War Horse (2011)
(for intense sequences of war violence, and some language)
Released: December 25, 2011
Runtime: 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup
War Horse tugs at our emotions as unrepentantly as anything the earnest auteur has ever made.
Indeed, by 2011, it had been nearly ten years (or quite possibly twenty) since a Steven Spielberg film had been this effectively sentimental. It may not be as personal as something like E.T., and yet you can’t walk away from War Horse without sensing just how deeply Spielberg’s heart is in it.
This is also one of the more underappreciated artistic triumphs of Spielberg’s career (perhaps due, in part, to being released a mere four days after The Adventures of Tintin, one of his most underwhelming).
Told on an epic scale, War Horse is a visceral war movie in its own right. It may have been quickly relegated to minor Spielberg status but, with the passage of time, it should be re-evaluated as one of his major achievements.
As with previous heart-tugging high watermarks, Spielberg’s sentimentality here is not warm and fuzzy. It is bittersweet, and poignant.
Tempered by separation, tragedy, and loss, War Horse doesn’t satiate the heart with cheap wish fulfillment. Its evocations — while bold and unabashed — are hard-earned and deeply wrought, set against the backdrop of a world at war, and on a scale never before seen.
Based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo that inspired the heralded award-winning play, War Horse puts an equine spin on the “boy and his dog” archetype, and then adds a majesty to it. (Spielberg said that by the intermission of the stage production, he was ready to make the film.)
That majesty comes not in the muscular grandeur of the title steed, and potently in The Great War, but it is especially there in how the narrative tells the story of two characters: one a British teenager, named Albert, and the other a horse, named Joey. They each with something to prove. Together — and then apart — they do.
That sweeping scope is also captured in the film’s aesthetic. Director John Ford (The Searchers) is a major influence on Spielberg, but War Horse is Steven’s most blatant homage to that hero. Yes, flashes of Ford’s influences can be seen throughout Spielberg’s career, but with War Horse it’s as if he set out to actually channel John Ford, perhaps in the same way he intended to channel Stanley Kubrick for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
More specifically, it wasn’t so much Ford’s westerns that Spielberg was emulating here; rather, it was Ford’s tales of the common man, his odes to the Salt Of The Earth working class. Films like The Grapes Of Wrath and The Quiet Man.
The most direct Ford influence on War Horse seems to be his Welsh-set drama How Green Was My Valley. That Best Picture winner of 1941 (which beat Citizen Kane) is one of the most stunning black-and-white films you’ll ever see.
Drawing from it like a set of storyboards, Spielberg essentially makes the Technicolor version of Ford’s pastoral landscapes. At times, the homage is obvious (see below). Watching these two movies back-to-back would be a great “film school” double feature.
Spielberg venerates other epics of the time, too. One can’t watch the film’s final shots without instantly thinking of the silhouettes from Gone With The Wind set against dusk horizons. These influences make for one of the most gorgeously shot films of Spielberg’s entire canon, one so brilliantly rendered that, to this day, it still leaves me in slack-jawed awe. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t just shoot; they paint.
In an era when studios digitally amplify even the most basic images and settings, it’s refreshing (and even moving) to see a movie so classically rendered, one that would stand as an equal among the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
For its craftsmanship alone, it boggles my mind how much this movie has been dismissed — by critics especially.
For his part, John Williams‘ offers up the most stirring score of his late career, with epic cues like the one that starts at 3:15 in this track (also, the first crescendo at 1:34 is worth the listen, too). It is a fanfare for The Common Man, building to a sweep that always gives me chills.
Along with the cinematic style, Spielberg also captures (as Ford did) the spirit and decency of the people who work the land…including those with self-destructive flaws.
Albert’s father Ted is the town drunk. He genuinely strives to maintain the family farm and do right by his wife and son, but he has his vice. Albert’s mother Rose, however, is a pillar of integrity, steadfastness, and grace.
In a gentle moment early on, Rose has a conversation with Albert explaining to him why he should temper his anger toward his father, and even be forgiving. She’s tender and maternal toward her son, and holds a sincere fidelity to her drunkard husband. Emily Watson makes Rose empathetic, not pathetic, helping us to understand why she’s never left him, and never will.
That scene, along with another between her and her husband Ted, are moments that could easily be torn from the pages of Steinbeck. Emily Watson embodies Rose with unwavering strength and genuine humility. She’s inspiring, but in the most unassuming way. Her virtues are replete throughout the film (and often in contrast to mankind’s worst), with the titular horse serving as their incarnation.
After establishing Albert and the horse Joey in the film’s first act, the second and third acts of War Horse sort of work like a Forrest Gump travelogue through World War I.
Joey crosses paths with, among others, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, each who whom were on the cusp of fame in the U.S. The focus, however, is as much on the people that Joey encounters as it is on the horse itself.
Even so, it’s amazing just how much of a character that Spielberg is able to create for Joey, a real horse, without ever resorting to a style that “personifies” him. The connection that Joey makes with Albert, and with others, is convincing precisely because the portrayal is real, not romanticized.
Unlike Gump, the journey doesn’t touch on the war’s major events or turning points. Instead, it focuses on the people in it, from soldiers on both sides of the conflict, good and bad. Spielberg also spends chapters portraying the innocent folk who are caught in the proverbial crossfire.
One of these chapters (about halfway through) involves a young girl and her grandfather, and it is particularly touching. They live in the French countryside, The girl’s spirit is effervescent, despite the fact that she suffers from frail bones. The grandfather is, understandably, overprotective. For both of them, Joey ends up serving as a muse of courage for each to forge.
These contrasting dynamics — intimate character episodes mixed with epic battle sequences — make for a sobering war film with a wider accessibility. War Horse is a war movie for those still too young to experience the literal blood and guts of Saving Private Ryan.
Though still intense (and, and times, truly harrowing in its own unflinching way), War Horse could help older middle school students (and up) confront and grapple with the unforgiving ravages of war, many for the first time.
A few battle scenes are particularly traumatic, with one sequence of trench warfare evoking the horrors of Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day invasion (but minus the gore, and without Kaminski’s drop-frame technique that made the Normandy beaches even more chaotic).
Another war scene, by stark contrast, is a temporary truce (and no doubt inspired by the real-life Christmas Truce of 1914). Again, Joey is at the center, serving as a catalyst. Through this scene and others, War Horse uses Joey to help show that benevolence — no matter how fleeting or faint — is a spirit that fights to emerge in the face of bleak inhumanity.
Albert is eventually enlisted into the war, and the film tracks his path, too. Through the carnage, he’s on course to an inevitable reunion at war’s end.
Cynics (i.e. most film critics) would say that the reunion is contrived. I completely disagree. Rather, I see it as a merciful dénouement to a wartime fable in desperate need of one, even a life-affirming miracle. That affirmation is also felt in a meeting between Albert and one of Joey’s wartime owners.
I may be a sap, but these moments never fail to put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, perhaps especially because they’re not overplayed. They’re subtle and tender; a reminder of the things that people cherish from a simple, common life, of the things they were all fighting for.
There’s an overwhelming beauty to Spielberg’s filmmaking here. At times, it’s devastating. But there’s also poetry. And lyricism. And undeniable humanity.
I may be the only one who thinks it, but War Horse is a work of art.
- Although War Horse was shot on film, this marked the first time that Steven Spielberg allowed his movie to be edited digitally. All other previous films had been cut the old-fashioned way: from the actual print, on a Moviola. The Adventures of Tintin must’ve been the gateway for this. That computer animated feature was also cut digitally by necessity. Spielberg and longtime editor Michael Kahn have since gone back to the Moviola as they felt digital editing adversely rushed the creative process.
- This marked the sixth time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year. This time, however, the window between the two was dramatically different. Instead of being separated by 6 months as his previous five “same year combos” had been, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin were released a mere 4 days apart. Tintin opened on December 21st and War Horse opened on Christmas Day, 2011. The other five Summer/December splits were:
- Nearly 100% of War Horse was produced practically, with no digital effects. Only three shots — lasting three seconds each — were digitally enhanced. Otherwise, everything you see is real. Spielberg was quoted as saying, “That’s the thing I’m most proud of. Everything you see on screen really happened.”
- Further emphasizing that point, the film utilized 5800 extras and background talent.
- Jeremy Irvine, the young actor who played Albert in his feature film debut, actually contracted trench foot while shooting the war scenes.
- Eventual Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne was almost cast as Albert.
- The location used for the scene where horses drag German artillery up a hilly terrain was the same location for the opening battle scene of Gladiator.
- Spielberg Oner alert: there is single unbroken take about halfway through that runs nearly 2-minutes. It’s the scene in which German soldiers ransack the home of the French girl and her grandfather.
- For his one battle scene, actor Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Avengers movies) shared an acting note that director Spielberg had given him for one of his close-ups. “Give me your war face,” Spielberg said. “I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So you’re 29, and when you see those machine guns, you’re 9 years old. I want to see the child in you.” Of that direction, Hiddleston said, “I just thought that was one of the most astonishing acting notes I’d ever been given.”