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