War Horse (2011)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, etc.
**Spoiler Free, I think**
Spielberg’s War Horse is art. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s criminally-overlooked young-adult fiction, and inspired by Nick Stafford’s award-winning stage adaptation (West End and Broadway), the Curtis/Hall adapted screenplay is heartfelt with great moments of sincerity. Yes, a horse and a young man are the main characters. But if you prejudge this film as a “silly” movie about “a boy and his horse”, then perhaps you won’t grasp its import. War Horse examines the unyielding bond of friendship, the unfailing courage and strength of brothers in arms, and the human capacity for kindness amidst the savagery of war.
It is true that not all will appreciate the depths of War Horse, and some will think it’s mawkishly cheesy at times, but few will be able to deny Spielberg and Kamiński’s cinematic achievement. My regret in viewing this film is that the theater I was at only had digital projection. Terrible shame. Apparently, the choice to shoot on actual film stock results in the rustic aesthetics of vintage cinema. I’d imagine that digitally-reformatting detracts from its intended effect. Fortunately, one of the many treasures that remains is how the cinematography transforms the landscape into a character of its own. The sweeping vistas of Devon, with verdant hills, wide-open spaces, and golden sunsets, looks like a pastoral haven untouched by war. The time in the trenches - white flares, gray skies, black earth - is claustrophobic and suffocating. The juxtaposition of the idyllic hues of the English countryside against the dark desolation of No Man’s Land mirrors the abrupt awakening for young soldiers to the verity of the First World War. That’s cinematic poetry.
One criticism: a minor character name Andrew. Thankfully, he’s only on screen in small increments, and for a cumulative three minutes. You’ll see.
War Horse is Spielberg’s return to emotionally-directed storytelling. Joey, the eponymous character, is the heart of the film. Horses are ethereally graceful creatures, and they are incredibly emotive. The degree of empathy expressed by these beauties (and the way Spielberg & Kamiński captured their emotions) is utterly transporting. The uncommon bond between humans and non-humans has been a longstanding Spielberg theme (E.T., Close Encounter, A.I.). The human connection between Joey and Albert is a deep imprint on both characters. He remembers his friendship with Albert. And like these preceding Spielberg films, through the non-human characters, we see our own humanity. From his tranquil youth in Devon to the turbulent years of WWI, Joey encounters and experiences devotion, valor, tenacity, the kindness of strangers, and - just as poignantly written in All Quiet on the Western Front - the loss of innocence in the cruelty of war. The scene with the windmill blades is a lasting image.
No one could have imagined the toil and destruction on all sides. The campaign for WWI was supposed to be over by Christmas of that first year. The First World War is the first war with machine guns, shells, and chemical warfare, and the last war in which calvary was used. Over 9 million horses (and just as many soldiers) were killed in WWI. The British calvary charge on a German camp, with its catastrophic aftermath, is one of the most stunning sequences ever on film. ”Fearless men on fearless horses.” Their thunderous emergence from a hayfield is a rousing display of chivalry and gallantry, such innocent romanticism. A superb capture of the attitude of the now-extinguished Edwardian era. A chilling realization that calvary, much like that fading epoch, has no place in the mechanized world of the industrial revolution. The charge of an invincible brigade. A troop of riderless horses. Beyond illuminating the twilight of the once-powerful British Empire, that calvary charge is a sobering depiction of the senseless brutality of war. The camera ascends above the battlefield to survey the cost of arrogance and miscalculation.
Though Spielberg has a comfort zone when it comes to battlefields and war, this narrative is not meant as a lesson on WWI nor on the deconstruction of the British class-system. Rather, it highlights the instinct and struggle to survive. The horrors of war can be made bearable by the presence of kind strangers and the bond of brothers in arms. Joey’s childhood brother is Albert, but his wartime brother is Topthorn - a fierce and regal black stallion. The friendship between Joey and Topthorn sustains them both through much of the war. Your fellow soldiers will guard and protect you, and at times, will risk their own lives to save yours. But facing such dangers by oneself makes it all so much more terrifying. We see this stark contrast for both horses and men. In another of Spielberg’s best filmed sequences, Joey races down a trench and flies across No Man’s Land in the dark of night, desperately trying to escape the terrors of trench warfare. He is bewildered, lost, alone. Spielberg stages and frames this aimless desperation with fear-inducing angles and a near-absence of voices. The only accompaniment is John Williams’ epic score.
That stunning scene begins with an eerie repetition of notes as we see the desolation of No Man’s Land, then builds with an extended and steady crescendo, passing a canter and into a full-on assault. The score deftly mutes the desperation to give way to a symphonic triumph as the story approaches the emotional climax of the film. As Joey flees across the forbidding landscape, the orchestration shifts boldly to a stirring spirit of fearlessness. ”No Man’s Land” is a seemly arrangement for our primal impulse to survive. John Williams is known for his classical tradition of 20th century romantics with memorable melodies and full-ensemble fanfare. The floating flute and strings theme of paradisal Devon (Dartmoor, 1912) is youthful and uplifting. The disquieting brass which foreshadows the doomed calvary is tempestuous and unbridled; the lone trumpet for Joey - heartbreaking (The Charge and Capture). And the tender piano solo of the closing shots of the film - a lone silhouette against Spielberg’s gorgeous sunset canvas - is a serenity that you’d only find in the comfort of a loving home. Williams’ composition for War Horse is more than grand, it is an affecting masterpiece that vividly illustrates the raw emotions of each character.
War Horse is art on a mural of film. It is exquisitely rich in details and powerful in its sentiment. Through the relationships of the characters in each of Joey’s chapters, be it friendship, camaraderie, or family, the film explores our best virtues (compassion and courage), and our worst trait - indifference. Spielberg has said that most of his films depict the world as he wished it could be, not the world as it is. War Horse is such an example. Against the backdrop of war, this is a human narrative about protecting the things that matter most: family and hope. Joey is an eternally hopeful creature. His constancy, his friendship with Albert, and Albert’s determination to find Joey and bring him home, are the tokens that exemplify the best of us. This is a film with captivating imagery, stirring music, and genuine warmth. War Horse is refined grace and beauty.