I said to my friends as a joke I would open this review with the sentence ‘If you see one equine based war film this year, make it War Horse!’ Needless to say, there has been a sore lack of equine based war films this year however in some ways this sentence rings pertinently true. I must first admit that I walked into the official screening of War Horse without any pre judgement, I'd not read the book nor seen the critically acclaimed stage show so the basis of my review is solely on the film itself without any influence from other sources.
I was initially unsure, the opening few shots featured a horse being born and subsequently galloping around a Constable-esque landscape of rolling green hills and bright sunshine accompanied by a swelling musical score from Hans Zimmer. This opening was enough to get me questioning the tone for the rest of the film. Gratefully though, I was wrong. Spielberg despite being in his mid 60’s, has produced something quite beautiful in War Horse. I’ll be the first admit that with War Of The Worlds and Crystal Skull, he may have lost his touch somewhat but the recent release of TIntin and now War Horse only goes to show what a master of his craft Spielberg is.
Perfectly timed for a Christmas release the film at its core has a very sentimental storyline, if I'm being honest maybe a little too schmaltzy for my liking but then again I'm a bit of a scrooge when it comes to feel good stories, but also this isn’t an original storyline and Spielberg can hardly deviate too much from the original material. Ultimately this is a story of a horse who goes to war and through unspeakable odds is reunited with its owner, suffice to say a certain amount of schmaltz is required to pull off such a plot.
The slightly sugar coated elements of the film are enormously outweighed simply by the dazzling visuals and performances, for all the sentimentality there are equally moments of heart pounding drama in particular the sequence when Albert and the friends he has grown up with are now fighting side by side in the trenches. Similarly to Spielbergs infamous D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, here he paints a tragic yet vivid scene as the soldiers go over the top and into no mans land, albeit with marginally less blood and guts than Private Ryan.
Despite being a horse and consequently lacking the ability to talk, Joey becomes one of the strongest characters amongst a cast of humans and it's the scenes involving Joey that I found to be the most moving and the most awe inspiring. Essentially, Joey acts as a narrative device that links several human stories together throughout the film, including an elderly man who lives alone with his sick granddaughter and two German brothers fighting in the war. Joey, through his plight becomes somewhat of a hero to people which is highlighted in one standout scene when he gets caught in barbed wire in no mans land, demonstrating an impressive camera move that pulls back to reveal the huge empty expanse that is no mans save for this one horse tearing across it, it is both a beautiful and sad scene to behold.
The acting almost takes second place to the story of Joey, yet Spielberg has typically gathered together a brilliant cast in particular, Scottish actor Peter Mullan who plays Albert's dad and is responsible for wasting his money on Joey. Mullan has a great intensity as he is able to communicate so much without hardly saying anything, there are moments when he loses his temper and as he we learn more about this past as an ex solider we begin to understand the way he is. Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and a host of other familiar British faces round out the cast, including the brilliant Eddie Marsan who doesn't get much screen time but is always fantastic.
For all this Crystal Skull nonsense, Spielberg still knows how to tell a gripping and moving tale, and making a film where the main star is a real live animal is a testament to his ability to keep a film grounded and serious as apposed to the slightly more nonsensical and as a result moments where the two main horses interact with each other, a scene where Joey takes the place of the older horse in order to help pull a canon up a hill is played out in a really emotional and believable way.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Christmas film as moving and intelligent as War Horse, so good was it that Ive now made it my goal to see the stage show and I imagine those who see the film will be inspired to do the same because its quite a extraordinary tale.