The exploitation of animals for our own gain has been around for thousands of years, be it as simple as having a pet, or holding sway over vast numbers of animals culling their milk, fur or meat. Indeed it is this reliance on livestock that changed the very nature of human existence and created civilisation as we know it; no longer hunter/gatherer but farmer. Of all the animals that we humans have dominated it is perhaps the horse that is the most versatile. Its very nature means it is a very adaptable creature, able to hold a rider, pull a carriage or more, race for entertainment or even hold a line in the battlefield. It is a testament to horses adaptability (or might that be man’s domination of it) that is it still used today in much the same way as it has been over the course of history. Mounted police are a very imposing sight, imagine then many hundreds of the same fully armed lined up on a battlefield. For many hundreds of years the greatest military victories were won on the might of the cavalry, cutting huge swathes through battle lines crushing all under foot. Such was the reliance of the horse that even up until 1914 the mounted military were seen as an integral part of the army – an unbelievable state of affairs that showed the ignorance of the military to rely on past tactics in a clearly changing world and advancing technology, that saw disastrous decisions to pit horse against machine gun and drew the horrific statistic of less than six percent of one million horses sent abroad left alive after the Great War. Tonight’s feature uses this as a backdrop to explore the unique relationship forged between horse and man, particularly that of new born foal and his first trainer. Produced with typically Spielbergian values and imbued with empathy and emotion, War Horse, lost out to this year’s ‘Best Picture Oscar’ to The Artist but is no less worthy of your consideration.
During the course of this review I will be taking quite an in-depth look at the film, book and play; as such there are what some might call spoilers inherent throughout, however I will not be giving away any significant plot details, well nothing that cannot be gleamed from the trailer or Blu-ray case - you have been warned.
War Horse is based on a children’s book of the same name by author Michael Morpurgo who drew his inspiration from talking to war veterans in his home town in Devon. Much of the book is based on these conversations, but its unique selling point is telling the story through the eyes of the horse, Joey, and the relationships he makes, both human and equestrian, during his life. Since such a narrative is near impossible to translate into a film, screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis actually took their lead from the West End play adaptation of the book which, whilst removing the ‘narration’ of the horse, still follows the same basic structure, and storyline, very closely. There are a number of changes made for the film however, the most significant of which is that of Albert Narracott’s enlistment into the army, something that never happened in the book, a change that, whilst it allows Spielberg to explore the human horror of fighting in the trenches, diminishes Albert’s unwavering determination to find his beloved horse, something that the film goes to great pains to promote in the first act. Having said that Spielberg does surround himself with familiar talent, that of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, and uses all of his familiar tricks to draw you into a world of the not too distant past. Let us, then, saddle up, and ride into tonight’s feature; War Horse.
The film opens over the rugged and sprawling hillsides of Devon’s rural pasturelands, a landscape filled with a natural beauty, so much so that the filmmakers themselves fell in love with the wide open expanses and resolved to fill as much of the frame as they could with its majestic beauty. Into this scenery is born a thoroughbred foal, ruddy brown in colour with four white socks and a white diamond upon his forehead. Watching this scene unfold is Albert Narracott, a farmer’s son whose fortune and future will be tied up with the newborn horse. Albert’s father, Ted, is a Boer War veteran, awarded medals for valour, he is deeply scarred both mentally and physically, refusing to talk about his experiences, refusing to be proud for serving his country and walking with a pronounced limp, he is nevertheless headstrong and defiant, at times to the detriment to his (and his families) well being, though it is this trait that catapults the story along. Refusing to be outbid by his landlord, Ted buys over the odds for a thoroughbred horse, when he really needs a plough horse for his fields, and that horse is, of course, the foal from the beginning of the film. Trudging home, drunk, to face the music, Albert jumps to the defence of the horse (something that he will often do) and the family unit, stronger together than apart, resolve to try and make the best of what is, in reality, a huge and desperate gamble that their very livelihood and home depend on.
The part of Albert, after an exhaustive search, finally went to the then unknown, apart from a TV series credit, Jeremy Irvine who is unashamedly boyish in nature and shows the plucky charm needed to imbue his character with the warmth and resolve needed to convey empathy and love for a horse against all logical reason. He is loyal to his family, but puts the horse first, standing in the line of fire to protect him, pleading that with his training Joey (Albert named him this) will indeed allow them to prosper. The training montage is a fine one, filled with Spielbergian syrup to endear the pair to us. Albert trains the horse to come to his whistle, rides him, grooms him and builds a bond of trust that can never be broken; so much so that a thoroughbred horse, for the first time, takes a plough’s harness, and, against the odds, and with the whole village watching, during a pitch storm, ploughs a rough, stony field that a full on plough horse would have struggled to complete. Of course, the scene is full of cinematic vigour, but it does serve one purpose – that of showing us that Joey is no ordinary stallion; loyal, strong and utterly determined are just some of his traits and he will need all of them when the world falls into chaos and despair.
Ted, on the other hand, is brought to life by wonderful character actor Peter Mullan. Wearing the gruff and un-kept nature of a man who has seen too much he looks and acts very much like Joseph in Tyrannosaur, only without the mean streak; he is a beaten man, but one that at his core is not ready to roll over and die, and one who is ready and willing, despite being against his better intentions, to make the difficult choices and stand by those choices. When a storm nearly ruins his harvest he is forced to sell Joey to the army just to have enough money to keep his home – it is a decision that will have far reaching consequences – and this is, perhaps, one of the most difficult scenes to watch; anyone who has been in dire straits will recognise the bitter strength drawn from necessity, with no desire to hurt those he loves but fate having forced his hand there simply is no choice and a broken man stoops lower to sacrifice the only thing he has for the sake of love. Conversely Albert’s pleading with Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, Loki himself) comes off as a spoilt child wining about losing his pet, which, whilst technically correct and in terms of the book very accurate, Albert’s character in the film is that much older and thus it doesn’t quite fit. The scene is saved, though, by Hiddleston’s stoic and impassioned speech that he will look after Joey and return him unscathed giving his word, man to man and as an officer. If only he know.
Once Joey is in the service of the army his journey truly begins. Capt. Nicholls is as good as his word will dictate, in that he cares for Joey as his own, even boasting about him to his commanding officer, himself the proud owner of a huge black stallion called Topthorn. These two horses form a very close bond during the many months training before deployment to France, even racing each other with, not surprisingly, Joey having the bigger heart despite the smaller stature and winning the day (in a scene not included in the book and shown to demonstrate both the camaraderie of the horses and to display official military tactics that were completely outdated for this new machine gun orientated warfare). It is during this second act that Spielberg lays on thickest his most sentimental filmmaking to engross us into the horror of war and the eternal bond of friendship. Scenes such as the futile cavalry’s charge against the machine gun fire are purely constructed to bring us to the brink of joy with our ‘side’ galloping to victory only to dash our hopes and bring us crashing down to hell with the extermination of horse and man – never shown graphically, of course, muzzle fire interspersed with rider-less horses and maimed survivors, both man and beast. The scene is then followed up by the capture of our intrepid equestrians only to show motor vehicles crushing horse collars into the mud to further hammer home the allegory.
Things do indeed look bleak for our two horses, but fortune, once again, plays a winning hand; it seems that everyone that comes into contact with these magnificent beasts is taken with them and tries, against better judgement, to save them from horror. A German foot soldier persuades his commander to spare the horses to pull ambulances (a true fact) and when his younger brother is forced to the front line, deserts with him using the horses as a means to escape. These scenes allow us to see the other ‘side’ of the war, the Germans, and Spielberg takes the bold decision not to paint them black (not yet) but instead as men in a doomed situation trying to make the best of worsening circumstances. Brother’s loyalty is tested and wins out over blindly obeying orders; a decision that is shown, rather graphically, to have disastrous consequences for the brothers, but fortuitous for our horses. Held up in a windmill belonging to a French jam maker, the horses are discovered by his granddaughter Emilie. Emilie is painted as a wide eyed and keen girl, full of wonder but not one who is blind to the coming war. Orphaned and sick with a bone rotting disease she is totally reliant on her doting grandfather, but has a wilful streak and when she finds the horses persuades her grandfather, against his better judgment, to keep and even hide them from the encroaching German army, hell bent on taking everything they can to fuel their war machine.
Having tickled us with some of the horrors of war, Spielberg takes a sidestep to show us how life can still be idyllic, even if there are deep booming guns off in the distance as a gentle reminder. These scenes are meant to make a lasting impression on the audience (for reasons that will become clear later in the film) but for some reason there never seems to be that depth of feeling associated with them. Despite spending some decent time with the characters, and having the prerequisite heartbreak moment, you never truly feel for their plight. Indeed the whole film suffers from this aspect. It is as if Spielberg was conscious of the fact that this film was meant to be a ‘weepy’ and tried really hard to instil that emotion into you. But the tricks fail to really deliver this time – the mood is correct, the lighting gorgeous, the framing superlative and the music is stirring, but the whole lacks that spark to fully draw you in. It's probably due to the fact that we've seen all these tricks before and therefore, even if only subconsciously remembering them, we aren't as fully taken in this time. When the horses are captured a second time things do not turn out quite so well, and the German evil is turned up a notch with lines such as “They will pull until they are dead, or the war ends” once again pulling at your heart. Indeed to further push this point we witness Joey ‘protecting’ Topthorn by taking his place in the line to draw the Big Guns, with a pull back to show heaps of dead horse bodies. The scene does work well, but it is another layer on top of the emotion to try and work its way under your skin.
The film moves forward in time three years and makes, as mentioned earlier, its furthest departure from the source novel. Albert has enlisted in the army, on the pretence of finding Joey, along with his close friend Andrew and rival David Lyons. This gives the film time to show the reality of trench warfare as we arrive while the troops prepare to go over the top. We’re in 12-certificate category so Spielberg shies away from the pure filth and terror experienced by all who were there. Oh, the trenches and set dressing is suitably nasty, but the terror of the soldiers is kept to a minimum and the gritty realism of going over the top is not even half of that experienced by his incredibly powerful opening to Saving Private Ryan. But War Horse is not that type of film; the makers want a ‘feel good’ ‘teary’ piece not a gritty realistic, blood ‘n guts epitaph of the horrors of war. So whilst I understand that sentiment, I personally don’t feel the film went far enough. Indeed this whole section was crafted to give a ‘human’ factor to the bloodshed since we have already spent time with these characters. Thus when they risk life and limb in no-man’s land our hearts are in our mouths and when tragedy strikes for everyone involved the reality of the numbers of men that were killed on the field starts to become apparent.
Incredibly our two horses are still alive and pulling, though life is at a very low ebb for Topthorn. As has been the case for much of the film, their handler has a huge affection for them, and pleads with higher officers to let them rest, but with the war going so badly for the Germans at this point there is to be no respite for anyone, man nor beast. This leads to the most famous scene of the film, shown in the trailer, of Joey galloping through the trenches and into no-man’s land. I won’t say what prompted this run, suffice to say that it is another tear jerking moment followed up by more anvil type allegory; though this time I can forgive it, as William’s score rises to such a crescendo and the visuals are so splendid that you are simply swept along with the ride and, just like Joey, come crashing to a halt when there is nowhere else to run. The rescue of Joey from no-man’s land, taken from the book, is clearly inspired by the ‘Christmas truce of 1914’ whereby troops from opposing forces took part in an unofficial cease-fire, exchanged pleasantries, gifts and even enjoyed a game of football. The book and film recreate this humane moment with an English and a German soldier joining forces to cut Joey from the barbed wire and have some jolly good banter to boot, “You speak good English,” “I speak English well, yes,” and is, perhaps, the most moving scene for the horse.
Even after the rescue life for the plucky stallion is not cut and dried, back on the ‘winning’ side he may be, but is it possible to find Albert, and even if that needle in a haystack is possible, what of the army stipulations that officers horses can go with them, but all others, despite protests of ownership, have to go to auction where anybody is entitled to buy them, even French jam makers ...
There is no doubt Steven Spielberg is an accomplished filmmaker and when he surrounds himself with equally talented craftsmen and people that he has worked with well in the past then the net result is going to be nothing less than spectacular. And, indeed, War Horse has some spectacular moments showcasing Spielberg at his very best. But the film, like the book and the play before it, also comes with a reputation, and it is a reputation that the director plays right into. It is meant to be a ‘weepy’ ‘feel good’ film. And as such, he tries too hard to engage your feelings, and at that point you end up feeling very little. Which is a crying shame because the book and play truly are weepy affairs. And perhaps even more damningly the film has that ‘made for Oscar’s night’ feel to it. The majestic camera moves the sweeping score, the feel good sentimentality are all there and ten years ago this would have swept the board; as it is the film fails to capitalise on the premise it so wilfully pits towards you. That is not to say it is not an engrossing film, it surely is, but it fails to deliver on its promise to any significant degree. Its many award nominations, but very few wins, testify to the fact that whist it is a terrific watch, it is not the great film that many hoped it would be.
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