by Sam Juliano
The lush countryside settings recall the poetical works of William Wordsworth and the novels of Thomas Hardy, but the harrowing war scenes appear overseen by the spectre of Erich Maria Remarque. Steven Spielberg, seemingly mindful of the epic grandeur of David Lean’s epics, -with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon a possible visual inspiration for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski- has expanded the scope of Michael Morpego’s novel and the acclaimed Tony award-winning Broadway stage play imported from London with a ‘bigger is better’ philosophy that miraculously retains the emotional intimacy that made the work’s previous incaranations so unbearably poignant. War Horse is a singular triumph even for a director who’s crossed the finish line ahead of his competitors more times than most.
In a plot design that recalls the central deceit in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, the film follows the exploits of a horse named Joey, who is won in auction by an impoverished farmer, Ted Narracott for an outlandish thirty guineas, even though the part-thoroughbred colt is useless as a plough horse. Narracott, who in large measure was out to spite his landlord, who was eying the horse, immediately lands the scorn of his wife Rose, who sees only the folly in his gamut, but his son Albert has been smitten with the creature ever since it was born on a neighboring property. After Joey is eventually trained to plough and saves the farm from closure, Albert enjoys some moments of fleeting idylic bliss, (a honking goose provides some nice comic relief) until the reality of the First World War strips him of the animal he adores, and sets his mind on a quest of re-discovery. Joey is sold to a noble, but ill-fated calvery officer named Captain Nichols, who tells the tearful Albert he will guard the horse with his life and return it at war’s end. Albert ties his father’s ‘Boer War’ flag to Joey’s bridle, after he is told he’s too young to enlist. Physically endowed with perfect bone structure and unique body marks (a star-splashed head and white-socked hooves) the horse deeply affects the lives of all he encounters. When Nichols is killed in a counter-attack ambush, the horse falls into the hands of a French farmer and his physically compromised but feisty granddaughter, who nearly replicates young Albert’s devotion for the animal before the war again rears its ugly head, winding up briefly in the hands of German soldiers, one of who risks his life to save Joey and a handsome black horse named Tophorn, who dies from exhaustion. Now possessing a thundering gallop and blistering speed, Joey escapes a tank and winds up on the front lines, where he is eventually felled in a heap of barbed wire, setting the stage for one of the film’s great set pieces.
Echoing the most famous sequence in All Quiet on the Western Front-though this time both soldiers are living throughout the scene-a brave British Geordie soldier waves a white flag while approaching the downed but moving horse, when a German soldier named Peter, speaking perfect English, offers wire-cutters, leading to the buck’s freedom and a coin-toss for possession that returns Joey to the British ranks. The film’s focus then shifts to the “Second Battle of the Somme” where Albert, now enlisted miraculously survives a gas attack, but is temporarily blinded and carried away to an infirmary, where he is told that a ‘miracle horse’ has survived against all odds, a gallop through ‘no man’s land’. This sets the stage for the film’s big emotional scene, one that is not only well-earned after some of the most brutal and austere war sequences ever filmed, but one that brings the story arc full circle. When the horse is deemed too badly injured, a decision is made to put him down, but the execution is interrupted by Joey’s recognition of the same owl-like whistle that Albert used during the early days of bonding on the farm. It’s a highly theatrical and exceedingly sentimental moment that is aiming for an ocean of tears, yet the overwhelming poignancy of the narrative moment far outstrips any resentment at manipulation. Far too much by this point has been invested in the equestrian’s coming-of-age, and it’s young owner’s rites-of-passage to be denied the big re-union scene, one that only the most cynical or hardest of hearts will be able to resist. Or those who have made it a life’s persuit to deny Spielberg’s incomparable cinematic artistry, because of his fame and fortune, or an aversion to a filmmaker wearing his heart on his sleeve. Well, square can be beautiful too, though War Horse’s underlying sentimentality which is it’s strongest element, was fully a part of the play that Spielberg saw in London in early 2010, a stage play that immediately inspired him to adapt to the screen. The remarkable use of puppetry on the stage of course stands as a sharp contrast of what can be managed on film, and Spielberg reportedly used fifteen horses to play Joey, though the most prominent one is the same American equine who played the lead in Seabiscuit. The cinematic transciption of the profound affection of a boy and a horse is the emotional trade-off for the obvious allure of the stage animation, which of course bears it’s own brand of magic and intimacy. Employing thousands of extras, hundreds of horses and a plethora of computer-generated images the director brings back memories of terror in the extended Normandy invasion sequence in Saving Private Ryan, at least by way of emotional gravity, (the earlier film was more noted for it’s naturalism, which is after all the intent of a flat-out combat film) though he did his homework, stressing the trench warfare that was emblematic of what was known as the “Great War” by historians, a debacle that included the loss of nearly four million horses. Indeed the entire emotional thrust of the novella and stage play of War Horse, and of Spielberg’s film is that, while human characters are biting the dust en masse, it’s the horses upon which our deeper hopes and fears are focused. As the history of World War I reveals that many horses met their end in the barbed wire that made their demise a kind of cruel anachronism, it seemed a given that the story would broach that terrible fact, even if ultimately using it as the most trying test for survival.
The large-scale treatment and epic scope obviously allows War Horse to stand apart from the formidable sub-genre it will still in a general sense be compared to, one that includes The Black Stallion, National Velvet, White Mane, Black Beauty, Seabiscuit, My Friend Flicka and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken among others. But for the most part these films don’t cross the narrative and geographical divide that War Horse does, which of course is a given considering the epic journey over time and place that brings the story full circle. It’s a story that honors the basic human virtues of dignity and common decency, but also one that doesn’t shy aways from the economic depression and prudishness that defined life in that time period. It’s a story that confirms the adage “war has taken everything from everyone” but one that in it’s ardent anti-war message offers some consolation in a variation of the ‘winner takes the spoils’ adage, and the painful lesson of foolhardy causes.
The cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg on some of the director’s most celebrated achievements, has contributed work here that ranks among his finest. Recalling some of the most renowned British landscape painters like John Constable and J. M.W. Turner (the former’s magnificent Dedham Vale appears to be a prime inspiration) the cameraman in his early pastoral farm sequences evokes a silent dialogue between light and dark and the relationship between sky and land, allowing for sequences of breathtaking beauty that foreshadow and serve as a stark contrast for the surrealistic intensity of the trench warfare, where light saturation and glare properly convey the madness of battle. In the trench scenes, where Spielberg poses to hint at the horrors of battle that he explored full flavour in Private Ryan, Kaminski’s stark realism documented in a confluence of mustard gas, granade explosions and endless rows of charred bodies, effectively paints an unforgettable canvas of carnage that fully corroborates the historical accounts of this terrible conflict.
Not to be left out of the pastoral impressionistic fabric of War Horse, veteran composer John Williams, who has written some of the greatest scores in history for Spielberg, has produced one of his greatest soundtracks ever, a sure sign that the material brought out his most profound lyrical capabilities. The countryside of Dartmoor was given aural accompaniment of quiet majesty in a quartet of musical themes that are piercingly elegiac, a stand alone listening that harkens to the sounds of Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Descending”, Gerald Fizi’s “Eclogue” and some passages from Gustav Holst and spirited strains of none other than Elgar. Williams’ music in the reunion and homecoming scenes is extraordinary and triumphant, and invaluable in helping Spielberg to fully achieve an emotional catharsis.
Following in the path of Christian Bale, Henry Thomas and Haley Joel Osment among the youthful fraternity that have achieved stardom under Spielberg, the young British actor Jeremy Irvine as young Albert maintains the tradition with a passionate, full-blooded and deeply-affecting portrayal of one, whose mission seems all but impossible. This is surely a star-making turn for an actor who has also played Pip in a new version of Great Expectations still awaiting release. The boozy father Ted Narracott is played by a bozzy Peter Mullan is a performance that includes some difficult decisions and an inner warmth that is obscured by a bumbling exterior. Tom Hiddleston transcribes a quiet dignity to the ill-fated Captain Nicholls, while as Mother Narracott, Emily Watson shows inner strength behind a gruff if sensible veneer. But it’s the horses who take center stage in a story where this majectic creature moves through time and place with an almost mythical power, one that’s it’s famed director has generated with a film that will move many with it’s resilience and power of the human spirit.