I could think of absolutely no reason why I wanted to watch War Horse other than the fact that it is directed by Steven Spielberg.
It is not based on a popular young adult series or comic book or video game (it is based on a children’s novel – but not one with a popular following), it is not a remake or reboot (how I dislike that word) of a popular TV show or a previous film, it cannot really claim to be ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by a true story’, it does not have any famous ‘A-list’ movie stars, is not built around a ‘high concept’ or a ‘surprise ending’ and since it is neither a sci-fi nor fantasy story, the CGI effects in the movie didn’t produce monsters or aliens, only horses.
Of course, wanting to watch a movie because it is directed by Spielberg is not a reason to be sneezed at. War Horse became the 8th Spielberg-directed film to be nominated for a Best Picture and/or Best Director Oscar. He has won twice – for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – both World War II movies. In fact a number of his films have a WWII setting, but this is the first time Spielberg has tackled the World War I period.
War Horse also marks the 6th occasion that Spielberg has directed 2 films in the same year; he first completed this daunting task in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always. He really hit his stride in 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. In 1997, we had The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can came along in 2002 followed by the War of the Worlds-Munich combo in 2005. I actually don’t know of any other directors who have done this even once. As you can see, the trend has been to do one special-effects-driven summer blockbuster followed by a character-driven film released during awards season in December. This time, Spielberg changed the plot slightly by releasing both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse within a few weeks of each other at the end of 2011.
I mentioned earlier that War Horse features no A-list Hollywood stars. Actually, none of the actors are from Hollywood; unlike so many other period films, here the characters are all played exclusively by native British and European actors. Of course, the central character of the film is the horse, Joey, whereas the humans are clearly the supporting cast.
Born in Devon, England, Joey is bought at an auction by a poor, drunkard farmer who gets carried away by the beauty of the young thoroughbred when he should have been buying a hard-working draught horse instead. The farmer’s wife is distraught but his teenage son Albert cannot believe his luck and promises to rear the horse and somehow turn around the fortunes of the family.
Of course, Spielberg (and American cinema in general) specializes in milking this sort of underdog situation and there are some rousing moments, accompanied by appropriate John Williams score, which establishes the bond between Albert and Joey. Unfortunately, it is 1914 and war is soon declared between England and Germany. The farmer, desperate for money, sells Joey to a Captain in the British Army. Albert arrives at the marketplace too late to stop the sale, but Captain Nicholls (played by Tom Hiddleston who will play arch-villain Loki in the upcoming blockbuster The Avengers) promises him that he will treat the sale as a lease, and will return Joey to Albert at the end of the war. Joey is trained as a cavalry horse and is transported to mainland Europe. As the tides of war ebb and flow, Joey changes hands from the British Army to the German side, then briefly to French civilians before falling back into German hands again.
Meanwhile back home, Albert receives news that Captain Nicholls has been killed in action and realizes that his horse is now missing and perhaps dead. In desperation, he enlists in the Army and is sent to fight in the trenches of France. Anyone who has seen Spielberg’s war movies (including the HBO series he produced like Band of Brothers and The Pacific) know that this man can bring alive the horrors of war like no other contemporary filmmaker. In the second act of the film, we are exposed to these horrors and their effects on both men and horses. Some of the scenes, particularly where we see the animals suffering, are almost unbearable. The story shows soldiers on both sides conscious of this suffering; some reluctantly shrug it off as a consequence of war, while others make an effort to minimize the impact on the animals. It is certainly refreshing to see German soldiers not depicted as evil thugs and this is brought alive during a memorable scene involving Joey, a British and a German officer in the middle of the trenches under a white flag of truce.
There are several dramatic and emotional moments in the final act before Albert and Joey are finally united and return to the farm under a blood red sunset…perhaps signifying that they will forever live with the taint of war.
The acting is universally top-notch from some of the best character actors in England and Europe. As I mentioned earlier, Joey is the star of this movie, so while there are many speaking parts, these roles usually last for just a few minutes…as if the human characters have been created only to play a part in Joey’s extraordinary journey. As always, Spielberg’s usual filmmaking group delivers the goods – John Williams tugs at your heartstrings with his music, Janusz Kaminski is at the top of his game behind the camera and Michael Kahn’s editing helps the two and a half hours go by quickly.
In the end, the overriding sense I got out of the story is that there is some good in everyone and given a chance, that positive spirit will rise to the surface in the face of adversity. To be reminded of that truth became, ultimately, the best reason to watch War Horse.