“War Horse” review – written 11/2/11



Ever since “Saving Private Ryan” (or arguably “The Minority Report”), director Steven Spielberg has been hit-or-miss. I would be among the first to say that the brilliance evident earlier in his career (with “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” and “Jurassic Park”) has been sadly lacking recently. Considering that Spielberg will go down in history as being one of the most iconic cinematic visionaries in American film’s history, I – and others like me – have hoped for the last decade that we haven’t seen the last of that classic Spielberg touch. Finally, our wait is at an end with “War Horse,” which is both a model of cinema done right and – even more importantly – the epitome of Spielberg done right.

Based on a beloved children book and a Tony-winning Broadway play, this story is a great one. We start on a rented farm in Devon owned by the Narracott family – a father (Peter Mullan), a mother (Emily Watson), and their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). When the father gets too caught up in an auction and buys a beautiful horse for three times its work value, Albert becomes enamored with the animal and trains it, naming it Joey. Their bond becomes as strong as possible between a human and an animal. But right at the outbreak of World War I, the English army arrives in Devon and buys the horse along with many others in the county. Albert promises Joey that they’ll find each other again one day. In four years during the war, the rest of the story is Joey’s amazing journey; from being the mount for a brave English official (Tom Hiddleston) to a German workhorse to a gift from God for a dying little girl. Albert ultimately enlists just to find his friend. Joey gives us the unbiased soul of war in all its waste, showing us just a glimpse of all the soldiers, both young and old, who never deserved to die so young.

With the last five films of Spielberg’s career being middling at best, “War Horse” is not only a return to form for the iconic director, but also one of the finest films in his illustrious career. Of all the masterpieces in his career, I would say that – in terms of raw humanity and epic grandeur – it is only surpassed by “Schindler’s List.” I can’t imagine any scenario where this film isn’t in the top two films during awards season.

The film is everything an iconic film should be: genuine in its emotion, unflinching in its reality, epic in its grandiose, effective in its performances, and imaginative in its storytelling. John William’s beautiful score, Janusz Kaminski’s stirring cinematography, and Spielberg’s earlier style of directing only enhance these qualities.

The battle sequences (especially two large ones in particular) are easy rivals to those we’ve seen in “Saving Private Ryan.” What makes them that way is how Spielberg is able to still capture the violence and horror he needs us to see while still sticking to the PG-13 rating. Peter Jackson couldn’t have done a better job.

The performances are comparable to “Lord of the Rings” in how no one stood out from the others due to how great all of the actors are – including “Breaking the Waves”’s Emily Watson, “Thor”’s Tom Hiddleston, “Sherlock”’s Benedict Cumberbatch, “Harry Potter”’s David Thewis, “Tyrannosaurus”’s Peter Mullan, and newcomer Jeremy Irvine. Of these, Hiddleston and Mullan sound out the most (especially Hiddleston’s final shot), but there is no denying that Irvine has something special about him.

My single complaint is a lack of compelling storytelling during the beginning of the film. As a viewer who deems the opening as a super-crucial aspect of a film, I was initially disappointed in how utterly ordinary and rather mediocre the beginning of the film was. Just another “emotional” horse movie. But as soon as the war began, my worries were erased and I reveled in the rest of the picture. The film is around 150 minutes long, with its slow beginning only taking about 20 minutes of space. And trust me, what we see in the remainder of the film completely makes up for it by sweeping us up in a tidal wave.

What it all comes down to is “War Horse” is as flawless a film as we’ve ever seen from the director. Seeing something as brutal, terrible, and human as war through the innocent eyes of a noble horse is an ambitious form of storytelling, and Spielberg completely pulls it off as being something honest and authentic. I felt each emotion as if I was a marionette, manipulated by Spielberg’s strings. It’s odd. This isn’t the work of the Spielberg we’ve come to know in the last decade. This is back to basics. This is the Spielberg we had from the 70′s to the early 90′s: powerful, gutsy, honest, and effective.

This film holds a very fascinating concept as its primary theme that I found wholly absorbing – for soldiers during war, there is rarely good and evil. There are just scared individuals, each trying to survive the horror they witness around them. There is goodness and humanity on all sides. The best example of this is evident in what is my absolute favorite Spielberg scene of all time. In No Man’s Land, the Germans and English fight; the Germans hidden in one trench, the English in another on the other side of the battlefield. The area in the middle is filled with barbed wire. In this scene that involves a German soldier, an English soldier, a pair of wire-cutters, a horse, and a casual conversation of home, we see what drew Spielberg to this incredible story. We see what makes us love this story. We see exactly why this is a film we won’t soon forget.

That, my friends, is the mark of a true master creating yet another priceless artifact in the annals of cinema. This is the kind of movie that is watched generation after generation, with each one crying and cheering in all the same places. Spielberg has officially found one of the greatest stories he’s ever tackled and tells it with the perfect supply of visual panache and raw humanity. This is a story told in such a way that we can’t take our eyes off of it for even a second.

When all is said and done, “War Horse” is beautiful to behold in its celebration of the good in people through its aura of simplistic-yet-authentic humanity. What makes it all so utterly fascinating is how Spielberg captures the humanity of war: through the entrancing black abysses of a majestic horse’s eyes.

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9 Responses to “War Horse” review – written 11/2/11

  1. Pingback: First ‘War Horse’ Reactions Arrive After Sneak Preview Screenings | Music Movie Magic

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  3. Phil Bayning says:

    That’s the Germans and the *English* fighting in No Man’s Land, and a German and an *English* soldier saving the horse. Easy mistake, as I know you Yanks think you won all recent wars single-handed.

    • The_Critic says:

      @Phil, the mistake is fixed, thanks! For some reason, I thought the Englishman had mentioned living in a U.S. state. But I just finished the book and it was a Welshman, so… *shrugs*

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  6. Nathan Ligon says:

    I agree very strongly with you on the fact that this film was next to Private Ryan and Schindler’s List as one of Spielberg’s greatest achievements. I mostly agree with you about everything in your assessment of this film except for two key things. I was absolutely glued from moment one. The way this movie brging with that beautiful countryside, Williams wonderful score, and that sense of awe that the boy has for the horse grips you from moment one. Then the auction was clever and whimsical in a method similar to many films of Hollywoods Golden Era. The chemistry built between the boy and his horse is ridiculously perfect. More importantly, the plowing scene (ripped straight from the pages of film history in movies like SHANE) is just outstanding. So, I disagree on the opening. I also disagree on your assessment of Spielberg’s last decade. Munich, Catch Me If You Can, and Minority Report are truly great films (MR is one of the best sci-fi films ever), War of the Worlds and A.I. are outstanding works of metaphorical art (not great but close), and The Terminal & Indy 4 were both pretty entertaining ( definitely the weakest of the lot). So, while I do agree with you on this film I can’t agree on your overall assessment of his recent work (especially for Munich and Minority Report). However, I’m so glad to hear that you think as I do on War Horse. This movie should not be questioned as a best picture contender, but where does if fit in the all time history of film. It’s that good. I really felt this was a perfect film.

    • The_Critic says:

      It’s great to hear from a fellow Spielberg fan. I’m glad we mostly agree. And as to your comments, I do understand. But for me, it wasn’t that I didn’t like his later career – it’s just that he no longer had that spellbinding originality. True, Minority Report was good. But it was nowhere as good as his earlier work. Same with Indy 4, A.I., and War of the Worlds. NOTHING I’ve seen since “Schindler” and “Ryan” has felt truly Spielbergian. It all felt more like cheap knockoffs than works from the master. I was left disappointed again and again. Some were good. Some were even very good. But none were great. And for Spielberg, we should only accept great considering what we know him to be capable of. See what I mean?

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