War Horse...a robwrite review
WAR HORSE (4 stars out of 5)
It's not an easy feat to combine a war film and a family film. This movie doesn't completely accomplish that because War Horse is probably too intense at some points for young children, but overall, the film manages to be a touching story about a boy and his horse, while also being a rather grim condemnation of the insanity of war.
Steven Spielberg had his best year in a long time in 2011, with the one-two punch of The Adventures of Tintin and this excellent cinematic adaptation of the play War Horse. From an artistic standpoint, this film is one of the most visually impressive movies to come along in many years, and Speilberg proves that he is still a director of considerable skill, and not just a guy who makes Hollywood blockbusters. War Horse isn't a flawless film but it more than makes up for its inadequecies with a dynamic flair that only a director the calibre of Speilberg could provide.
Lets also give a lot of credit to the horse. 'Finders Key', a former racehorse, is the real star of the film. This isn't his first foray into movies, since he also starred as the eponymous four-legged hero in Seabiscuit (2003). Although there were a dozen 'Stunt horses' who filled in for Finder's Key along the way (and a few times CGI was used instead of a real horse), this horse is still the most talented movie horse since Trigger. If there were an award for Best Non-human Actor in a Major Motion Picture, Finder's Key would have it locked up this year. (There's something impressive about horses on screen. In a movie about a dog, the dog looks cute, but in a movie about a horse, the horse looks majestic.)
The epic storyline begins in England in the years just before the First World War. The plot follows our equine hero from the day of his birth, when he is first spotted by young Albert, who takes to visiting the growing horse over the next few months. When the horse is put up for sale, Joey's father Ted (Peter Mullan) decides impulsively to buy it. Although what the family really needs is a plow horse, Ted is determined to show-up his evil landlord Mr. Lyons (Played by David Thewlis, best known as Prof. Lupin in the Harry Potter films) by outbidding him. The purchase thrills the now teen-aged Albert (Jeremy Irvine) but his mom (Emily Watson) is furious that Ted spent so much money on a 'show horse'. With the family in debt and Mr. Lyons sniffing around for the back rent, it's up to Albert to turn the horse--who he names Joey--into a work horse. Albert and Joey develop a close, loving bond and Joey comes through in the clutch. However, fate is against the family and unforeseen circumstances occur to ensure that Ted can't pay off his debts unless he sells Joey.
World War One has just broken out and the British Cavalry needs horses, so Joey is sold to a kind and noble soldier named Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleson, who played Loki in Thor) who takes Joey to France. Although the Captain is a benign owner to Joey, he doesn't survive long in the war, and Joey is taken into the hands of the Germans. This is the first of several times that poor Joey is passed around from owner to owner; some kind, some cruel. (The scene where the German army is forcing the Horses to pull tanks uphill until they collapse is gruelling to watch.)
The cleverness of the film is how we see different aspects of the war from different points of view, depending upon who owns Joey at the time. We get to see the British side, the German side and even the innocent French civilians caught in the cross-fire. Through it all, Joey shows a Forrest Gump-like knack for surviving and adapting though a variety of difficult circumstances.
Joey is unnaturally intelligent and there are several scenes where Joey puts himself in harms way to save a fellow horse who he has bonded with, because he realizes his hoofed buddy just can't hack it the way Joey can. Joey's human friend and former owner Albert soon gets involved in the war and the whims of fate slowly bring he and Joey closer together but can they find each other amid the madness and total chaos of war?
The best scene in the film (one sure to get the audience's hearts racing) is when Joey makes a sudden dash for freedom on the battlefield. With explosions going on all around him, and soldiers watching with surprise as this horse zooms past them, leaping and running for all he's worth, Joey's desperate and dazzling race to escape Hell is a superb moment and the viewer can't help rooting for him to make it.
Spielberg throws in a few humanistic conceits that don't quite ring true--such as when two enemy soldiers call a truce and unite to save Joey--but the purpose is to show that humanity can still exist, even in a savage warzone. It's a nice thought, however unlikely the scene is.
The battle scenes don't match up to other Spielberg efforts like Saving Private Ryan, but they aren't meant to. This isn't really a war film in the purist scene. World War One is the backdrop to the main story about how an unconquerable spirit--represented here by a horse--can survive anything. The message is that determination, hope, friendship and compassion can win out over the horrors of war.
There are some weaknesses in the film. Irvine makes a dull leading man, and some of the characters are a bit cliched, but that isn't really important, because the horse is the star of the show. Spielberg catches the animal at the right moments, at the perfect angles, to make it appear as if the horse's expression is reacting to outside events. (Give that horse an Oscar!)
War Horse tugs relentlessly at the heart strings and it can be a bit over-sentimentalized at times, but there is such energy, heart and visual artistry to this film, you'll be cheering Joey on.