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'War Horse': Will the Cinematic Epic Suffer the Same Fate as the Venerable War Horse?

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse celebrates the story of Joey, a miraculous horse who brings out the humanity in those he meets. The director also exalts the art of old-fashioned filmmaking and helps audiences understand the complexity of making an epic.

War Horse

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis
Distributor: Touchstone / Disney
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2012-04-03

Oscar’s most recent Best Picture winner, The Artist, is an old-fashioned story of love and redemption, returning audiences to an earlier era of filmmaking. So is Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a beautifully made film that earned many nominations but received far fewer awards.

That's a shame, because the two have a great deal in common. The Artist portrays an early 20th-century world in black and white, whereas War Horse prefers to contrast a vibrantly colorful pre-World War I landscape with the bleak grays of No Man’s Land after the color has bled away. Like The Artist’s lead character, George Valentin, titular war horse Joey gives an emotional performance without words, one that leaves no doubt about his courage, loyalty, and ability to survive adversity.

Although War Horse may not have been the best film of 2011 according to Academy voters, it is among the best. It celebrates not only the war horse but the fading era of the filmed epic. Its arrival on Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy allows a wider audience to be entertained by Spielberg (whose storytelling is more along the lines of emotion-laden ET than the graphic detail of Saving Private Ryan), and the extra features explain how the two-and-a-half-hour War Horse is connected to the cinematic epics of prior decades.

War Horse, shot on 35mm film (an old-fashioned way to make a movie), fills the screen with sweeping vistas of the English countryside, soaring orchestrations, and a simple story that defines the humanity of friends and foes as they come to know Joey. The plot is basic: Boy meets horse. Boy loves horse. Boy loses horse but goes to war to find and bring him home.

However, the film’s layers elevate this linear structure to epic status. Farm horse Joey develops a lifelong bond with Albert Narracott (intriguing newcomer Jeremy Irvine), the boy who cares for and trains him. When the first world war breaks out, Joey is sold to the cavalry, but a tearful Albert promises they will be reunited. Thus begins a chain of events that introduces Joey, and the audience, to characters with very different perspectives of the war.

Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) has an artist’s soul, and he sketches Joey during the almost lighthearted days of training shortly before they gallop headlong into the realities of war. During this time, Joey meets Topthorn, the horse who becomes his best friend and endures much of the war with him. This friendship is as important as any other relationship in the film, whether between humans or between Joey and his many “owners” throughout the war.

Soon the officer’s mount becomes, for two German brothers, a quick way to escape the front. The young soldiers only want to return home, but their fate had been sealed when they enlisted. However, they are unknowingly kind to Joey—they lead him to a young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her doting grandfather (Niels Arestrup), who provide a glorious respite from battle. Nevertheless, the battlefield comes to Joey, and he soon is entrenched in the mud as he struggles alongside the German army.

Caught in No Man’s Land at the low point in his life, Joey manages to bring together—if only briefly—British and German soldiers. Of course, this is a Spielberg film, and audiences know that Joey will survive to return to England. What makes this film “epic” is Joey’s, and the audience’s, emotional journey. In the bonus features, the director emphasizes that War Horse, despite its title, is not a story about war. Instead war is the catalyst for transformation and the backdrop for characters to discover the best within themselves.

War Horse is also a study in contrasts that help audiences see the relationship between the small, quiet, or intimate and the grandiose, explosive, or global; between the individual and the larger world; between horses and humans. The landscapes often dwarf the people. As actor and filmmaker Peter Mullan (who plays Albert’s father, Ted) says in a “making of” segment, creating this sense of scale within a frame shows that people are not as important in the grand scheme of life as they may think. They (and we) must share the world with others (horses included) and cannot control everything.

The soundtrack, too, offers musical contrasts. A John Williams score simply requires rich orchestrations and sentimental melodies that tug heartstrings or pull audiences into the action. Williams, however, also simplifies the horse-and-boy story with a minimalist piano solo that lovingly accompanies Spielberg’s visual of a lone rider on horseback in silhouette against a setting sun. War Horse puts people of every rank or class into perspective and illustrates that they are only a small, if individually important, part of a much bigger picture.

The actors are fine in the big scenes, but small moments often define them best. When Albert fails to understand his blustery, often drink-sodden father, Rose (Emily Watson) shows her son the mice-chewed war medals her husband abandoned in the barn. Ted is more than a failing farmer; he's a war hero. Watson beautifully conveys Rose’s quiet pride and difficult role as father-son interpreter. One of Mullan’s best scenes includes no dialogue as father and son shake hands and embrace, united through their common knowledge of the battlefield. In another family, Arestrup’s pitch-perfect performance captures both the fierce protectiveness and resigned grief of an old man trying to shield his beloved granddaughter from the horrors of war.

As the cavalry heads toward the front, Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the epitome of a British officer, no nonsense and confident in command. Leading the charge into battle, however, he defines horrified as he realizes far too late the extent to which he underestimated the German army. Cumberbatch subtly shifts his expression from stern, single-minded focus to sickened comprehension. Within fleeting seconds on film, the actor encapsulates the moment when warfare irrevocably changed.

The British cavalry charge originating in a golden wheat field is one of the film’s visual highlights and a well-documented segment among the many excellent bonuses in the four-disc Blu-ray/DVD set. Cameras covering the cinematic journey of War Horse show how the monumental charge was filmed. The equine safety expert comments on the horses’ excitement to be running as a herd. The assistant director’s call for action takes the audience behind the scenes as riders and horses surge forward. Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls) recalls Spielberg’s acting note to “de-age” himself about 20 years as he comes to grips with his fate. The resulting close-up on Hiddleston’s boyish face intensifies the audience’s reaction to this poignant scene.

Cumberbatch confides that he was nervous when the charge was first filmed, then giddy with excitement during the second take, and almost moved to tears by the third. These types of commentaries—from actors, extras, cinematographer, director, and myriad other specialists—enhance the bonus features, which are often mini-movies themselves. Whether chairing a roundtable discussion with his creative team, explaining how and why a scene was filmed, or thanking the troops (his army of extras, many who played numerous roles as both British and German soldiers), Spielberg emphasizes that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and War Horse could only be brought to screen because of everyone’s creativity and dedication.

The four discs document War Horse’s transition from book to stage to screen and include an interview with the novel’s author, Michael Morpurgo. They present an extra’s point of view as well as technical information about editing the film and developing the soundtrack. Almost every aspect of filmmaking is covered among the many bonus features, but the best (and longest) is A Filmmaking Journey, running a little more than an hour. Interviews with people who work behind the scenes on set design, armor, costumes, make-up, and art illustrate the crews’ attention to detail and production excellence. Of course, the actors and director analyze characters and scenes, but the Blu-ray/DVD extras explain the daily work as well as the artistry of making as complex a film as War Horse.

Although the film is best watched on a large screen, the number and quality of disc features helps audiences see more details and understand why scenes work well, thus enhancing the at-home viewing experience. War Horse may not have received a Best Picture Oscar, but it was named AFI’s Movie of the Year and earned cinematographer Janusz Kaminski the Critics Choice and Satellite awards for Best Cinematography. The bonus features highlight the reasons why.

Some viewers have criticized Spielberg’s choices of ending the film with music instead of dialogue, long shots of characters silhouetted against an unrelenting orange-red sky, and a minimalist farm set that seems more appropriate to a West End stage. In the film’s final moments, however, I see tributes to both Morpurgo’s novel, which tells the story from Joey’s point of view, and to the West End/Broadway play in which rich characterization takes precedence over elaborate set dressing. As Joey looks off into the distance, the sun sets on the venerable war horse.

After watching this old-fashioned epic that commemorates the passing of an era, I can only hope that the sun is not yet setting on films like War Horse.


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