War Horse begins with the birth of a single male colt. Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses the event, and is immediately taken with this beautiful animal. When the horse is old enough to be separated from his mother, he is taken to auction. Even though he’s there to buy a draft horse to plow his field, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), Albert’s father, sees something in this young, spirited creature, and he enters into a bidding war with his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) for it. The middle-aged alcoholic farmer wins the animal, but at a very steep price – 30 guineas – and this reckless, prideful act puts his family’s future in jeopardy. Upon finding out what he’s done, Ted’s wife, Rose (Emily Watson), is upset. Not Albert. The thrilled teen promises to train and care for “Joey.” And he does. Together, the young man and his horse form a deep connection, and they become a great team. But World War I is approaching, and hard times hit the Narracott farm. Without any options left, Ted sells Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an officer who is headed to France. Before parting, Nicholls promises that, if he can, he will return Joey to Albert when the war is over. And off they go. From the Devon countryside to the Somme battlefield, War Horse follows this animal over a four year period (1914-18) as it passes from one hand to another, and, in most cases, going from one hardship to the next.
For this animal lover, War Horse was a particularly difficult, and traumatic, film to watch. I’m not exaggerating or joking when I say that I cried through most of its 146 minutes. Should that prevent anyone else from seeing it? No. It’s a powerful film about friendship, courage, determination, and beating the odds. It speaks volumes about the unbreakable bond between animals and humans, and it has some real moments of brilliance. This is a Steven Spielberg film after all, which means it’s a high quality picture that stirs your emotions. (If you come away from a Spielberg feeling nothing, consider seeing a psychiatrist.)
War Horse began life as a novel by Michael Morpurgo. It was then adapted by Nick Stafford in a National Theatre of Great Britain Production in Association with Handspring Puppet Company at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. And, finally, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) have adapted the story for the big screen. It’s an epic tale that’s sort of what you get when you combine elements from Black Beauty (1994), The Field (1990), Gallipoli (1981), and A Very Long Engagement (2004), just replace the missing fiancé with a horse, and change the gender of the protagonist from female to male. (The end of the film also seems to give a visual nod to the ending of Gone with the Wind (1939), and the continual suffering of the horse – there’s a sequence during which it is “crucified” by barbed wire – might even pay homage to the Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). But then again I might be stretching.) Although this might sound like an odd combination of film references, it works.
When I first heard about War Horse, I deliberately avoided reading anything about it – all I knew was that it was by Spielberg – so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many familiar faces in the cast. Throughout his 20-plus-year career, Mullan (Session 9, Trainspotting, the Red Riding trilogy) has turned in one consistently brilliant performance after another, and in War Horse, he plays a “disabled” veteran of the Boer War. He’s stubborn, reckless, and stoic. He’s an important, for better or worse, catalyst for everything that happens in the film. A tremendous, brave actress (Breaking the Waves, The Proposition), Watson plays a character who is long-suffering, but strong; a very salt-of-the-Earth kind of woman who maintains the homestead. Thewlis plays, what else, a horrible, rich, bullying bastard of a man. Lyons is a bit like Peter – The American (Tom Berenger) in The Field; just a guy you would like to see getting clubbed. (His son, played by Robert Emms, is just as asshole-y.)
Irvine is a newcomer to the cinematic screen, and he’s a great find. Early in the film, he’s wide-eyed and bursting with so much love for that horse that when he loses Joey, you are crushed right along with him. (I wanted to reach into the screen and choke his father.) Even though he’s British, Irvine reminded me a bit of a young Christopher Reeve. I’m not really sure how old he is – must be in his 20s – but he’s such a good actor that, again, at the beginning of the film, he conveys the enthusiasm and innocence of a person in his mid-teens. (The character can’t join the military in 1914, because he isn’t yet 19. We don’t see him in the military until 1918, so I’m assuming at the beginning of the film, he’s supposed to be about 15?) War Horse should land Irvine on some “Breakout Stars of 2011” lists, and I expect big things from him. He already has two films in the works: Now is Good (2012) and The Railway Man (2013). Looking forward to seeing these.
As for some of the other supporting performances … (Contains some SPOILERS): Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor) conveys grace, kindness, and gentility as the ill-fated Capt. Nicholls. I was deeply saddened to witness his demise. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock) plays Maj. Jamie Stewart, the officer who leads the tragic, and very stupid, “surprise” attack on the Germans – his mounted army uses only swords for weapons. His character also provides the film with a second horse, a gorgeous black stallion that “befriends” Joey. Niels Arestrup (Sarah’s Key, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays the jam-making grandfather of a sickly war orphan, Emilie (Celine Buckens). She finds Joey and the black stallion inside of the family’s windmill, and, briefly, provides the animals with some stability and care. Sadly, the animals don’t remain with this family for very long. The grandfather will play an important role at the end of the film. David Kross (The Reader) plays Gunther, a German soldier who saves his 14-year-old brother (Leonhard Carow) from the front lines. This is another “story” that doesn’t end well. (I actually gasped when I witnessed their fate.) Toby Kebbell (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, RocknRolla) plays a compassionate Geordie soldier who, towards the end of the film, stops the war so that he can work with a German soldier to free Joey from a mass of barbed wire. Although this isn’t a “pretty” sequence, it provides the movie with a bit of comic relief – I know that sounds strange – and allows the audience to reflect on the absurdity of war.
And just in case that wasn’t enough name dropping for all of you Anglophiles out there, how about two more: Liam Cunningham, who plays an army doctor; and Eddie Marsan, who plays Sgt. Fry. Although I didn’t recognize him while I was watching the film – my eyes were probably too clouded with tears –IMDB tells us that Philippe Nahon plays the French auctioneer. French horror fans will know that name. He played the grotesque pig of a killer in High Tension (2003), and was in writer/director Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) and I Stand Alone (1998). I shudder a bit just thinking about this. Needless to say, Spielberg has assembled a very fine cast of actors here.
The look and sound of War Horse is up to Spielberg’s usual standards, because, he’s working again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams. (Hey, why break up a winning team?) The real unsung heroes of War Horse are the horse trainers and wranglers, and the horses themselves. Not only do these animals perform some dangerous-looking stunts, but they also must transcend being mere “animals.” As in any film of this kind, the animals are anthropomorphized, so that we identify with them. Joey is highly intelligent – he understands vocal commands within seconds – and deeply loyal. Several times, he’s even willing to sacrifice himself for others. For instance, even though he’s not a plow horse, he takes up the yoke to save Albert’s family farm. And while owned by the German military, he “volunteers” to pull heavy artillery up a muddy hill, so that the wounded black stallion, his friend, can rest. Are horses capable of these emotions? These thought processes? I have never owned a horse, so I have no idea. But whether they do or don’t doesn’t matter. The skills of Spielberg, Kahn, and these horses make us believe they do, without question. And that helps to turn on our waterworks.
Despite the fact that I came out of War Horse feeling emotionally drained and ready for a long nap, I still recommend the film. It’s destined to become a classic in much the same way that Old Yeller and Black Beauty have become. It’s rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence, and yet, the imagery isn’t anything gratuitous. It’s very restrained and shouldn’t terrify young children. What might scar them for life is watching that poor horse being put through the paces. That said, the film does have a “happy ending.” If you end up being brave enough to see War Horse make sure that you bring plenty of tissues, or, if you are as soft in the head as I am, bring a very absorbent towel and some dark sunglasses. You don’t want anyone seeing your swollen, red eyes in the lobby, now do you?
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