Wednesday, December 28, 2011

War Horse (2011)

When this movie was over, I wept. It was nothing for me to be ashamed of. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is a painterly masterpiece, woven together with beauty and sadness, strength and heartbreak, triumph and love. It tells the story of a horse that is plunged headfirst into the cauldron of World War I, and the teenage boy who descends into the hells of the trenches to find it and bring it home. But it is more, too. It invited me, like a warm blanket, into its world of green pastures and smoky battlefields, and introduced me to characters—both human and animal—that I began to love and adore with great emotion, as if they were real presences in my own life. It would not be enough for me to say that this is my favorite movie of the year. This is one of the best movies I've ever seen.

All great filmmakers have one thing in common: they expand on ideas that worked for them in the past. From there, they create new and unexpected works of art. Steven Spielberg is no exception: he is our finest poet of communication breakdowns. We remember, from his films, Elliot, Gertie and Michael teaching E.T. how to talk; Nettie teaching Celie how to read; Adams, Joadson and Baldwin teaching Cinque about American customs; Viktor Navorski teaching himself how to speak English. But War Horse is a horse of a different color, and in more ways than one. Spielberg has always had a penchant for challenging his audiences to invest their care in the narratives of unusual protagonists. This time, he has mounted his most compelling narrative challenge for us since A.I., by centering his latest film around a teenage boy learning to communicate—intimately—with a creature that doesn’t talk at all.

Jeremy Irvine plays Albert Narracott, a young English lad growing up on his family’s farm in Devon in 1913. In the opening passages of War Horse, Spielberg and his world treasure of a cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, soar over the lime-green fields of England, in a merrily nostalgic evocation of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, before settling down to a starry-eyed Albert watching, through a fence, while a pregnant mother horse gives birth to a baby fawn. The boy can hardly hold back his excitement. This could very well be the first time he has ever born witness to an event of profound, natural beauty.

The newborn horse is not as amused with its own surroundings, which Spielberg makes palpably felt in a harrowing little scene where it is taken, kicking and screaming, away from its mother, whom it will never see again. It has been purchased by Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), who snagged it at an auction for no good reason other than to smite his bourgeoisie landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), while they were both flexing their muscles in a futile game of prewar class warfare. Spielberg, indeed, bookends War Horse with two sequences set at auctions: the first one, a bet for the horse’s ownership, and the second, a bet for its life. His basic point is that horses, no matter if they’re impressive or unimpressive creatures, will always be at the mercy of us. We are the ones who determine whether they are destined for happy lives or as fodder for the meat grinder, and sometimes, he argues, we do it in the names of greed and masculine pride. In war and in life, just because horses are beings of a lesser intelligence, they are not afforded the luxury of choice.

What Albert Narracott does want to establish, between himself and the new horse, is a system of trust. Remember Elliot having to bait E.T., with Reese’s Pieces, in order to lead him into his house? Spielberg replicates some of that magic here, when Albert realizes he’s going to need to bait the new horse, somehow, in order to earn its friendship. Why not turn his back, and allow the bucket to resonate more like a breakfast waiting patiently for its customer, instead of like an intimidating instrument of force-feeding and torture? Albert tries this out, and it works. The horse quietly steps up, eases its snout into the bucket and chows down, and remains admirably calm while Albert pets it and bestows upon it a name: “I’m gonna call you Joey.”

Albert’s family, the Narracotts, is one of the most lovable movie families in recent memory. Albert is an idealistic young lad; Ted is alternately a drunken fool and an observant farmer who knows what to do in a time of economic panic; and Rose (Emily Watson) is a headstrong wife and mother (the most fully-realized heroine in Spielberg’s career since, well, ever) who maintains the family’s sanity even while struggling to maintain her own. In one of the funniest and, at the same time, most touching shots composed by Spielberg in the film, the director places Rose in the foreground, allowing her to have a private moment all to herself while the farm goose waddles in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, minding its own business. This goose likes to act as man of the house in Ted and Albert’s place, and has the freedom to do what they are in no position to do—that is, chase away unwanted authorities, like Lyons, whenever they descend on the Narracott homestead and give the family a hard time.

The first hour of War Horse is a joyous one, allowing the audience to get to know the Narracotts, and the rest of the village, as they slowly but surely rally behind Albert’s efforts to raise Joey as a farm horse that can plough through even the hardest of stone and mud. But this barely even begins to describe the range of Spielberg’s film, which reaches a turning point after Ted realizes what must be done to save the family farm: sell Joey to the English cavalry. Over the course of the film, Joey will fall into the custody of a host of different characters, all of whom are impressed by the power and strength of this horse, and many of whom, no doubt, would like to take it home with them after the war is over. We follow Joey and, later, Albert—when he enlists in the war in hopes that Joey will be recovered—as their adventures carry them from forests to hillsides, windmills to No Man’s Land, against a nightmarish depiction of trench warfare that invites comparison to Kubrick and Paths of Glory.

The film remains true to the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, which I have already read and covered, and also, presumably, to the recent London stage play by Nick Stafford, which I haven’t yet seen. To adapt Morpurgo’s complicated story, Spielberg has hired two of England’s most talented screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, whose resumes look almost tailor-made for a project of this emotional magnitude. Hall was the one who located the human story in Billy Elliot, making that film one of the surprise indie hits of the late 1990’s. Curtis is more well-known in the industry, perhaps because of his enjoyable romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Love Actually, The Girl in the Café), although it wasn’t until 2009’s Pirate Radio when I thought he finally managed to reach a kind of cinematic brilliance. Spielberg may have also hired Curtis because of his involvement with the 80's television show Blackadder Goes Forth, which I haven’t watched, but which, evidently, was the work of a filmmaker who already knew a thing or two about the first world war.

Together, Hall and Curtis lay the ground plan for Spielberg’s vision: to make a film about the war in which all sides are granted their dignity. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) are gentle, commanding officers of the British cavalry who treat Joey and his eventual horse companion—a black beauty named Topthorn—as fellow soldiers deserving of their respect, while the young, sickly Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her doting grandfather (Niels Arestrup) represent the spirit of France, welcoming Joey and Topthorn into their windmill home with open arms. But there is a sympathetic portrait of Germany here, too; Spielberg does not fall into the same trap Howard Hawks and John Huston fell into, in Sergeant York, when they inadvertently reduced Kaiser helmet-wearing Germans to a nameless, anonymous enemy. Gunther (David Kross) and his 14-year old brother Michael (Leonhard Carow) attempt to free Joey and Topthorn from the madness of the war, while risking their own lives in the process. And it is the jolly, bearded gunman Friedrich (Nicolas Bro) who remains by Topthorn’s side at a crucial moment, and screams for Joey to run for his life just when a Panzer is about to unleash all hell on No Man’s Land.

There are no villains in this film. Why would there be? World War I was a superfluous, pointless war, and it would have been a mistake to demonize any of the world powers because none of them were guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors; the war was fought not for world freedom, but for class and politics. As Lyons, David Thewlis plays an antagonist who, despite being an upper-class bully, allows the Narracotts their chance to raise Joey, even while he remains somewhat justifiably skeptical of the horse’s skills. Lyons has a son, David (Robert Emms), who intimidates Albert with his cars and hot babes until he finds himself being rescued—by Albert—in the heat of battle, later on in the film. Brandt (Rainer Bock), the cigar-smoking German major who makes life difficult for Joey and Topthorn, is really just a hardened soldier who has taught himself to adhere by a commonly-accepted rule: don’t ever dote on horses and give them names, or else you’ll get too carried away with grief once you've seen them die on the battlefield.

Spielberg has cast every actor in this movie to perfection. I am tempted to describe how much I admired the performances by all of them, but that way madness lies. I’ll limit to myself to the Narracotts. Jeremy Irvine is quite a refreshing new discovery as Albert; he’s the kind of younger actor that directors like David Lean loved to work with, so I guess it’s not a surprise to learn that Mike Newell has cast him in an upcoming Great Expectations remake. Peter Mullan is an actor who’s never made a great impression on me until now. I don’t seem to recall his role in Braveheart, although I well remember him as the corrupt cop in Children of Men. Here, he bravely takes upon the role of a father who has kept his own memories of war heavily-guarded, and finds himself sometimes having to go against the wishes of his wife and son in order to protect the family. And Emily Watson, perhaps my favorite living actress, is a true blessing in the canvas. In one of the film’s most quietly moving moments, when her husband asks her how she will react if he does the unthinkable, she pointedly replies, “I may hate you more… but I will never love you less.” Even she is prepared to condone that decision which she fears the most.

In the past, Spielberg and his usual team of technical collaborators (Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, John Williams) have managed to tackle extraordinary narratives of an awesome variety, but here they face a considerable challenge: how do you mount an epic in which the main protagonist is an animal? The original Morpurgo book relied on narration from Joey’s inner thoughts, but Spielberg has resisted that approach here, perhaps because the last time DreamWorks distributed a film narrated by a horse (2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), it was a resounding box office flop. Spielberg has taken a wiser approach, I believe, by trusting his audience enough to let us figure out, for ourselves, what Joey is thinking in key sequences. When Albert, for example, teaches Joey, through clever visual expression, that there’s nothing dangerous about putting on a harness, Joey is able to silently pass this knowledge onto Topthorn later on, in a wonderfully understated moment. Or consider the climactic scene in which Joey finds himself cornered by the approaching Panzer (in a startling quotation of Saving Private Ryan’s finale), and his frightened neighing conveys to us what narration wouldn’t have needed to. In fact, Spielberg enlisted no less than 15 different horses to play Joey, but you wouldn’t know it from the finished film. By the end, Joey has emerged as the most three-dimensional character in the story.

I went into War Horse expecting Spielberg to mount a war odyssey on the scale of Empire of the Sun. I did not anticipate a film that would both remain true to the source material and surprise me with scenes that came out of left field; the pivotal sequence in which an English and German soldier (Toby Kebbell and Hinnerck Schonemman) must put aside their differences to rescue Joey from a web of barbed wire in No Man’s Land has already been much discussed in other reviews. I went in already familiar with Morpurgo’s story, but was amazed at how captivated I finally was with the way Spielberg had reimagined it. He closes the film, fittingly, with a visual reference to Gone with the Wind (his first tribute to Victor Fleming since Always in ’89) that, I believe, will be remembered as a classic movie ending in itself: one that asks us what Joey and Albert have finally accomplished, even as we are already cheering them on for their accomplishments.

War Horse is Spielberg’s Christmas gift to us. More appropriately, it’s his reward to us—a reward for our natural wisdom as moviegoers. To fully appreciate Spielberg's achievement, however, there is catch: you must see this film with a mass audience. Watch how everybody in your theater falls under its spell, one by one. I know I did. I saw it with an audience that broke into applause after it was over, and I never wanted the applause to end; movies like this deserve all the applause in the world. After the past decade, with the failures of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what a relief it is to have this film, which states that most wars are not a question of good guys and bad guys. More often, they are a clash of human beings, unsure of why they fight each other and unaware of the common universal ideals which could ultimately unite them. Joey the horse is a represention of that ideal, and it doesn't matter that this story is set during another period in our world's history. War Horse is a movie for our time.


  1. God, I loved this film so so much and am ready to place in it my top 3 for the year. Perhaps #2 behind THE TREE OF LIFE, but I think Spielberg's film could be my personal favorite.

    Your first paragraph especially expresses my own feelings.

    I am heading out to my local multiplex again tonight for a second viewing with other friends who haven't seen it (I saw it Christmas Day) so I can cry mt eyes out again.

    I am with you my friend, lock, stock and barrel, and will now send a link to this captivating and passionate review to friends and colleagues on my e mail chain!

  2. I just read this review again on the phone to my friend Dennis Polifroni.

    It is an overwhelming piece, extraordinary in every sense, magnificently written. When you are excited about something Adam just about nobody can touch you!

    War Horse rules!

  3. Sam, thank you so much. I am totally looking forward to seeing this film again as well; it's the kind of grand, epic masterpiece that absolutely needs to be seen in a theater. And thanks for sharing the piece with your colleagues, too; I really appreciate it.

  4. Adam, well done here. You cover every inch of this film, and your passion for it makes me want to see it again - at which time I might find myself being less irritated by some of the parts that didn't work for me. Despite all, I really enjoyed this movie, and as I said in my review, this is one of the best family films to be made in a long time.

    I agree that Emily Watson is fabulous here. I love the scene in which she shows Albert the medals, and I love how the regimental pennant makes its way through World War I from hand to hand.

    I agree that Spielberg sets out to be fair to both sides in the war; there are no bad Kraut stereotypes here. But that pitfall, which you assign to Hawks and Huston, should be assigned as well to Spielberg himself, on MANY occasions, definitely in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and most unforgivably in Saving Private Ryan.

    As much as the Technicolor/Gone with the Wind ending seems so excessive, it worked for me. It was visually stunning.

    I really enjoyed War Horse, much more than I thought I would before I went in, much more than I thought I would when the film seemed so sentimental and full of such ideal characters. Perhaps with another viewing I will like it even more.

    And, once again, the film's best scene is the one in which the Brit and the German cut the barbed wire off Joey. Perfect! (Except for the silly bit in which eight or ten wire cutters fly over the top upon request for another wire cutter; typical Spielberg silliness that didn't belong there.)

    This is definitely Spielberg's best film since War of the Worlds.

  5. Adam:

    Thorough review- excellent job!

    I always love watching Emma Watson; she is merely perfect here. Wonderful casting as you mention. The other performance here that should be singled out is that of Niels Arestrup as Emilie's grandfather. He brings a nice sensitivity to his role and is especially effective in his final scene (which I won't give away).

    As for your comments on the profiling of Germans in Hawks' SERGEANT YORK, I think that is a bit unfair. You have to remember that YORK was released in 1941 as dreadful news from Nazi Germany was coming across the wires everyday. So it's clear that releasing this tale of a celebrated war hero at that time was meant to stir up patriotism. Thus it's easy to understand the profiling of German soldiers as pure evil in this film, something typical of many other Hollywood war films at the time. So I don't blame Hawks or Huston for that.

    I did like the film very much and will write a review soon. My qualms with the film is that Spielberg tried too hard to make this an epic for the ages. There are some heroic moments to be sure, but I think the film works best in its simpler and quieter sequences. That said, it is a beautifully made film that does have its moving moments.

  6. Hokahey and Tom, thanks, as always, for both of your excellent comments.

    Hokahey, I would definitely agree with you that Spielberg's treatment of Germans has changed immensely over time, but I don't necessarily think he's ever portrayed them in an "unforgivable" fashion. The Nazis in Raiders and Last Crusade (and, also, Christopher Lee's Nazi in 1941) are cartoons, yes, but they're straight out of old-fashioned serials, which means they're equipped with a great dose of humor, even while they ham it out with admittedly heavy-handed villainy.

    But after the 80's, Spielberg's outlook on Germans improved for the better, most notably in regards to the masterful rapport between Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth in Schindler's List (read my review of that film here). And I've never agreed with the popular sentiment that his portrayal of Germans in Saving Private Ryan was somehow a bad one, either (read my review of that film, too), because he clearly illuminates on the personal crisises GIs face when they choose to kill unarmed enemy soldiers in the field. There's a scene in the opening D-Day sequence when Captain Miller looks with shame at some GIs who walk up to two surrendering Germans and shoot them in cold blood. It's a very telling moment which many critics of that film tend to miss.

    Tom, Niels Arestrup is indeed quite wonderful in this film. I must admit he's a new face to me; I've heard he was in The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, but that's one I still have to check out. Either way, I hope he (and/or Emily Watson, Peter Mullan and Jeremy Irvine) gets an Oscar nomination for his performance. This isn't really what the Academy would deem an "actor's movie", but there's so much great acting talent at work here that I'll be very surprised if they overlook it.

    Now, about Sergeant York. It's not a movie I outright dislike, but I've always been of the opinion it's one of Hawks' lesser works (and one of Huston's weaker efforts as a screenwriter). The film is essentially WWII propaganda masquerading as a personal story about World War I, which is problematic because the two wars weren't even dealing remotely with the same issues. It's also problematic because it portrays Alvin York as a man who ditches his own pacifism in order to fight for the freedom of his country -- even though World War I wasn't really about fighting for America's freedom at all. That one sequence where he rounds up the Germans and then shoots a prisoner for grenad-ing one of his buddies is a little ugly; it's portraying York as a hero for killing a bad apple, but what is he, in effect, killing *for*? The movie doesn't engage this question. I blame mostly the studio for this, since it was more a studio flick than anything else, but it's hard not to argue that Hawks, Huston and Gary Cooper didn't realize they were all being hired to make a movie of little intellectual importance. Ed Howard's review of that movie sums up my feelings best.

  7. Powerful, compelling, most beautifully-written review, Adam. And I agree with you every step of the way, so that always helps. War Horse is a sensuous homage to classic Hollywood--of Ford and Fleming--and a vital new piece of the Spielberg canon.

    Peter Mullen gave a fine performance in Boy A a few years ago, but his turn in Spielberg's new masterpiece is a wonderfully touching, heartbreaking piece of work as well.

    Great review, great film. I have many more thoughts but I fear my computer is about to crash for a little while, so I'll return at a later time/date.

  8. Wow. Thank you so much, Alexander. I'm looking forward to your other thoughts, and I'm so glad you cherished this film as much as I did.

    I'll put Boy A on my list, too. I seem to have neglected Mullan for far too long now. Apparently he's also a fine director of independent films, which I didn't even know until recently.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.