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.
I know what you’re going to say before I talk about The Help. There have already been a lot of movies about racism and segregation. Yes there have been. Nevertheless The Help is a well-made story about showing a black woman’s point of view on racism from a state most synonymous with segregation: Mississippi.
The movie revolves around three women in particular. The first is Abilene; an African American maid whose latest maid work comes right after the death of her son. The second is Milly; another African American maid who was recently fired from Hilly Hollbrook–Jackson’s white female ringleader–for using a toilet meant only for Hilly’s white family and is only rehired by a white ‘misfit’. The third is Skeeter; a white journalism grad from Ole Miss who is unmarried and wants to make a career for herself in writing but lacks a story.
The setting is Jackson, Mississippi. Segregation is alive and well but is facing abolishment. The black maids have had enough while the white upper class females want to see it kept. Hilly herself wants to enact a passage of a law to make it standard for separate bathrooms for white and colored people. Skeeter is tired of writing a housekeeping column and wants an actual story. She comes across it just after her former maid Constantine, who she always looked up to as a child, is mysteriously gone, Hilly speaks her pro-segregation mind at her ‘clique meetings’ and she encounters Aibilene and Minny. They have quite the story to tell and she learns a lot from what they have to say and what they’ve experienced. Even Milly’s story of her revenge on Hilly with ‘the pie’ makes for some colorful. Nevertheless a book publishing company wants to have the points of view from twelve maids, not two. It’s a struggle for Skeeter as she becomes more of a misfit in Hilly’s clique for being unmarried and being opposed to segregation and because of state law: Mississippi law can imprison writers and interviewees for cross-race writing. It isn’t until the shooting death of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers that Skeeter finally gets her twelve to interview, however giving them pseudonyms to protect their identity. The result is the novel finally being made and boy does it stir up a lot of debate and reactions.
One thing about the ending is that a lot is accomplished and many good things come out of it. Despite positive changes, some bad things still remain and the movie doesn’t end on a completely positive note. The ending takes a turn for a different more negative ending. Nevertheless it did so on the right note. It reminds us that even after segregation was ended for real in the Southern States, some negative aspects of racism still remained and some changes didn’t go as far as it should have.
There have been movies about racism in the past and conquering racism but hardly has there ever been such where it’s on the basis of the black maids for white families. It touches on a common notion. The white children were raised and cared for by the African American maids and many of the children would look up to them as a mother figure. As most of those white children grew up as adults, they would then go on to the hiring and firing of them. They would adopt the cruelness to the maids their own parents had. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the civil rights movements and around the time Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, is where segregation is possibly the most alive and well. The story features Skeeter, an aspiring writer who’s looking for a story and sees one. Remembering how Constantine was like a mother to her and wondering whatever happened to her, she hasn’t developed the hardness of heart her girlfriends had developed over the years. It is with her willingness to see the maids’ side and write about it that made her want to set the record straight. That helps to create the intrigue of the story.
One of the interesting themes in the movie is oddly enough its use of toilets. Many people including myself still look at toilets as something taboo but in recent decades, many people and many creative artists have defied this taboo and become more public about it and even incorporated it into art. In this film, it plays a significant role because as we remember, toilets were a part of the days segregation: separate ones for whites and colored. The Help presents toilets in many different references. It is Aibilene’s toilet teaching where she shows she’s a better mother to Mae Mobley Leefolt than Mrs. Leefolt is. It is where Minny uses a toilet for white people only in Hilly’s house that gets her fired. It’s where Hilly strongly believes in segregated bathrooms to the point to where she’s willing to take her plea to the surgeon general. It’s also the prank Skeeter uses to pull on Hilly for her lobbying. As taboo as it is, there’s no denying the significance of toilets in the movie.
One thing about the movie The Help is that it’s based on a novel that is complete fiction. That fact might make some question the triumphant moments in the movie. Question it all you want. One thing you can’t deny is that despite it being fiction, there are a lot of hard truths experienced by the African Americans in Mississippi that are portrayed very well and will make you think. Seeing how Hilly treats her maids meanly to the point of firing them instantly and even getting them arrested makes you think how many others were as mean as Hilly. That scene where Minny is with her eldest daughter in a maid’s uniform about to board the bus can also disturb you. Imagine a future that limited. Also that scene where Charlotte told how and why she fired Constantine. How many times do you think that has happened in the past? So the novel may not be based on a true story but possibly based on a thousand true stories.
The directing from Tate Taylor was top notch. He did an excellent job of directing the movie and writing the storyline well. The acting however is what made the movie most. The standout without a doubt was Viola Davis. Her performance of Aibilene was the glue of the movie and had the most to tell. Her acting was full of believability from start to finish. Octavia Spencer was the top scene-stealer as Minny. She was able to make for an excellent turn with adding elements of humor to her role. Emma Stone delivered possibly the best performance of her career. Already people are saying she’s the next big thing. Her performance of Skeeter demonstrates she can also make a good actress of herself. Also a standout is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her character acting was so excellent, she will easily make you hate Hilly.
Overall, The Help is a very excellent movie revealing a harsh reality of 60’s Southern racism. Some say it’s not as harsh of a depiction as it should be. Nevertheless we shouldn’t forget that even in racism situations that aren’t as harsh, the hurt can still be felt and the picture can have an ugliness of its own.