War Horse is the latest live-action drama by Steven Spielberg. It was originally a children’s story written in 1982 and later adapted into a stage play which debuted on Broadway in 2011 and even won a lot of Tonys. Now War Horse comes to the big screen and it’s only right that Steven Spielberg be the one to create it into an epic movie.
The film opens as young Devon boy Albert Naracott watches the birth of thoroughbred colt and watches him grow up. The colt would become his, but at a cost to the family. The father Ted wins him at an auction at an enormously high 40 guineas, thanks to his intent to spite his landlord. The high price would cause him to miss his rent and he would have to pay by autumn. That’s not an easy thing for Ted as he has an injured leg from the Boer War for which he’s not proud of and drinks to hide his guilt. He even hides his medals away.
Meanwhile Albert grows a friendship out of the horse whom he names ‘Joey’. Each time Ted threatens to shoot the horse, Albert tries to prove Joey is worthy of staying. Albert trains Joey into plowing the farm and succeeds in having it all plowed in a single day. However the farm fails because of heavy rain and Ted sells Joey to an Army Captain as World War I has just started. This breaks Albert’s heart and he even tries to enlist, even though he’s underage. However Captain Nicholls ensures Albert Joey will be fine and will make it home. Albert even ties his father’s war pennant to Joey’s bridle.
Joey is trained for battle and faces his first battle with Nicholls on top against the Germans. The Germans however have the latest artillery which are capable not only of killing horses from far away but making horses now useless in war battle. Nicholls is killed in battle but Joey is one of few horses to survive, only to be captured by the Germans and used as an ambulance horse along with Topthorn, a black horse whom was trained by the British. Joey and Topthorn become friends. The two horses then become owned by two young German brothers who plan to desert the army and flee to Italy. Even though they hide themselves and the horses in a French windmill, the brothers are discovered by the German soldiers and executed by firing squad.
The two horses are discovered by a French farm girl named Emilie, an orphaned girl who has brittle bones and lives with her grandfather. They soon become hers and she’s able to hide them successfully after German soldiers raid their house and take their food. She finally rides Joey on her birthday only to have the horse stolen by German soldiers. The horses are then put to the task of pulling heavy artillery. Joey and Topthorn are the only two pulling horses to survive this.
Meanwhile it’s 1918 and Albert is now a soldier for Britain. He and his allies are wounded by a mustard gas explosion in German trenches. Joey and Topthorn are still alive after years of brutal labor by the Germans but Topthorn can’t take it anymore and dies. Soon after, Joey tries to flee and advancing tank only to end up tangled in barbed wire and fall down in the mud. A British and German soldier clip off the wires together and the British soldier wins possession of Joey in a coin-toss. While Albert is recovering from his gas attack, he learns the story of the miracle horse. Meanwhile Joey is to be put down because he is too injured. Just before he’s to be shot, Joey responds to an ‘owl call’ from Albert. Albert and Joey are back together again but it doesn’t end there as there is still the auctioning of the war horses. What happens after is something for you to see for yourself.
One thing about the movie is that this, like a lot of epic films, does not have that stellar of a script or of acting. The script is good in how it takes one through the adventure from one place to the next with its various twists and turns, but nothing really deep. There are even times in which it comes off as fluffy as a movie-of-the-week script. The acting is flawless but nothing of any real challenge either. There was no real actor that stood out with Emily Watson being the top billed actor of the film and newcomer Jeremy Irvine being the lead human protagonist. The acting roles are well-played but often end up as cardboard as your typical acting in an epic movie.
The lead role and the protagonist in the movie is actually Joey the Horse. The story may mainly be about Albert trying to get Joey back to Devon but it’s Joey’s adventure and trials of it all which is what the story is all about. He goes from being born to Albert’s best friend to a horse in battle for Britain to befriending another war horse named Topthorn to a horse on the German side to being a horse of a French farm family to being back with the German side to being found stuck in barbed wire to being reunited with Albert. I may have knocked the script a while back in my review but I have to say one of the best attributes of the script is that it was able to make Joey into a horse with feelings without coming across as cheesy. That scene where Joey says his last goodbye to the deceased Topthorn didn’t come across as cheesy or manipulative. Also the movie ends with some unexpected twists and turns. Just when you think Albert and Joey are finally reunited, it doesn’t guarantee Albert will be taking him back to Devon. Interesting note is that the scriptwriters worked with Michael Morpurgo, author of the novel, to get the right adaptation of the movie.
Although the script and the acting are not the best attributes of the movie, the cinematography, set design and the accompanying score are the best technical qualities. Spielberg picked out some of the best and most appropriate areas of England for filming this movie, including Devon for the countryside and town scenes, Hampshire for cavalry scenes and an airfield in Surrey for the battle scenes. Janusz Kaminski did an excellent job of cinematography. His cinematography duties for this movie were complex as he had to both capture the grittiness of war for the battle scenes and capture the glamor and beauty of the countryside for the various country scenes. Plus you can’t go wrong when you have John Williams to compose your movie’s score.
However the best overall attribute is its ability to capture battles of World War I. Steven Spielberg is already known for his movies that depict wars and it only seemed right that he should be the one to recreate World War I in this movie. Here, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s able to recreate everything from the horse battles to the ground artillery to the trenches of the World War I battles to the first tanks. He also shows the grittiness of war too with the laying of the dead horses in battle to the execution of boys not yet adults to the rats in the trenches to the explosion of mustard gas bombs. Grittiness of war is something Spielberg doesn’t avoid and he doesn’t avoid it here. It’s also interesting noting the horse statistics of World War I that Morpurgo researched to create the War Horse novel. It is believed that there were 10 million horse deaths during the whole war. Of the one million horses sent from the UK to battle, only slightly more than 60,000 returned alive. The rest were killed in battle or slaughtered in France for meat. So War Horse is quite a story of survival.
War Horse may not deserve to win Best Picture as its acting performances, direction and script lack the winning edge but it’s a very good movie on its own. It’s a good family drama for families with older children. I commend Steven Spielberg for making the adaptation of this children’s novel possible on the big screen.