Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (screenplay), Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and Niels Arestrup
In his second movie of 2011 (released only a few days after The Adventures of Tintin), Steven Spielberg has made one of the most quietly beautiful films of the year and his career. War Horse may lack the grand narrative spectacle that follows much of his other work, Tintin included, but its imagery is truly captivating.
From the pensive beginning and ending on the same British farm to the desecrated terrain of World War I battlefields, Spielberg films War Horse with the kind of steady hand that only experience can bring. Instead of embracing new motion capture animation technology like he did with Tintin, here he meticulously recreates explosive battles without using special effects. As if that weren’t enough, he has placed a horse at the center of his story, and it does not talk like it might in an animated film.
War Horse is at its best when it brilliantly uses that horse as a narrative transition tool. Right when it appears that it will accompany its trainer Albert (Jeremy Irvine) onto the war, it is taken away and he is left behind. From there it switches owners rather rapidly, Black Beauty style. This creates a portrait of the war from many different perspectives, though it noticeably skimps on developing the people when the horse is in the hands of the Germans.
Though it ignores the Germans more than any other side, Spielberg does show abuse by the French when the horse finds itself in the care of an old farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his ill granddaughter. The French army storms in not long after these pensive people grow attached to the horses (the main brown horse has a bulky black counterpart through much of it) and takes the animals as well as many of their supplies. While in the army’s care, they are forced to haul artillery, which physically destroys many of the other horses.
In the film’s most exciting sequence, the horse flees across a battlefield away from that hellish segment as John Williams’ score cheers it on. However, it becomes snared in barbed wire and effectively pinned in the mud. After the smoke clears from that battle, both sides look through binoculars and other visual aids and discover it is trapped. One soldier from each side ventures out to free the horse. It is here that the horse’s seemingly God-like power to unite opposing forces emerges.
The horse of Spielberg’s film has an almost mythic power to endure and provoke goodness in those it comes across. It plays out like a grand parable, so the cheesiness in the conclusion almost makes sense. That being said, Spielberg definitely takes more stylistic risks than he does narrative ones. Gone are the jaw-droppingly gory battlefields of Saving Private Ryan and replaced by implied or bloodless killing.
Because what little combat the horse sees is bloodless if still somewhat intense, it shows Spielberg’s substantially greater attachment to the second World War and its atrocities. War Horse brings to mind just how few films there are about World War I. Though its largely the structuring of the screenplay written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis that provokes this, war is spoken of negatively and then takes a back seat.
As the horse plows through insurmountable odds it was preordained to overcome, War Horse becomes harder to admire than its excellent beginnings. Spielberg abandons the narrative structure to flash back to the boy both while he stays behind on the farm and eventually marches off to war. Irvine’s performance is solid even if his character is hopelessly uninteresting and cheesy, though the excellent supporting company of Emily Watson and David Thewlis do not hurt one bit.
Despite those quite substantial speed bumps, War Horse ends up showing Spielberg’s versatility more than anything. The sweeping images of a horse in motion will never cease to be beautiful, and in the end, that is the most important tool at his disposal.