Disney // 2011 // 146 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 23rd, 2012
A tale of incredible loyalty, hope and tenacity.
"I might hate you more, but I'll never love you less."
The year is 1912 and the place is Devon, England. Impoverished farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, Trainspotting) needs to buy a horse to help with the plowing. There are plenty of affordable horses which would effectively serve this need at the market, but for some reason, Ted is enraptured by a reckless, beautiful young thoroughbred. After engaging in an expensive bidding war with his cruel landlord (David Thewlis, Naked), Ted brings the horse home. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, Great Expectations) names the colt Joey and quickly develops a strong bond with his new equine friend. Together, the pair face some of life's most joyful and challenging moments.
When World War I arrives, Ted is forced to make a difficult decision. In spite of Albert's anguished protests, Ted sells Joey to a kind-hearted British officer (Tom Hiddleston, Thor) in need of a horse to ride into battle. So begins Joey's lengthy sojourn through a bleak period in history. Over the course of the war, Joey will encounter a frightened young German soldier (David Kross, The Reader), a warm-hearted Frenchman (Niels Arestrup, A Prophet) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), a British soldier (Toby Kebbel, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) and many others. However, is there any hope that Joey and Albert will ever find each other again?
Those who regard Steven Spielberg as a shamelessly manipulative director will certainly find more fuel for their arguments in War Horse, a film as unapologetically earnest as any he's made. In theory, it should be easy to roll your eyes at the film's tear-jerker of a story: "Oh, a horse and his boy are separated by war and might never see each other again? I wonder if they'll overcome all odds to share a deeply emotional reunion?" But here's the thing: even though War Horse blatantly telegraphs nearly every major beat of its story, those tear-jerking moments actually do elicit tears because of the achingly sensitive and heartfelt manner in which Spielberg presents them. The emotions generated by War Horse are akin to those generated by The Color Purple: the lack of subtlety is offset by truthful sincerity, leaving a film that can devastate you emotionally if it hits you from the right angle.
War Horse is a film in which the whole adds up to considerably more than the sum of its parts. The individual elements throughout are solid. We have the touching story of a relationship between Albert and Joey, the portrait of class warfare in the depiction of the conflict between Ted and the landlord, a thoughtful examination of the first world war which treats the Germans as human beings rather than as hiss-worthy villains and individual vignettes which explore different aspects of life for civilians and soldiers during the era. These items are well-considered, but in the end, War Horse isn't just another war movie or animal movie or slice-of-life flick. It's a film which takes an almost cosmic view of humanity, using Joey as a vehicle to touchingly illustrate just how petty our daily dramas are.
Joey's presence brings out the best in nearly everyone he encounters. In some cases, there simply isn't anything good to bring out (as in the case of the landlord or a particularly ruthless German officer), but his innocence and beauty has a way of putting things into perspective for all involved. In what may be the film's strongest sequence, Joey finds himself trapped in barbed wire in the middle of a battlefield. When both the British and the Germans notice the horse's plight, the conflict is tentatively placed on hold as a representative from each side nervously attempts to aid Joey. It's a powerful affirmation of humanity's fundamental goodness, but placed in the context of the war, also a sobering reminder of how easily we abandon that goodness. Time and time again, Spielberg has proven himself a master of truthfully illuminating the best of humanity during genuinely horrific moments, and this film is no exception.
Even so, War Horse is considerably different from many of Spielberg's weighty historical dramas (The Color Purple, Amistad, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich) in that it mutes the unflinching realism of the era. That's actually appropriate in this case, as War Horse is intended as a gentle fable. Spielberg finds tender realism in the human behavior the film offers, but approaches the plot as a larger-than-life storyteller. Thankfully, War Horse never feels like an R-rated film which has been carefully edited into a PG-13. Rather, it feels like a product of Hollywood's golden age; something quite similar to what John Ford might have delivered if given the same script (visual homages to Ford are abundant, in fact, particularly in the way that Spielberg's vast landscapes often dwarf the characters and their assorted personal issues). Spielberg forces himself to find creative ways to suggest brutal violence rather than actually showing it, and creates a number of moments which are considerably more memorable than they would have been if presented in a more traditional fashion.
The only character who stays with us for the duration of the journey is Joey, so the rest of the actors are essentially playing supporting characters of various sizes. Spielberg mostly avoids big-name stars and instead opts for skilled newcomers and character actors who effectively suit their roles. Jeremy Irvine's earnest performance hits precisely the right notes, while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson do beautiful work as his parents. David Thewlis brings a surprising credibility to his mustache-twirling villain, while Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch do strong work in their limited screen time as friendly rivals. The strongest performance comes from Niels Arestrup, who's tremendous at both essaying kindness and distress in his lovely turn as the aging Frenchman Joey comes in contact with. Arestrup's final scene in particular is a terrific piece of acting.
War Horse (Blu-ray) has received a fantastic 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which beautifully highlights both the breathtakingly beautiful and memorably ravaged landscapes the film has to offer. War Horse features some of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's finest work to date, and it's a pleasure to simply look at this film in high-definition (due to a combination of the strength of the transfer, the beauty of the locations and the inventive compositions). The detail is superb throughout, blacks are deep and inky and shadow delineation is strong. There are moments of softness, but that has more to do with the film's old-fashioned look than with the transfer. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, from the fragile opening strains of John Williams' lush score (another fantastic effort from the composer, and one which really sells some of the film's most potent moments) to the large-scale bombast of the battle sequences. Immersive during both the rowdy and delicate moments, it's a top-notch track which never misses a beat.
The supplemental package offers a solid overview of the film's production. The first Blu-ray disc contains a couple of nice little features. "War Horse: The Journey Home" (20 minutes) features a roundtable discussion with a host of cast and crew members, all of whom get a chance to offer their own take on the film (Toby Kebbel and Richard Curtis fare particularly well), while "An Extra's Point of View" (3 minutes) is a brief, sweet look at a man who played numerous roles in the background over the course of the movie. Disc two is where the biggest and best supplements reside, starting with the 64-minute "A Filmmaking Journey." It's a linear examination of the film's creation which offers info on casting, special effects, locations, costumes and many other subjects. Easily the strongest feature of the set. Two additional post-production featurettes are also worth a look: "Editing and Scoring" (9 minutes) and "The Sounds of War Horse" (7 minutes). The former Spielberg attempting to find new ways to compliment longtime collaborators Michael Kahn and John Williams, while the latter looks at the work of sound designer Gary Rydstrom. Finally, there's "Through the Producer's Lens" (4 minutes), in which producer Kathleen Kennedy shares a series of personal photographs of the film's production. You also get a DVD copy (which is accompanied by a brief, disposable EPK-style featurette called "War Horse: The Look") and a digital copy.
While viewers with limited attention spans and those with a general distaste for Spielberg's more sentimental efforts may find War Horse difficult to sit through, those willing to immerse themselves in the director's unique vision will likely find the film an immensely rewarding experience. The Blu-ray release is terrific. Giddyup to your favorite retailer and pick it up.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site