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Movie Review: War Horse

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Grand. Sweeping. Epic. These are all words used to probably describe something a little more old fashioned than what we’re used to these days. Even more so when it comes to Steven Spielberg lately, who actually hasn’t even released a film in four years. While his last feature may have been rather polarizing (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), he’s taken a lot of heat over the last few years and has laid claim to a new Hollywood catch phrase called “nuking the fridge.”

Back in the old days of the true Hollywood epics (Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, etc.) these adjectives were heard on a regular basis. Today they’re nearly unheard of. Sometimes something may seem epic when really it’s just getting confused with being way too long. Leave it to Spielberg to harken back to both the glory days of old fashioned cinema, along with his own unique vision. While he may seem more caught up in the sci-fi of technology as of late (War of the Worlds, Minority Report, A. I.) “The Beard” is back with his big screen adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play of War Horse.

Originally a children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo, it was adapted as a stage play by Nick Stafford. Performed with puppets, which only brings to mind The Lion King, I’m sure it’s a rather magnificently interesting presentation. I think the best way to see the material truly brought to life would be through the film where you can get up close and personal with Joey. Joey is of course the title horse who is born in 1914.

As a thoroughbred, Joey is drunkenly bought at auction by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) against everyone else’s good graces for his farm. We are told thoroughbreds do not make for good use on a farm. Joey also, before, was being eyed by Ted’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), out in the wild. Now that Ted has spent all of his rent money on Joey, his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) gives Ted until the autumn to come up with the rest. Albert assures Lyons that he can break Joey and they will plow their field to harvest turnips. After the whole town shows up to see if Albert can really break Joey, it takes a fluke rainstorm to show everyone what Joey can do.

After yet another rainstorm ruins their crops, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Army as England is on the verge of war with Germany and he needs to make good on his rent. Albert tries to enlist but is too young. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, Thor), however, assures Albert that Joey will be taken under his own wing as his personal horse. After Joey is taken off to join the ranks, where Joey strikes up a bromance with Topthorn, Albert is left to farming wondering if he’ll ever see Joey again.

Going into War Horse, I’ll admit that I had no idea that the story was actually about Joey. And let me tell you, the film really wouldn’t work any other way. Oh sure, they could have used it as a way to intertwine two connected stories between Albert and Joey, but the film is also about war to a large extent. And since Albert isn’t old enough to fight for country yet, it’s Joey who is taken off to fight the good fight. This is when you realize that we are following Joey’s war torn trials and tribulations. Even if it means that anyone connected to the horse through the war seems bound for death.

Screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis (The Boat That Rocked, Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) have provided Spielberg with a screenplay of old school proportions. Even if this is Spielberg’s first foray into digital editing, Michael Kahn is still in tow, who’s been along for the ride on every Spielberg venture since all the way back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While Spielberg may have used various cinematographers for his earlier work, Janusz Kaminski has been behind the lens ever since Schindler’s List. While some may hate the blooming whites or washed out look of most of their films, Kaminski finally makes things look like an older Spielberg film with a more natural, if not sometimes more digital, appearance.

Special consideration goes out to the cast who of course give their all. I mean, who wouldn’t when you’re in a Spielberg film, right? Especially Jeremy Irvine, making his film debut. But as great as Irvine is, it’s the horse, or horses, playing the part of Joey who really steal the show. Films about animals tend to get taken over by the human story (think Seabiscuit, Secretariat), but here we get to really see Joey’s story come to life and get a great animal performance. Sometimes I think animals give far better performances than humans anyway. When it comes to horses and dogs, they really take the cake as you can generally tell what they may be thinking. And in the case of War Horse it’s a damn good thing, otherwise, it’d just be Saving Private Ryan’s Stallion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that with Spielberg at the reigns.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks SKG

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About Cinenerd

A Utah based writer, born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT for better and worse. Cinenerd has had an obsession with film his entire life, finally able to write about them since 2009, and the only thing he loves more are his wife and their two wiener dogs (Beatrix Kiddo and Pixar Animation). He is accredited with the Sundance Film Festival and a member of the Utah Film Critics Association.
  • m. finnell

    I just saw “War Horse” and loved every minute of it. The scenery was beautiful and breathtaking, the actors were great and Joey was magnificent. Two and a half hours of pleasure!

  • M .R.

    The most amazing movie.Filmed in the best place on earth.All the characters expressed true emotions of those who would have actually lived through & overcome the challenges to survive in “lean” times. Steven Speilberg’s research for this movie has reminded us of how important Dorothy Brooke’s work & legacy in Egypt was & is today.The War Horse is truely a magnificent & inspirering story. The bonding relationship between Joey a thoroughbreed horse & Albert a country boy from Devonshire
    with a spot on dielect touches your soul. I highly recomend seeing this epic movie.
    This film will receive every award available.

  • Jim West

    Great movie of WW1. enjoyed every part of it.

  • DF

    Though it started out rather paltry, this year in film has redeemed itself in the last six months, seemingly focusing much more on narration as opposed to visual stimulation. War Horse, The Artist, etc., for the most part, remind us why we go to movies.

  • Ziva..K….

    WAR HORSE,was difficult to watch at times..It was too graphic in the plight of the horses.Would have been a better movie without so much saddness for Joey…not an animal lovers movie..at all…….but war is graphic..so should have known……

  • Andy Wilson

    What an asshole how dare he make a statement that ENGLAND is at war when the whole of the British people,scots irish,welsh ndEnglish fought this war.Once again a statement from a prick who only sees Britain as England

  • Nancy

    One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. If you know anything at all about horses, you will find it so unbelievable that is is ridiculous.

  • irish barry

    biggest lod of shit i ever. seen ther are better movies than that shit and there not up for awards a race hoarse pulling a plough to many mistakes.the hole movie is a mistake.