How long has it been since you’ve seen an old-fashioned epic complete with gorgeous scenery, heroic characters and heartfelt messages about war, peace and loyalty on the screen?
If your answer is “Too long!” make your way as soon as you can to the nearest multiplex showing Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” probably on multiple screens!
If, however, your response is “Not long enough,” it’s probably wise to pass on the experience.
As producer and director of this very beautiful motion picture, Spielberg has delivered on all his promises—to make a film on the scale of 1960’s classics like David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago,” Robert Wise’s “The Sound of Music,” and even his own more recent “Saving Private Ryan” crafted to satisfy everyone in the family (excluding very young children, although the PG-13 rating is a bit harsh). Whether you’re looking for a new “Lassie,” or just need a good cry, whether you’re hooked on the beautiful English countryside or on the tragic consequences of World War I, this is the movie to see over the holidays.
Yes, there are some stilted performances and wooden dialog, and the tale of young Albert Narracott and his beloved horse Joey through every major episode of “The War to End All Wars” may stretch your credulity to the breaking point—but hopefully not until after you leave the theater!
In any case, the simplistic qualities of the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis are derived from the 1982 best-seller for young people by Michael Morpurgo on which the film is based. Albert, just a teenager when the story begins, develops an almost anthropomorphic bond with the feisty thoroughbred his stubborn, wastrel father buys on a dare at auction. In fact, since the only animals worth owning on the far from user-friendly farmland of Devon are plow-horses, the Narracotts’ impulsive father Ted (Peter Mullan), long-suffering wife Rosie, (Emily Watson) and earnest young Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) are derided and laughed at by both villagers and their wealthy, villainous landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). If Albert can’t keep his promise to teach Joey how to plow their rocky terrain, the horse will have to be sold for rent money.
In the scene that follows, you will probably learn more about early 20th century plowing than you ever wanted to know, but thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Janusz Kaminski’s magnificent camera work, it is remarkable and heart-wrenching to watch.
When World War I breaks out in 1914, Albert is too young to enlist, but that doesn’t stop Ted from selling Joey to a British cavalry officer, the aristocratic Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who promises the devastated Albert that he will care for the horse and do his best to return him after the war.
From this point on, the film follows Joey through the war and the war through Joey: the horror of early British defeats, respite with a French resistance family, German capture and forced labor, and the remarkable rescue from barbed wire in No-Man’s-Land that is the definitive take-away from the irony of that war—an often uneven conflict more dearly endured and better understood by Europeans than by Americans. German machine guns mow down British cavalry; Joey loses the black stallion that has been his constant companion since enlistment, leaps over trenches through dark, war-torn countryside to deafening sounds and lightning flashes of canon fire.
“What kind of an ‘orse is that?” asks an enlisted man watching Joey from the trenches? The answer (as you’ve no doubt heard in previews): “A damn miraculous horse!”
Many potential viewers in the metropolitan area may shy away from this film because they’ve seen—or plan to see—the Tony-award-winning Lincoln Center stage production also based on Morpurgo’s book. I can assure you that while the story is the same, the experience is completely different. The stage production uses large-scale puppets made of wire and manipulated by humans to represent Joey and the other war horses to astonishing, almost frightening effect. This sophisticated, extremely theatrical device effectively draws attention away from the simple story it tells.
Such theatricality would never work on screen as Spielberg understands. In its place, he gives us all the benefits and pleasures of masterful filmmaking—scenery, settings (like the Narracotts’ beautifully rendered stone cottage), John Williams’ typically emotion-charged score, sound, light and action.
Except for Joey’s, the performances, while adequate, won’t garner any Oscars; the performers don’t have much to work with in the way of dialogue, and star that he is, Joey has none at all!
But Best Pictures don’t always rest on best performances by their actors. “War Horse” is a perfect illustration.
“War Horse” opens in wide release on Christmas Day.