Oscar® Nominee for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Music (original score), Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing
Reviewed by: Scott Brennan
War Adventure Drama Adaptation
2 hr. 26 min.
Year of Release:
December 25, 2011 (wide—2,376 theaters)
DVD: April 3, 2012
“Separated by war. Tested by battle. Bound by friendship.”
“War Horse” is everything you would expect from a Steven Spielberg film. It’s a masterpiece of cinema in its detailed recreation of a story worth telling. Each frame could be a painting hung in a museum, speaking deeply into the souls of all those who were to view them one by one. There are spectacular visuals of southwestern rural England, with greens and blues, stunning sunsets, and the rocky soils with farmland images that are reminiscent of painter Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Angelus.” Even though film clips might depict the heartwarming story of love between a boy and his horse, this certainly is not a movie for children. It does tell that story, but it is set with the backdrop of World War I at the German frontlines—with many stark and brutal battle scenes, not fit for children.
There were millions of horses killed on all sides during WWI. It was the war that would end the cavalry charges of the past, as trench warfare, with barbed wire and machine guns and tanks spelled certain defeat and destruction for the war horses. In this period of transition, the horses were used to move cannons and guns and shipments, and thousands died just from being overworked or becoming emaciated under the conditions. This is the setting of the story “War Horse” and hints at just what is to take place in the film.
The well written screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis is based upon the children’s novel by the same name, written by Michael Morpurgo, who, to date has written more than 120 books (mostly children’s). War Horse, first published in the UK in 1982, also became a stage play in 2007. Much of the magic in the story must be attributed to this incredible author, matched only by the cinematic storytelling ability of Spielberg, himself. The story reeks with the undying optimism characteristic of Spielberg and Morpurgo, delving into the themes of redemption and the overcoming ability of the human spirit. [For interested readers, the story of “War Horse” continues in a follow up book called Farm Boy.]
A boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) grows up on a rural farm in Devon, son to an alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) and a supportive, yet enabling, mother (Emily Watson), who themselves are struggling for survival on a rented farm. It is here that Albert falls in love with young Irish half-thoroughbred, one his dad purchased irresponsibly only to spite his landlord (David Thewlis). Considered too weak for field work, by all, Albert is forced to make him plow the family’s rocky soil to save their farm and prove them all wrong, and thus the bond between them is set for the remainder of the film. Albert names him Joey, and the tenderness between the two of them is palpable. But at the outbreak of the war, and in dire financial straits, his father is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry.
This devastating sale of Joey creates the separation anxiety that carries the viewer through the rest of the film. While Albert tries immediately to join the British cavalry, he is denied because he is too young—but all signs point to that changing, in the future.
Joey becomes the symbol of hope for all of humanity, even through the midst of such a terrible war. Each character, along the way, who takes custody of Joey is changed or altered in some way, an obvious expression of our common humanity, no matter what side we are on. There are several scenes where the common humanity of both sides comes into agreement and Joey is at the center of that picture. It is strongly reminiscent of an equally powerful French film, “Joyeux Noel” (2005), where enemy soldiers became temporarily united singing “Silent Night.”
The subtle, but outstanding performance of Peter Mullan (Albert’s dad Ted) cannot be overemphasized. His alcoholic persona belies a troubled past that holds secrets of a war from his own experience, but it is he who held the incorrect belief that God gives each man bad luck and stubbornly believes he’s gotten more than his fair share. Ted apparently isn’t familiar with Matthew 5:45,
Not surprisingly, a few of the profanities (a couple of hells) come from him. In all, there is very little cursing, with only one “damn” noted, along with a “Good Lord,” used in vain. There are a host of English expressions, like “bugger off you tight bastard”, “bugger me,” and “don’t be daft” which don’t carry the same weight in the American vernacular, but are offensive to some, nonetheless.
There is no sex or nudity, but only a mention by a 14 year old boy (Michael) [who had snuck into the army] of asking his older brother Günter about Italian women, to which he responds, you are too young.
These same brothers (on the German side) disobey orders from their superiors, and one does wonder what would have been their fates had they followed orders. This is a point to ponder in light of Romans 13:1-4: whether or not the truth of those Scriptures applies to believers only or even in a war, at all. Without becoming a spoiler, let it be said that it is possibly the most disturbing event in the entire film. Other disturbing images include bodies of horses and men in panoramic detail and intense fighting scenes, which are expected from a warzone, although nothing as intense as “Saving Private Ryan.”
By and large, the undying optimism that Spielberg consistently brings to his films is not missing in “War Horse,” and faith in humanity is predictably present. Noted is the underlying tone that it’s in humanity, not faith in God—though there is no put down necessarily for those that are of faith. Arguably, this is not his greatest work, but with John Williams’ musical score and some of those scenes in the final 20 minutes of this lengthy film, it certainly rates close to the top.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: None
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
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