WAR HORSE is old fashioned, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It wears its emotions on its sleeve, and there is no place for cynicism in that world. It has obvious films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and the films of John Ford and David Lean in its DNA, but the end result is all Steven Spielberg - WAR HORSE is an epic that has Spielberg doing what he does best. He takes the audience on an emotional journey through World War I and out the other side, and the film very much feels like Spielberg paying tribute to the filmmakers he loved as a young man. WAR HORSE is what you'd call an "old soul." It's a film that could have been made - perhaps not with the technology but definitely with the heart - in Hollywood's heyday. David Selznick would have adored WAR HORSE.
WAR HORSE is adapted from the Tony-winning play, as well as the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo. The film opens with landscape shots of Devon, England, where the story begins. We see young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watch as a colt is born, and he is instantly taken with the animal. His father, Ted (Peter Mullan) decides to buy the horse at auction - his friends try to talk him out of it, since the horse is a thoroughbred and not suited for farm work, which the Narracotts rent from their landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) - but his pride keeps him bidding against Lyons when he cannot afford it. Ted wins the horse, but pays dearly for it, and his wife Rose (Emily Watson) is none too pleased when she hears how much he spent.
But Albert loves the horse dearly, and names him Joey. It becomes obvious quickly that Joey is no ordinary horse - he seems to be working things out in his mind, and though he is skittish at first, Joey takes to Albert soon enough. But the farm needs plowing, and Joey is simply unsuitable for the task. The rent is due, and Lyons is waiting to pounce on both the horse and the property.
Joey has a determination about him, however, and with coaxing by Albert, plows the stony Devon field for farming. But a bad rainstorm winds up wiping out much of their crop anyway, and Ted is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry just to pay the rent. Albert is heartbroken, but swears that he will see Joey again, and Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) vows to take good care of Joey as he rides off to war with his friend and commander Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has his own beautiful black horse, Topthorn. Joey and Topthorn bond as the war goes on, but when tragedy hits their masters, the two horses become little more than property in the German army.
The war takes its toll on everyone in it, and the events that transpire cause Joey and Topthorn to come into many hands, including two German brothers trying to escape the war (David Kross and Leonard Carow), a French grandfather and his precocious granddaughter (Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens), and a German horsemaster who gets more attached to the animals he oversees (Nicolas Bro). All the while Joey struggles to get back to his beloved Albert, who himself enlists in the hopes of finding Joey again. WAR HORSE looks at World War I through the eyes of the people who lived it, as the world is irrevocably changed; the need for humanity to find common ground is still prevalent, and Joey touches many lives through his journey.
Where does this rank with Spielberg's other work? I'm still digesting that. The film can take its time in certain passages; Spielberg seems to be really enjoying his characters this time and he spends more time with some of them than he should. But the cinematography is gorgeous - I always love it when Spielberg shoots in 2.35 to 1 - and Janusz Kaminski's work here is much different than what you might think, if you've seen his work on other Spielberg films such as SCHINDLER'S LIST of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. It's shot very much in a classical film style, with long tracking shots. I didn't notice many handheld shots in the film, even during the more chaotic war scenes. The script, by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, calls into memory earlier films from the 1930s and 1940s - WAR HORSE feels like it comes straight our of that era of filmmaking, and a different world.
John Williams' score? I liked much of it, but it's omnipresent in the film. There are very few scenes without score, and unfortunately it's used to accentuate the emotion of the scene more so than it probably needs to be. However, it's a new John Williams score, and the WAR HORSE theme in the trailer is throughout in the film, and that completely works. Williams knows how to pump a scene full of emotion better than any film composer alive, and I'll admit to getting teary-eyed at several scenes.
The acting is top-notch, especially from Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch. The acting comes from a place before Method - it's very old fashioned in that regard, calling into mind films like THE QUIET MAN or even David Lean's work. Jeremy Irvine, in his first film role, has a difficult job in WAR HORSE as the audience surrogate character; many will consider him too earnest and simple, but considering the context of his performance and his background as a boy growing into a man and inexperienced in the ways of the world, I thought he did well. Some may not take to his character's complete lack of any kind of cynicism and consider it a shortcoming on Irvine's part, but Albert is very much someone who feels his emotions strongly and does not hold back in that regard. How Spielberg gets his performances from the horses is nothing short of amazing. These animals are asked to carry a heavy burden in their performances, and come through very well.
And then, there are those scenes where Spielberg puts his classic touch on them and those scenes burn themselves indelibly into my mind. The way all the horses react when a companion is put down. The horrors of trench warfare, and the terror of mustard gas. A cavalry charge that's straight out of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA's assault on Aqaba. The beautiful cinematography. WAR HORSE is most definitely a Steven Spielberg work, and he pulls out all the stops to bring the audience into a time that hasn't been on film very much recently, and he does it with an elegance and a passion that can only come from him. It's not a perfect film, but anyone who loves movies and Spielberg's work in particular really cannot miss this. WAR HORSE is what movies are all about - transporting the audience into a world that will never exist again. As for myself, I loved every moment. For me, WAR HORSE is magnificent.