From the moment I saw the first movie trailer for War Horse, it became one of my most anticipated films to see in 2011. Just from the trailer alone, I could tell that War Horse was going to be a sweeping epic film with a beautiful score behind it. It was a long wait until December, but it was worth the wait.
The story of War Horse comes from a children’s novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo and was published in 1982. It has also become a successful play using horse puppets that started in England in 2007 and on Broadway in 2011. As I already mentioned, it is an epic film that spans at least four years, maybe more. It is set in the time of World War I in England and France. The main character of the film is Joey, the horse. Through him the story of all those who interacted with him is told. He is a thoroughbred horse who is eventually sold to a poor farmer who spent thirty guineas he did not have just to prove his manhood to his landlord. He was supposed to buy a work horse for the farm, but he arrives home with Joey. His son Albert has loved this horse since it was born, and he is now in charge of training him to be a work horse or his family will lose the farm. Push comes to shove and the farmer sells the horse to the Army when England enters World War I. Of course, Albert loves this horse and is beside himself that his father has sold Joey. Here begins the war part of War Horse.
Because of the circumstances of the war, Joey falls into many different hands during the course of the years. Not all of the owners are war-related as a French farmer and his granddaughter find Joey and one of Joey’s horse companions in a barn. There are quiet moments in Joey’s life, but most are associated with the war that is ravaging Europe. Not everything that happens to him is good.
Steven Spielberg directed War Horse, and I would put the film in the same category as his other films like Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, and Amistad. I really miss his beautiful, historical, yet gritty and conflicted films. War Horse is a welcome return to what I will always associate Spielberg with.
This film very much has an ensemble cast. Joey the horse connects them all. The only character who gets more screen time than others is Jeremy Irvine who plays Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son. He is like the book ends of the film. He makes the film come full circle at the end. Some of the ensemble cast includes Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Niels Arestrup, and Eddie Marsan. Some of the actors were only on screen for a matter of minutes like Eddie Marsan, and others had a more significant role like Emily Watson who plays Albert’s mother, Rose Narracott. All together the cast brings a fantastic array of characters, no two alike. This makes the film interesting as you never know who Joey will run into next.
The cinematography and lighting of the film are beautiful. The lighting especially is to the point of being classified as artistic. At the beginning of the film, the sun casts an almost fake shade of light on a farmhouse that creates unnatural shadows. I do not know if this was done to create a nod to the play version of the story. There is also some beautiful lighting at the end of the film that can be seen in the movie trailer as well. A deep red light that I do not think I have ever seen in nature, but it is used beautifully. The cinematography is just what you would expect from a Spielberg film of this subject. That includes sweeping shots of the landscape and a horse to the scanning of the war field in the aftermath of a battle. The cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski who has worked on several of Spielberg’s other films.
The score by John Williams is breathtaking. What you hear in the movie trailers is the theme that runs through the film. The score stands out in scenes and relays the emotions of the scenes very well. The score to me is very similar to the score for Legends of the Fall by James Horner, and is one that I will be seeking out for purchase.
I did not know prior to seeing War Horse that it is based on a children’s novel. I knew it was based on a book, but I did not know that it was specifically written for the younger crowd. The novel has a target age range of eight and up and grade level three and up. The film is rated PG-13. If you are thinking about taking children to see this, I would like to warn you about what the film shows. There are very real scenes of war and death, this includes the deaths of teenagers. The film also has scenes of animal cruelty brought on by the war. I saw the film with two of my friends, who, like me, work with animals, and there is a particular scene in the film that had us all literally sobbing in our seats. That scene can be seen in the movie trailer, but it is of course extended and more graphic than in the trailer.
War Horse turned out to be just what I was expecting it to be: a beautiful, sweeping war epic that had a horse’s heart at the center of it. This is a film that will stand the test of time as a great work of cinema and storytelling. It just does not get better than this.
I give War Horse 4.5 “turnips” out of 5.
P.S. Congratulations to the animal trainers that got these horses to do all that was required of them for the shots.