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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. War Horse.

War Horse (Also Four Disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo & Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, 2011 (Touchstone/Disney)

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is the kind of open-hearted, lavishly made, admittedly somewhat predictable movie that some 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, noble steeds please me. It’s a movie done with such love, idealism and dazzling craft, and, thanks to Spielberg and his collaborators, so full of sheer visual magic, that I’d feel churlish  dismissing it 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 by Nick Stafford — invites 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-fauthful-animal story. It‘s a movie that’s done with all the 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 right 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 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 job.
The script of War Horse, a heart-crusher, is rife with coincidence, pulsing with melodrama. Violence and tragedy are often close to overwhelming it. But it’s also a good story, an often gripping one. Morpurgo and Spielberg — and scriptwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard CurtisLove, Actually) show the young man farm boy protagonist, Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) meeting the great horse Joey (played by various equine stars) and bonding with him after Albert’s drunken, impetuous dad Ted (the sometimes great Peter Mullan of My Name is Joe), outbids his own landlord, Mr. Lyons (the sometimes great David Thewlis of Naked) for Joey at an auction. The improvident Ted finds himself up against it, alienating his landlord, 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 steed 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 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 animal-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 actor (Niels Arestrup) who played the similar kindly, earthy French farmer who rescued Sarah in Sarah’s Key, along with his game but fragile  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 there 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 one of his best-executed, most ambitious and finally, 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 done with feeling, visual grandeur and great style and assurance by a filmmaker who knows his craft better than almost anyone. Physically, it’s a beauty. War Horse, shot in Devon and other countryside settings, looks heavily influenced by the lush or pristine styles of the great British cinematographers of the ‘40s and ‘50s — by Jack Cardiff, Robert Krasker, Oswald Morris, Ronald Neame, Freddie Young and others — and it’s incredibly gorgeous, stunning in a David LeanMichael Powell sort of way.

Disney had a soft spot for British subjects and style (and directors) and Spielberg does as well. You 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. Sometimes they do. Meanhile John Williams pours classic symphonic melody and orchestration down on the magnificent Devon countryside and on the terrifying war scenes, reminding us at times of the musical territory of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.


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 optimism, toward his mixture of Disney and Lean.


Spielberg will always be at least something of a sentimentalist and melodramatist, as are many moviemakers we love, and he’ll probably always wear his heart and his art on his sleeve. 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  Paths of Glory and less Lassie Come Home.

One strange 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 composite horse, 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 movie 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 of a sense of perfection and inevitability.

In any case, War Horse was certainly one of the year’s best movies, and the best film Spielberg has done since his underrated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It’ was 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 noble steeds.

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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.

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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.”
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