and co-penned by Richard Curtis — what did you expect?), but I think it carries through these with a scale and heart that is, primarily, entertaining. It is based on a children’s novel and I think aims to be a family film (it should by rights be a PG; my twitter rant on that subject is here), but Morpurgo knows when to treat his audience with respect and at points it certainly doesn’t shy away from the harshnesses of the period.
Similarly, the way the horses are handled seems pretty much spot on. They’re not anthropomorphised, but they definitely develop characters and personality as we follow them throughout the film. Naturally most of the focus falls on the human characters, what with them being the ones who can talk and all that, but Joey is the only character we follow throughout the movie and we’re led to relate to him and his story in a believable way. And I say this as someone who’s not a horsey person. Spielberg reportedly found it tough working with real horses, struggling to get performances from them that matched what he’d seen on stage — unsurprisingly, as those were puppets controlled by well trained and rehearsed humans. Nevertheless, however they went about it (and it was with very minimal use of puppets or CGI), the “horse acting” is solid.
Aiding the sense of the epic is Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which is regularly stunning and definitely one of the film’s standout achievements. The beauty of some shots is immediately obvious — he lenses the countryside idyll of Dartmoor in a sweeping fashion, bathed in summer sunlight — but there are striking compositions to be found throughout, be they in close-ups, cavalry charges, horse auctions, battlefield hospitals… There’s often a lovely texture to things too, from the likes of drifting snow or chaff, or the way light streaks across a room. The final scene, fully tinted orange, calls to mind the likes of Gone With the Wind, I presume with full consciousness.
Less remarkable is John Williams’ score. It’s not bad per se, and has its moments, but other times it’s either forgettable or forced (some of the early comical bits are horribly overplayed with whimsical plinky-plonking). For all that, a memorable sequence you’ve surely seen in the trailers — when Joey runs over and through the trenches — is perfectly scored, recalling the action/adventure movie grandeur we all primarily remember Williams for.
As I marked my viewing of War Horse on various websites, it struck me how many negative comments there were. I thoroughly disagree. Not everything has to offer gritty realism, even when it’s dealing with horrendous times and events. Morpurgo, Spielberg and co have conjured a sweeping tale of friendship and humanity in the face of adversity; one that isn’t afraid to depict some of the nastier realities of the world, but in a way that makes them relatable for a younger audience. I think that’s important; but this isn’t a Worthy Film for that, it’s just something it does well. I think it also nails sensations of adventure and, yes, sentimentality.
I think it’s a bit of an epic, with all that connotes, and I love a bit of an epic.
War Horse is on Sky Movies Premiere twice daily until Thursday.
It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.