It’s been a very long time since I saw a picture that I thought my grandparents would enjoy (1998’s Babe: Pig in the City if you must know), and War Horse looked like a perfect fit. The war-time drama deals with a young man who joins the army to find his horse who had been sold to the British military.
It’s a family-friendly Spielberg adaptation of an acclaimed West-end (later Broadway and soon Toronto) theatre production. Spielberg himself admits the story “bypassed my intellect and went right to my heart”. All the trailers and pre-release press highlighted the sentimental value of this redemptive journey, topped off with a rousing score from old 45-oscar-nods himself, John Williams.
And yet despite all this fore-warning, large parts of the film still managed to feel really saccharine and over the top. The early scenes on the Devon farmyard feature comic relief from a goose and the gripping drama of ploughing the bottom field. While these scenes are fun and show the simplicities of life before the war, they could have been shortened down immensely. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis have to be held accountable for not reeling things in and giving us something a little leaner than this 147 minute running time.
Thankfully it becomes a different film once the war breaks out. Spielberg’s take on World War I after his sterling work on Saving Private Ryan was highly anticipated and he doesn’t let us down. The evolution of combat as 1914’s horse cavalry-led charges make way for the horrors of trench warfare at the 1918 Battle of the Somme are startling, and no one is better than Spielberg at showing the emotional toll of war – whatever the era.
While cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is a little off his game with the Devon scenes – seriously the closing sunset scene is the most orange thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m a protestant – the rendering of the fog, barbed wire, rats and thick, cold mud of the trenches mean World War I has never looked so
good bad. The list of WWI films is brief (see) and lets hope that this adaptation has piqued the interest of the Spielberg team enough to see them tackle a fresh story down the line.
So three-quarters of the way through the review and we haven’t even mentioned the bloody horse.
2011 was a great year for animal performances – Beginners, The Artist, Water for Elephants, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim being the pick of the bunch. The name of “Joey War Horse” is now added to the list. Handler Bobby Lovgren deserves a lot of credit for training a creature to do so much, with all but one battle scene using living-breathing horses.
All in all, Spielberg is probably more than happy having fulfilled his intentions. He set out to make a heart-rending war-time drama about a boy and his horse. And that’s what we’ve got. It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t have had a little more war and a little less horse.
And hay, don’t take my word for it, I’m only a neighsayer.
USA / Steven Spielberg / Lee Hall, Richard Curtis / Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Thewlis / 146 min / Drama, War / Release: 25 December 2011 (US/Canada), 13 January 2012 (UK/Irl)