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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: War Horse

 War Horse (Four Stars)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, 2011
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is the kind of open-hearted, expensively made, somewhat predictable movie that critic-cynics like to make fun of :  “a noble steed!“ sneered one of my wittier colleagues as we rode an elevator down after the screening. But I’ve got to confess this picture pleased me. It’s a movie done with such love, idealism and dazzling craft, and, thanks to Spielberg ad his collaborators, it’s full of such sheer visual magic, that I’d feel churlish not recognizing its achievements, or dismissing it, as some have (on TV and elsewhere) as an overly sentimental tale of a boy and his horse, and the ways they lose and find each other during World War I.
In a way, War Horse — adapted from the children‘s book by Michael Morpurgo and from the play adapted from that book by Nick Stafford — invites such sarcasm, before it sets out successfully to dismantle it. The movie, about the adventures, misadventures and hard bloody times of a beautiful Devon farm house, recruited for the cavalry in World War I, is a kind of mixture of Paths of Glory and Lassie Come Home, or of The Black Stallion and All Quiet on the Western Front — of dark and ironic World War I tragedy and a warmly crowd-pleasing smart-animal story. It‘s a movie that’s done with all the considerable skill and enchantment Spielberg and his usual team — including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams — can muster.
Spielberg may be drawing from the past here, but so was Michel Hazanavicius in The Artist, a film that critics almost universally loved. So was Scorsese in the generally admired Hugo. In the righ hands, the past can be a great place: Could Spielberg’s movie really be made any better, on any level, than it was? I’d be unhappy with a cinema world that didn’t have space for either the nightmares of Paths of Glory or the childlike wondrous optimism of Lassie Come Home, much less a film that somehow crossbreeds them. And Spielberg, who gets some of his crowd-pleasing storytelling savvy from Walt Disney and a lot of his impeccable, broad epic style from David Lean is just the artist for that kind of story.
The script of War Horse, a heart-crusher, is rife with coincidence, pulsing with melodrama — and violence and tragedy are often close to overwhelming it. But at least it’s a good story, and an often gripping one. Morpurgo and Spielberg — and scriptwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (of Love, Actually) show the young man farm boy protagonist, Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) meeting the great horse Joey (played by various equine thespians) and bonding with him after Albert’s drunken, impetuous dad Ted (Peter Mullan of My Name is Joe), outbids his own landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis of Naked) for Joey at an auction. The improvident Ted finds himself up against it, alienating his landlord, and exasperating his long-suffering wife Rose (Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves), and unable to pay the hard-hearted Lyons the rent, unless Joey can learn to be a farm horse and plough a huge rocky field in time for a turnip crop. Lyons laughs, and sneers, at the thought. So might we, if we were worse people.
But Joey is a noble horse with a huge heart, and the scenes of the field-ploughing, kibitzed by what seems the whole town, remind you of John Ford’s great Irish-set The Quiet Man, and of bucolic British classics like I Know Where I’m Going and Kes. Albert and Joey almost pull it off — before World War I intervenes, and Joey has to be sold to the Army for cavalry duty, and a kindhearted Captain (and artist) named Nicholls (Benedict Cumberbatch of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) buys Joey and promises Albert to take care of him and to bring him back when the war is over.

War is hell, and we better not forget it. (The movie never does.) In France, Captain Nicholls is killed in his first charge riding Joey, and the horse falls into the hands of two horse-loving young German soldier/deserters, Gunther and Michael (David Kress and Leonhard Carow), who are caught and shot — and then into the hands of the same kindly, earthy French farmer who rescued Sarah in Sarah’s Key (played by Niels Arestrup), along with his game but fragile and seemingly ill little daughter Emilie (Celine Buckens) –and then into the hands of the German army again, which yokes Joey and his new horse friend Topthorn to huge armaments wagons, as haulers, a bone-crushing task that will probably break and kill them both before their time. Meanwhile, Albert, too young to legally enlist, finds a way over anyway. He keeps searching for Joey.

It’s a Spielberg type of story. From the very beginning of his career (his teen sci-fi film Firelight), he’s been fond of yarns in which humans (often children), commune with or chase or try to rescue something non-human (sharks, animals, robots, or extraterrestrials) or in which often childlike or boylike protagonists are thrown into historical incidents or dangerous adventures. From that angle, War Horse is one of his most typical films, and, also, I think, one of his best-executed, most ambitious and most moving.

The story is pure melodrama, of course. ( I won’t recount the resolution, but it won’t surprise you, though the setup may.) Yet this is melodrama and a children’s story done with feeling and visual grandeur and with mesmerizing style and assurance by a filmmaker who knows his metier and craft better than almost anyone. And physically, it’s a beauty. War Horse, shot in Devon and simlar countryside settings, was heavily influenced by the styles of the great British cinematographers of the ‘40s and ‘50s — by Jack Cardiff, Robert Krasker, Oswald Morris, Freddie Young and others — and it’s incredibly gorgeous, visually stunning beyond almost anything Spielberg has done.

Disney had a soft spot for British subjects and styles, and Spielberg does as well, and one can tell that he and Kaminski would love to get images as beautiful as the ones Cardiff made in Black Narcissus and The African Queen, or Krasker in The Third Man or Morris in Moby Dick or Young in Lawrence of Arabia. Often they do. Meanhile John Williams pours classic symphonic measures down on the magnificent Devon countryside and on the terrifying war scenes, reminding us at times of the musical vein of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. (Almost but not quite. But it‘s a good score.)

I liked War Horse very much and given what it’s trying to be, I had no serious problems with it — though personally, I would have preferred a darker, unhappier ending, which is obviously what the original author, Morpurgo, and these filmmakers didn’t want. (That would be like filming “Hansel and Gretel” and having the witch eat the children, something that  might actually please a lot of critics.) That’s my taste though; Spielberg leans more toward his mixture of Disney and Lean.

It’s past time we recognized though that Spielberg will always be at least something of a sentimentalist and melodramatist, as are many moviemakers we love, and that he’ll probably always wear his heart and his art on his sleeve. And so what again? War Horse is the kind of movie he wants to make and that he likes himself, and we‘d be fools to call for something like, say, Robert Bresson’s great austere from-a-donkey’s-eye movie Au Hasard Balthazar instead — or for more here of Paths of Glory and less Lassie Come Home.

One strange or at least interesting thing. Since, according to The Hollywood Reporter, there are no less than 14 horses (and one animatronics creature) playing the part of Joey, and another four playing his friend Topthorn, it’s amazing that we feel as much empathy and attraction for this horse, a composite, as we do. Somehow the personality (and the nobility) of Joey, and the beauty of all the animals who play him, come across even though we don‘t have that sense of easy instant recognition that made stars of some equine and dog actors, like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin and Benji and Jimmy Stewart’s horse Pie. I‘m not sure we need it, but War Horse, for better or worse, is a movie where every technical problem is solved, and everything is seemingly at the director’s disposal. Sometimes that gives a show too much of a sheen and too much a sense of perfection and inevitability.

In any case, War Horse is certainly one of the year’s best movies, at least in my opinion, no matter what anyone says, and it’s the best film Spielberg has done since his underrated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It’s one of my favorites of 2011 — along with Hugo and The Tree of Life and In Darkness and The Artist and The Descendants and Source Code and Melancholia and City of Life and Death. That’s a fine list of films, though I suppose, if you dug hard, you could find something to carp about in all of them. I’d rather enjoy and admire them and hope for more of the same, including more Spielberg — and more horses.

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10 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: War Horse”

  1. Harold says:

    The scene where ‘War Horse’ gets so tangled in barb wire is so moving. I think even the men in the theater had tears as we certainly had feelings for this beautiful animal. What a story—and I loved the ending.

  2. Cindy says:

    What is the name of the horse? I loved the movie and yes I did cry.

  3. Cindy says:

    I loved the movie and yes I cried. What is the name of the

  4. gary bruning says:

    what type of horse, ( breed ), was Joey and the others.

  5. pat says:


  6. Laurel says:

    Does the horse die in the movie?

  7. saw see says:

    —-Over-produced PC moral alibis galore as franchise
    slum Hollywood BALKS and RUNS from the awesomely
    significant 20th –30th –40th –50th —and NOW
    60th Anniversary of the

    —————–KOREAN WAR——————.


  8. Dave says:

    Great review…agree it’s a terrific film… but one thing: Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t play the “kind-hearted captain,” that was Tom Hiddleston. Cumberbatch played the major who led them into the slaughter. “War Horse” definitely ranks as one of Spielberg’s best.

  9. Alex says:

    Even though you listed a number of films which you felt stood out this year, you haven’t (as of today) come out with an official top ten list. Why not? Any plans to do so?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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