Old school Hollywood filmmaking gets a lovingly crafted homage with Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse. The film is about a horse – surprise – named Joey that influences each owner it encounters in a series of vignettes linked together by the horse’s adventures during World War I Europe. Structured in a manner reminiscent of a Quentin Taratino film (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds) but minus the witty, pop-culture referential dialog, War Horse represents the director’s best achievement in film in the past few years. This film is glorious and Spielberg owes much of its splendor and emotional resonance to the director of photography, Janusz Kaminski. The film conjures up visual memories of epic Hollywood features from the 30’s and 40’s, Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz and Casablanca. The film is rich in character as well with each chapter containing engrossing and invigorating studies of individuals encountering important crossroads in their lives. By the end of the film, Spielberg is cradling your heart and emotions in his talented hands squeezing out every emotion possible. Tissues are recommended.
War Horse succeeds on a triumvirate of powerful cinematic strengths: cinematography, direction and character. Add to the that the film has a wonderful script, carefully stitching together a series of tales that illustrate the decisions people make, the consequences of those decisions and the impact an innocent character – in this case, a horse – has on other characters and their paths in life regardless of what side of the war they reside, German, British or French. From the editing, to set design, to costume design, to casting, War Horse triumphs. It’s a beautiful, emotional film of a type that modern cinemas rarely get to witness.
War Horse is visually exquisite. The opening scenes located in an English countryside set the tone for the film. On the brink of war, the small village and its inhabitants are impoverished and barely holding on. The color pallet reflects the oppression and the contrast of the horse displays a shining ray of hope. When the story shifts to the French front lines, the green of the forests and fields mask the horrors of war that await the British infantry riding atop their horses. Later, when Joey is forced to draw the heavy artillery to the front lines, the war becomes as much of a character as any human or Joey himself. In the “no man’s land” between the German and British forces, the pallet is a sea of cools, darks and greys and the sky is black without even the slightest hint of light. The film is simply stunning to watch.
Spielberg brings everything in his expansive toolbox to War Horse: vast, wide, epic landscapes; long tracking shots into closeups that have the actors emoting with every wrinkle in their faces; and action set pieces that are exhilarating and pulse-pounding. There are scenes upon scenes of brilliantly crafted, composed, and framed visual expertise to be found. There are many memorable, striking scenes such as Captain Nicholls riding Joey straight into a German ambush, instantly realizing that the end is near, yet holding his courage to the very last moment. Just chilling. Another scene illustrates the power and ferocity of the weaponry as the huge tanks are pulled into battle or the heavy artillery cannons fire into the opposing forces. When he focuses on Joey, running for his life, galloping madly through the ravages of no-man’s land, through death and destruction, it is devastating and exhausting to watch. The celluloid screams with emotions: love, fear, horror, compassion, war, greed and courage. It’s all there on the big screen.
War Horse is filled with rich, fully rounded characters. Every role is important. Many of the actors excel in their roles leaving images and memories ingrained in imaginations of the viewers. The main role in the film belongs to Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott, the young Englishman who raises Joey and swears to reunite with him one day when the horse is taken off to war. He brings an innocence to the film, although as good as Irvine is, he is overshadowed by many of the supporting roles.
First of these is Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott, Albert’s father. Mullan brings such humanity to the role, such heart, flaws and all, his every success or failing is heartbreaking. His character has been through a tough life and every inch of his face, every step he musters, every breath he takes, tells a million tales of his life. It’s incredible.
Tom Hiddleston plays Captain Nicholls, who purchases the horse from the Narracotts and rides him into battle. Hiddleston’s portrayal instantly changes the tone of the movie, bringing it a courage and optimism no other character has, even in the face of certain death. His character is full of honor and compassion. It’s certain Nicholls molds the character of the horse as much as Joey influences the young Captain’s.
Another key role is that of “Grandfather” played by Neils Arestrup, who is raising his young, frail granddaughter, alone in the French countryside. Instead of courage, his role is that of responsibility and family commitment. It’s not about fighting the war or standing up to the Germans, it’s about protecting his granddaughter and his love for her over all things. His eyes say it all. The waver of his voice emphasises his resignation to the forces that surround him, forces beyond his control.
There are many more characters like these throughout the film who are equally interesting, just as compelling. Emily Watson plays Albert’s mother with a compassion and strength. Benedict Cumberbatch leads his army bravely into battle choking back his fear. David Kross plays Gunther, who blurs the lines between courage and cowardice as he bravely steals his brother away from the march toward the fronts lines.
For all of those powerful moments, one scene in the picture says it all. In its most memorable moment, War Horse pits a single British soldier and a single German soldier opposite each other in the middle of no man’s land. Between them is Joey entangled in yards of barbed wire, bloody, trapped, and dying. For that one moment, the enemies put aside the war and work together to save the horse, thinking, analysing a way cut free the horse, caring for the animal each minute along the way. In this instant, the film reveals itself: It’s not about sides. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong, or who’s righteous and who’s evil. It’s not about a horse at all. It’s about human beings; their emotions, their decisions, their passion. It’s about how one being influences and is influenced by another – all through the life of a big beautiful horse.
War Horse is epic, vast in scope and emotion. The film is visually stunning, rich in hue, color and tone. Spielberg invokes a classic Hollywood style and flair that amazes and dazzles. Gorgeous and splendid, the cinematography is remarkable and memorable. Character after character carry the film from one story to another. Each character is strong enough to carry a film on their own. When the end comes with its brilliant red and orange sunset casting the foreground action into silhouette, the film is bursting with emotion. The movie folds its arms around its audience at this moment, consoling and caressing, sharing its solace and wiping away its heartache. This is Steven Spielberg at his finest.