War Horse

Deeply poignant war drama about a magnificent stallion named Joey and his experiences in the midst of World War I. Right from the opening scenes of the rolling hills of Devon, England where a mare gives birth to a young foal, we can feel the director laying the groundwork for an emotional journey. I think human beings have an innate desire to love horses anyway, so it’s not like we need to be convinced of that. However that doesn’t stop Spielberg from laying on the sentiment. His philosophy is to recall pictures of yesteryear with a mixture of stunning panoramas, a lush soundtrack and old fashioned heart. Spielberg pulls out all the stops and his command of cinematic exposition is incredibly effective.

This is stirring stuff and he expertly wrings emotion from both the environment as well as gorgeous music. Absolutely stunning cinematography emphasizes sprawling vistas of rural England and sequences across the battles of Europe to stirring effect. Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has photographed all of Spielberg’s works since 1993 and he’s in fine form here. The landscapes are bold and saturated with color. Scenes are bathed in an ethereal warm glow and shot with an eye for nostalgia. And then there’s that score!  The sweeping orchestration is courtesy of none other than legend John Williams who contributes a suitably majestic soundtrack that perfectly complements the action onscreen.

War Horse is Spielberg’s first effort in tackling World War I as a subject. He skillfully presents British author Michael Morpurgo’s novel with all the discretion befitting a children’s novel. Spielberg has dealt with the subject of war before: Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan. War Horse is not as punishing in subject matter as those forays in the genre. Still he doesn’t pull back from the fact that this is picture about war. As the plot progresses we’re treated to little vignettes as Joey passes hands from an auction to his owner, who subsequently sells him to the British military only to accidentally fall into the hands of the Germans later. There Joey befriends a larger black horse and their friendship is as affecting as any human one. But Spielberg’s touches aren’t all saccharine. He presents the story’s more harsher passages in a masterful way that is powerful and yet never bloody. We’re introduced to tender human characters that we bond with only to have them executed before us. The actual killing covered by the blade of a windmill as it turns. In another serious scene, Joey’s untamed sprint across a war torn battlefield has painful consequences and the scene made me wince as much as anything I saw this year. Be warned, if you’re an animal lover, it will be hard to watch.

Spielberg’s War Horse is a grand saga in the classic Hollywood vein. His picturesque vision recall classics like The Yearling or Shane. Even Gone with the Wind is suggested in the closing silhouetted shots. At the center is a remarkable stallion that gives a heartrending performance. Everything essentially revolves around him as he changes various hands during World War I. It’s a rousing document and one has to actively resist Spielberg’s admittedly calculating style to hate this movie. War Horse is anecdotal in nature, a tale of perseverance from the point of view of a plucky animal. I pretty much ate most of it up, but I’ll admit the picture’s charms are rather blatant. There are instances where it verges on mawkishness. But I’ll forgive Spielberg for that. War Horse is a venerable epic from one of our greatest filmmakers working at his manipulative best.

9 Responses to “War Horse”

  1. Great review. Loved it, Mark! Can’t wait for it to open here.


  2. Nice review. I was planning to see this, most likely on Monday with my sister, who loves horses. Is it more of a war film or a horse film? My reason for asking is because she loves horse movies but she’s not too into war movies.


  3. This was visually and emotionally awesome. I loved every scenario involving the horse, “Joe”. He was definitely very special. I think Spielberg knows how to grab me everytime.


  4. Hoping to see this but can’t till tomorrow…maybe


  5. Once again mark, nice review. M still deciding on this one. I easily get bothered watching animals suffer. didn’t like water for elephants because of that. I should have stopped after old yeller.good review .made me imagine the film already


  6. Had a moment and forgot this was Spielberg. I’ll be reviewing this tonight after I watch it.


  7. Last night I saw War Horse on DVD. On the whole I enjoyed this movie. However I felt it was more for children than adults. Yet it was too intense for children under 13. I know it is based on a chldren’s book by the author Michael Morpurgo. I am not sure what age his targeted audience was for this book. The events Joey, the war horse, goes through during World War 1 would defeat Superman. Joey’s dash through a succession of barb wire barriers during one battle scene engaged my emotions but not my credulity. It is a fine family film (but not for the very young) for those willing to leave reality behind and accept the fantasy of a horse unlike any other mortal created being.


    • Not a film for very young kids, hence the PG-13 rating. I did enjoy how cheerfully old fashioned it was in spirit. True it wasn’t the most realistic film, but I was taken in by its innocent, albeit overt, charm.


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