Directed by: Steven Spielberg | 140 minutes | drama, war, history | Actors: Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Peter Mullan, David Kross, Niels Arestrup, Johnny Harris, Robert Emms, David Dencik, Geoff Bell, Pip Torrens, Patrick Kennedy, Rainer Bock
Like dogs, horses have proven themselves to be excellent actors throughout film history. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, four years his senior, developed a special bond with the show jumper The Pie. The same Rooney was seen again thirty-five years later at the side of a special horse in “The Black Stallion” (1979). More recent are “The Horse Whisperer” (1998) and “Seabiscuit” (2003). Steven Spielberg presents with “War Horse” (2011) a new offshoot of the already very high boom of horse films. While earlier that year he tried out new technological developments in “The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn” (2011), for “War Horse” he returns to the more traditional way of film making. Spielberg was clearly inspired by his old heroes: John Ford, David Lean, Frank Capra and others, in tone and style. “War Horse” is an epic tale that shows World War I through the eyes of a horse. Not just any horse, of course, but a very special animal, because everyone who meets him falls under the spell of the animal.
“War Horse” is based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 youth novel of the same name. Right from the very first scenes we already know where this film is going: tears will flow freely. “War Horse” begins with the birth of a foal on a fertile green pasture in Devon, England. The young teenager Albert Narracott (debutant Jeremy Irvine) witnesses this event and from that moment on he is under the spell of the animal. He lives with his father (Peter Mullan), a man who became intoxicated by his experiences from the Boer War in South Africa, and his hardworking and down to earth mother (Emily Watson) in a remote farm. The family struggles to make ends meet. When father is sent to the market to buy a workhorse, he returns with the now two-year-old foal. To the delight of Albert, who promised to train him. Mother is less happy, because how on earth should this thoroughbred pull a plow?
Then the war starts. The ailing Narracott family is forced to sell the horse, now renamed Joey by Albert, to the army. The friendly Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises to take good care of him and to keep Albert – who himself is still too young to join the fight, even though he would like to – informed of his experiences. Albert reluctantly gives up his horse, hoping one day to face him again. In the midst of the violence of the war, Joey keeps changing hands. With two young German soldiers (David Kross and Leonard Carow) who take the courageous decision to leave the army. With a critically ill 13-year-old French peasant girl (Céline Buckens) and her caring grandfather (Niels Arestrup). And with the horse groom of the German army (Nicholas Bro), who has to watch with pain in the hard as thoroughbred Joey is hired to lift the heavy guns up a hill. Joey has a magical appeal to everyone he comes into contact with.
Spielberg has spared no expense to turn “War Horse” into a nostalgic spectacle. Visually, the film is therefore worth it, thanks to Spielberg’s loyal cameraman Janusz Kaminski, who manages to paint the scenes together into a true work of art. Spielberg also comes up with a handful of ingenious feats: Mother’s embroidery passes into the field plowed by Albert and Joey and in a liquidation, the blades of a windmill are used with skill and style. The scene where distraught Joey gallops across the battlefield and ends up entangled in barbed wire in No Man’s Land also lingers. When a British soldier (Toby Kebbell) then starts arguing with his German “colleague” (Hinnerk Schönemann) about who can save the animal from its plight, the film finally gets a lighter tone. Because one thing is certain: “War Horse” takes itself, in all its sentimentality, very seriously. The melodrama is thick throughout the film and is reinforced by a present and sometimes predominant (and playing the emotions of the viewer) soundtrack by John Williams. Because “War Horse” does not rest until a tear has rolled down your cheeks.
Anyone who does not like (excessive) sentiment will not easily go to a film like “War Horse” anyway, so in that respect Spielberg serves his target group at his beck and call. And if you don’t belong to that, you have to admit that SpielBerg made this film very expertly. The fact that the screenplay (written by Lee ‘Billy Elliot’ Hall and Richard ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ Curtis) is predictable and does not come to fruition, is quite compensated by very solid acting – in addition to the already mentioned actors Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, Philippe Nahon and Liam Cunningham, among others – and the overwhelming images that Spielberg fires at us. Because in the end it is not the story that stays with you of “War Horse”, but the visual spectacle. The grand battlefields, but also small images, such as the shining eyes of the horse, in which the horrors of the war are reflected, remain on your retina.