At first glance, “War Horse” looks like little more than a sappy, clichéd (although admittedly big-budgeted) family flick. One horse touching the lives of many civilians and soldiers, overcoming exceptional obstacles as it courageously fights through World War I sounds like an overly sentimental ABC Family original movie. Yet upon closer examination, this holiday blockbuster proves itself just as genuinely beautiful as the creature it celebrates.
Two outstanding elements mainly account for this–not only is it based off the 2011 Tony award winner for Best Play, but it’s also directed by virtuoso Steven Spielberg. Adapted into a rousing war drama from one of cinema’s greatest directors, this grand tale overflows with terrific performances, sprawling landscapes and gorgeous cinematography–not to mention heartfelt emotion and an astounding, intense representation of WWI.
At the center of “War Horse” lies the relationship between teenager Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and Joey, the tenacious stallion he raises and loves. Joey helps Albert and his family seemingly save their farm in what’s probably the coolest field-plowing scene ever filmed, but at the onset of WWI, with no money left, they have no option but to sell Joey to the British cavalry–despite heartbroken Albert’s complete protest.
This begins the episodic structure of the movie as Joey’s ownership switches to a sterling army captain (Tom Hiddleston) on the frontlines in France, alongside a valiant major (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his mighty horse. Later Joey connects with two young brothers (David Kross and Leonhard Carow) among the German soldiers, and then with an older French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his spirited granddaughter (Celine Buckens). Eventually Joey is thrust into the harrowing trenches of the battlefield, and by this time Albert has enlisted himself in the war, determined to find his beloved horse and bring him home.
Each of these segments prove engaging as co-writers Lee Hall and Richard Curtis give the characters developed stories that all tie in with Joey’s journey, exhibiting man’s devotion and admiration for the fierce will of the horse. Among the uniformly excellent European ensemble cast, Irvine’s display of resounding hope and compassion certainly drives this theme home, and he serves as an effective emotional anchor for viewers. Cumberbatch also stands out through his commanding presence and vigorous energy, showing he’s primed to soon hit it big.
The most impressive performance, however, comes from the different horses that play Joey. Their actions and expressions never feel forced as Joey interacts with the people and environments, thus earning the affections of the characters and viewers simultaneously. And with some of the astonishing feats Joey accomplishes and suffers through, you’ll really care about this horse.
A mesmerizing sequence in the third act wholly exemplifies this as Joey flies through the trenches and across the battleground, without a rider. All soldiers make way for his majestic stride, fireworks in the sky and explosions in his wake. During scenes of such gripping power and enormous magnitude, you know you’re watching a Spielberg movie.
An incredible earlier set piece dives head-first into the heat of trench warfare as the British try to fight across No Man’s Land, reminiscent of a similar aggressive attack in the Kubrick WWI classic “Paths of Glory,” as well as the D-Day battle in Spielberg’s own “Saving Private Ryan.” The steadfast, amazingly precise control Spielberg exerts over the action ups your heart rate and efficiently conveys the horrors of WWI, without going to the graphic, extremely realistic lengths of his aforementioned war masterpiece–this is a family-friendly film, after all.
Imbuing each character’s struggle with an empathetic importance and larger scale, Spielberg brings poignancy to every segment of the movie. Yes, this is a melodrama, but Spielberg’s deft direction makes it a melodrama of the highest order, still authentically heartwarming in delivery and tone.
Heavily contributing to this accomplishment are two of Spielberg’s longtime collaborators, John Williams providing a swelling original score and Janusz Kaminski achieving remarkable cinematography. Composed of giant war-torn backdrops, breezy open fields and magnificently colored skies, and utilizing expansive, sweeping overhead and fast-paced tracking shots, the camerawork is a marvel to behold, giving the film quite the breathtaking scope.
In fact, “War Horse” feels less like typical Spielberg movie magic and more like the wonder of traditional, old-school Hollywood epics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. By all means that’s entirely appreciated here, considering he hasn’t directed a truly great, crowd-pleasing blockbuster in nearly a decade. And with his other new film, the animated spectacle “The Adventures of Tintin” proving his mastery of visual splendor as well, Spielberg has given quite the extraordinary cinematic gift this holiday.
Steven Spielberg, welcome back. We’ve missed you.
Three and a Half out of Four Stars