No Need to Hoof It to See War Horse
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 23 Dec
DVD Release Date: April 3, 2012
Release Date: December 25, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)
Genre: Drama, Adaptation, War
Run Time: 146 min.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Actors: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Neils Arestrup, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Celine Buckens, Eddie Marsan, David Kross
Let’s not forget that movies are moving pictures, and that a great director teamed with a great director of photography can produce a great film. A great script is the ingredient needed for a masterpiece, but well directed, stunning visual work is sometimes enough to overcome shortcomings in the storytelling department.
Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janus Kaminski have that kind of fruitful relationship. They first teamed on Schindler’s List but are best known for their work together on Saving Private Ryan, particularly that film’s unforgettable version of the Allied assault on the beaches of Normandy, with Kaminski’s cameras giving the action an immediacy and you-are-there quality that made the sequence so impressive. Saving Private Ryan didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar—the prize that year went to Shakespeare in Love—but the director and cinematographer continued to work together on a list of memorable, if not always completely successful films: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That last film was their one bad misfire.
Now we can add War Horse to the list of Spielberg/Kaminski efforts that turned out rather lackluster. Handsome to look at and featuring a war sequence on par with the opening battle sequence of Saving Private Ryan, the film flags considerably as it wears on. The emotional peak of the movie comes at the story’s conclusion, but it’s not enough to forgive the strangely uninvolving story up to that point. (Reports of audience members weeping at early screenings of War Horse were not borne out at a local screening, where nary a moist eye could be seen among exiting theatergoers.)
War Horse, adapted from a book by Michael Morpurgo that also served as the basis for a successful stage play, tells the story of an English farmer (Peter Mullan) and his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who bonds with a horse named Joey. The father, increasingly desperate as he faces the loss of his farm, sells Joey to a military man, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who promises Albert he’ll take good care of the animal. The captain even promises to return Joey to Albert one day, if possible. Nicholls becomes the primary human character in the story as he takes Joey into World War I, where the British troops are confronted by German guns and other modern weaponry.
But Nicholls doesn’t have Joey for long. The horse soon finds himself on a farm run by a man (Neils Arstrup) and his goddaughter (Celine Buckens), leaving audiences to wonder when and where Albert might reappear.
One of the problems with War Horse is that we’re meant to identify with the title character and his boy owner, but no sooner have we developed a bond with both than the rug is pulled out, and it’s on to Joey’s next owner. The reason the story follows Joey is, ostensibly, to learn about the people he comes into contact with, but there’s no underlying theme to Joey’s interaction with his human companions. Some of Joey’s owners are tender, some are brave, some see the horse as merely functional. What else would we expect?
Although the film runs too long, it’s never painful to watch, thanks to Kaminski’s grand image-making. Those images include not only stately scenes of Joey on the farm, but harrowing depictions of trench warfare. (While War Horse might hold some appeal for children, a sense of innocence and wonder comes through only in certain scenes, while significant portions of the film depict war violence that includes bombings, shooting and dead soldiers.) The film is respectful toward religion, with men calling on God to protect them during the battle and thanking him when the war has ended.
With so much going for it, War Horse should have been a more gripping experience. As it is, War Horse is not a particularly bad film, just a mediocre one. In light of who brought the story to cinematic life, that counts as a major disappointment.
- Language/Profanity: “Bast-rd”; “hell”; “d-mn”; “good Lord”; “bugger me.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: A man drinks from a flask; an accusation that a man can’t afford to pay his landlord because he buys beer for his horses; man is said to drink in order to forget the mistakes he’s made.
- Sex/Nudity: None.
- Violence/Crime: Man kicked by horse; a gun is cocked; a man threatens another man with knitting needles; warfare includes swords, machine guns, other gunfire, bombs and explosions, with bodies seen flying through the air after bomb impact; a man is shot by a firing squad; orders given to shoot fleeing soldiers; dead soldiers shown; a horse is entangled in barbed wire; a tank runs over a horse.
Religion: A character says he used to believe that God gave each man his share of bad luck, but he no longer believes that; a war cry: “Fear God! Honor the king!”; a man says, “God and the king will keep an eye on you”; a man prays the Psalms 23; a man says, “Thank God for the end of this struggle. And victory.”
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