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An elegant, elemental, borderline corny boy-and-his horse story magnified in significance by its battleground backdrop, War Horse possesses a simplicity that is both its greatest strength and an ultimate liability. As the material has already made forceful impact on the public in print and onstage, there is little reason to doubt that the same won’t hold true for this film version, which Steven Spielberg has skillfully wrought as an atmospheric, tear-jerking, highly cinematic melodrama.
But putting this episodic saga on the big screen accentuates its one-dimensionality more than does the still-running legitimate theater version, where its symbolic and allegorical elements can be more easily accommodated in abstract terms. All the same, this is a story that people of all ages and from all nations can understand, which, propelled by Spielberg’s name and much undoubted acclaim, will translate into major rewards at the box office.
The idea behind Michael Morpugo’s 1982 best-seller possesses a fundamental universality and innate elegance that is impossible to refute: The title character, an innocent, blameless farm animal, is sent off to war and likely death like so many millions of animals and humans down through the millennia, cannon fodder for a conflict that wasn’t necessary in the first place. As became clear even as it was being fought, World War I was the final war in which horses figured much at all.
Tie this to to rural English setting, the intense bond between the horse and the youngster who cares for him and the fact that the horse is a fleet runner, and you have something not far from National Velvet on the Western Front. From a different realm of the cinematic world emanates the echo of Robert Bresson’s sublime 1966 Au Hasard, Balthazar, in which the central figure of a donkey silently endures the abuse doled out by humans and the world at large.
So many of Spielberg’s interests dovetail here: A boy, isolated in an adult world, who takes to heart a non-human creature; 20th century war, and storylines that force humanity to take stock and encourage rising above differences to come together. Some specific stylistic enticements might have drawn him as well: The chance to shoot in the fashion of an early 1950s British film shot by F.A. Young, Oswald Morris or Jack Cardiff, with bold, solid hues redolent of I.B. Technicolor, changeable weather and no modern technical gimmicks; the opportunity to stage an amazing battle charge beginning with concealment in wheat fields, pushing bloodily through an encampment and concluding in a massacre; the excuse to do some long Paths of Glory-style takes moving through trenches and a barbed-wired-strewn battlefield and, repeatedly, the occasion to design beautiful sequences around one of the most inherently cinematic phenomena the natural world provides, a running horse.
To those who have seen the stage production of War Horse, which debuted in 2007 in London and last year in New York, the big question is whether or not real horses can match the dramatic power of the fantastic large-scale puppets that have made the play such a triumph of stagecraft. The answer, in a word, is no. The magnificently designed and manipulated theatrical equines transport the spectator into a realm beyond the drama articulated in the text; they’re creations far more breathtaking than anything similar (as in The Lion King) most audiences have seen before, making the stage piece a singular event. No matter how dynamic and dramatic everything that surrounds it may be, a horse onscreen is still just a horse.
But what’s appealing about the way Spielberg has made War Horse is the extent to which it recalls the way Hollywood used to produce movies for everyone. Whatever its missteps, this is a film that kids, middle-aged adults and grandparents can all see — together or separately — and get something out of in their own ways. There are precious few films that fit this description today and hats off to Spielberg for making one.
The adept script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, et al.) draws upon both the book and Nick Stafford’s dramatization. Setting the course for the horse’s life is a rash bid by drunken farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen) to buy the steed at auction just to show up his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis), no matter that this blows through his rent money. The demon-ridden Ted, his long-suffering wife Rosie (Emily Watson) and earnestly handsome teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) live in a spacious cottage so attractively appointed in a spare, roughhewn way that it comes perilously close to resembling the sort of idyllic rustic farmhouse that now commands hundreds of pounds per night from upscale travelers.
The countryside is stunning too (locations included Dartmoor in the south of Devon, Berkshire, Surrey, Bedfordshire and Wiltshire), but rocky and tough to plow, which is what the thoroughbred will need to be taught to do if the family has any hope of remaining on the land. Albert eagerly takes charge of the training, patiently coercing Joey to do a job the locals refuse to believe he’s fit for.
The 45-minute first act shows hardship and struggle alleviated by the bracing beauty of landscapes and Albert’s inspiring bond with Joey, setting a firm foundation for what’s to come. A skilled and fortuitous combination of horse training, camera operating and direction has caught many privileged moments of equine behavior.
Spielberg has long expressed enthusiasm for the look of mid-century British films and, in this first section, he and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have taken pains to reproduce that handsome style, even down to the noticeable use of artificial light outdoors. What results are richly satisfying visuals that wonderfully capture the rugged locations but also a possess a faintly studied, old school feel entirely in line with the period and story values.
When war is declared, reliable old Ted comes through again, traumatizing his son by selling Joey to the army. Still too young to sign up himself, Albert vows he’ll somehow make sure his horse gets back home.
Joey’s odyssey begins in France. In the brilliantly filmed wheat field sequence, what looks like an English rout of unsuspecting Germans in camp turns into slaughter when the Brits are mowed down by machine guns from the edge of an adjacent forest. Thus does Joey fall into the hands of a young German who soon thinks as highly of him as Albert does.
War then buffets the horse into the care of an old Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his teenage granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens), whose pristine farmhouse has thus far eluded army ransacking. In Emilie does Joey again find a human ready to love and pamper him, but tranquility is fleeting as Joey is hitched to a team of fatigued work horses to pull a mighty German cannon up a steep incline.
By the time of the Somme offensive, Albert has entered the English army, with Joey coincidentally just across No Man’s Land with the kaiser’s men. The horrors of trench warfare have been depicted many times before, from The Big Parade and J’accuse to Gallipoli and A Very Long Engagement, most often stressing the same themes, very much present here, about the absurdity of the conflict and resulting pointlessness of the lives lost.
But when Albert and a German youngster recklessly venture out into No Man’s Land to try to save Joey, who has disentangled himself in barbed wire, the essential realism of the cinema begins to show up the symbolic artificiality and essential implausibility of the young men’s private detente. Onstage, the barbed wire incident is properly appalling emotionally and morally, but decidedly abstracted due to the dramatic lighting and virtuoso puppetry; onscreen, the reaction is more, oh, poor horse, and why can’t warring nations get along just as these two fellows do? What follows next runs even deeper into audience-pleasing wish-fulfillment and sentimentality, topped by a grandly phoney ending that will set many tears flowing but feels overweening artificial, partly because of the Gone With the Wind-style colored lighting in which it’s bathed.Along with the universal thematic notes, the eager-to-please elements assert themselves increasingly as the film marches forward; neither aspect was necessary to stress.
The cast is exemplary down the line, with both names and newcomers delivering expansive, emotional and almost entirely sympathetic performances. Neither side in the conflict is ennobled or demonized; like Joey (and a striking black steed who’s his companion for a while), the grunts are just pawns in the hands of unseen manipulators of countless fates. Irvine is the very picture of a sturdy, well-intentioned, ruddy-faced English country lad of a hundred years ago and Mullen and Watson look to have come from the earth they tread. Tom Hiddleston cuts a striking figure as an English officer who understands Joey early on, setting an example for the many others who briefly come and go through the horse’s life as the war grinds on.
Unsurprisingly from Spielberg, as a production the film is everything one could desire in the design aspects, editing and the various sorts of effects needed to make the war look real. Entirely in synch with the aims of the film itself, John Williams’ score pushes too hard, never holding back when less might well have been more.
Opens: Dec. 25 (Disney)
Production: DreamWorks, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, Kennedy/Marshall Co.
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan, Nicolas Bro, Rainer Bork, Hinnerk Schonemann
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, based on the book by Michael Morpugo and the stage play by Nick Stafford
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Executive producers: Frank Marshall, Revel Guest
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Rick Carter
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
PG-13 rating, 146 minutes
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