Every once in a long time Hollywood turns out a film so perfectly made that available adverbs and adjectives don’t really do it justice, but I’m going to take a crack at it. “War Horse” is a breathtakingly beautiful, majestically magnificent, sensationally stunning, visually mesmerizing, hypnotically engrossing, and gorgeously picturesque film.
Based upon the 1982 best-selling novel for young adults by Michael Morpurgo and directed by incomparable Oscar winner Steven Spielberg, “War Horse” tells the heart-wrenchingly touching story of the relationship between a boy and his horse set against the backdrop of World War I in England. Anyone who doesn’t like this wonderful film needs to make an immediate appointment with the Wizard of Oz for a heart installation.
As the world hovers tenuously on the brink of an all-out war, a financially strapped English farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) goes to a horse auction with the intention of buying a solid workhorse to do his plowing. But he ultimately gets into a bidding war with his landlord over a high-spirited colt that looks more like a racehorse than workhorse.
When Ted arrives home and his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson), sees the horse he has purchased and learns that he had to use rent money to pay for it, she is understandably furious. However, their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), is thrilled with the animal, names him Joey, and promises his parents that he will take care of taming and training him. And he even vows that he will teach Joey how to plow the fields.
As the ensuing days pass, Albert works indefatigably with Joey, and the two of them form the kind of indestructible bond that only a true animal lover can understand and appreciate. Despite their initial skepticism, Albert’s parents are impressed by his dedication to Joey’s training, and they come to love and respect the animal almost as much as Albert does. Watching the love, trust, and respect between Albert and Joey germinate, grow, and blossom is among the myriad high points in the film. Then the war begins, and Albert’s world falls apart
Animals, especially horses and dogs, were an invaluable part of World War I, and the horses were used for everything from serving as steeds for the cavalry to pulling ambulance wagons and heavy artillery. Statistics show somewhere between 4 and 8 million horses died during the four-year war, and there were times when the English sent 1,000 horses per day into battle to replace the ones that died. The United States also contributed horses to the effort by sending 182,000 of them into the conflict, which claimed 60,000 of them.
Over Albert’s vehement and futile protestations Joey is sold to begin his varied war career as a vital member of the British cavalry. During his gut-wrenching odyssey through the war, Joey participates in cavalry charges, pulls ambulances across battlefields, brings momentary joy to an ill French girl, and moves cannons up steep hills in the mud. He finally ends up in the area between the British and German lines ominously referred to as “No Man’s Land.”
In the meantime, Albert joins the British forces and vows to find Joey and bring him home safely. But his quest is fraught with the perils of war, and it soon becomes anyone’s guess whether either Albert or Joey will survive the conflict.
“War Horse” has all the elements that make a Spielberg film something beyond special – drama, pathos, love, mystery, and thrills. It also boasts exquisite cinematography from two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan”) and a typically stunning musical score by five-time Academy Award winner John Williams (“Star Wars”), whose brilliance as a composer has earned him more than 40 Oscar nominations.
On the acting front, veterans Mullan and Watson are excellent as Albert’s parents, and rookie actor Irvine turns in an outstanding performance as their son.
But the acting in the film is really secondary to the marvelous sets, the lovely English countryside, the superbly choreographed battle scenes, and some stellar special effects.
Most special of all, however, are the magnificent horses superbly trained under the supervision of Bobby Lovgren. Although the part of Joey was played 14 different horses throughout the film, the main star was Lovgren’s own beloved horse, Finder. Anyone who doubts that horses can change facial expressions will be a believer after watching this amazing animal. The scenes between Albert and Joey will melt your heart, and some of the segments where Joey is galloping at top speed across the battlefields will take your breath away. In the film’s production notes, Lovgren explained what makes Finder such a special horse.
“Finder has an uncanny ability to convey his feelings. Two of the trickiest scenes for a horse are when Joey is caught in the barbed wire fence, which was actually made from plastic so as to be harmless to the horses, and when Topthorn struggles and Joey takes the reins to try to pull him up. It was so important to get the emotion of these scenes, but it’s quite hard to do that with a typical horse. I was really lucky with Finder because he has a personality that connects emotionally with audiences.”
Of course whenever a film features animals to the extent this one does, a big concern is for their safety. In order to guarantee that the horses were never harmed or in danger of being injured in any way, Spielberg had Barbara Carr, a representative of the American Humane Society on the set at all times.
In the production notes Carr commented, “Everything was done in the safest, kindest ways for the animals. You could see in Steven that he truly cared deeply about the animals, and that was reflected in the entire production.”
In addition to being a visual banquet, the film also delivers an important message about courage, relationships, and love as Spielberg explained in the production notes.
“Courage is what keeps Joey and Albert going through four danger-filled years apart, and it is courage that becomes a theme woven through the entire texture and fabric of the film. I think “War Horse” has a lot to say about courage and about doing things not just for yourself but for the sake of those you love. That theme comes through in many different ways.
“Albert and Joey have a tenacious belief in one another. It all begins when they attempt together to plow this impossibly stony, infertile field in Devon before the war. That creates such a synergy and empathic collaboration between horse and boy that when they are separated by the war, I think the audience senses that at some point there is going to be a date with destiny. And when that date occurs, you see that, out of the chaos, something wonderful happens.”
“War Horse” (It gets the highest 10 on the scale.) makes something wonderful happen on the silver screen, and it is a true testament of filmmaking at its finest. Don’t miss it.