Thursday, January 19, 2012

War Horse (2011)

A quick perusal of my top 100 films can tell you any number of things about me. For starters, that I have an unabashed love for all things Kurosawa. Then again, spending five minutes talking with me about movies could easily tell you that one. However, if you were to dig a little deeper. To seek out the connections and overlaps between many of the relating films, one constant should become entirely evident. I love me some good ol' fashion epics.

Throw a group of characters together, stretch their journey through life and war over two and half plus hours and low and behold, I'll be waiting at the end hands ready in applause position. So imagine my excitement when I found out that Spielberg was set to deliver such an experience. Let alone one covering one of the most oft ignored and yet still powerful wars in history, World War I.

From the sweeping landscapes of old English farm land to the mud enriched, rat infested, world of trench warfare, War Horse takes us on the kind of journey one might imagine would be found in the likes of a Disney film grown up. Joey, our titular horse, whose journey through a war with which he had nothing to do is sentimental to the highest degree, and yet at the same time strikes subtle and yet resonating chords on the true nature of war.

War Horse boasts what I might argue is some of Spielberg's finest directing moments in over half a decade. Not least of which is found in Spielberg's craft at creating a violent war film without much of the violence. In a way that would make Pulp Fiction era Tarantino proud, Spielberg creates graphic violence through carefully place camera movements. The substitution of imagery for actual bloodshed is a particularly nice decision - as evident in the riderless horses in one early battle sequence. This decision presents something I've been asking Hollywood to deliver for years - intensity without blatancy.

Of course for a generation like myself which has been born and raised on that graphical conclusion to events, these might leave some wanting. But I would like to hope that deep down one can admire the craft in coordinating and filming such scenes.

Still, where War Horse succeeds in visual poetry, it falters in a revolving cast of characters. Like many epics, War Horse deals with a wide array of characters coming and going, and as such the time for whole and complete character building is often left to the cutting room floor. Take for example Captain Nicholls and Major Stewart, played by the equally brilliant Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch respectively, who give off so much charisma in their short screen time that they still leave you longing for their return. Not to mention the sadly underused Eddie Marsan in the generally thankless role of Sgt. Fry towards the film's climax.

So in substitute for the revolving characters we are effectively given human bookends to Joey's journey. In this we find ourselves with Albert (Jeremy Irvine). The young, poor farm hand son of a perpetually drunken father (Peter Mullan) and fiery mother (Emily Watson). Albert provides much of the necessary scenes which help Joey build the skill set he needs to survive so many of the sequences he deals with in war. At the same time, Albert is also given a journey of his own to survive. Including a thrilling battle sequence - by far the film's most violent - as he seeks out his long embattled friend, Joey.

The rest of the cast is a wide assortment of "hey, it's um that guy" talent who deliver time and time again. But no matter what is thrown at us, there is never a doubt that this film is entirely Joey's film. For he is the heart of the matter. He is the life blood through which each character is given a reason for being. The film thrives and falls on the strength of his shoulders. Luckily for us all, he is made of stuff stronger than steel.

OVERALL SCORE: 8.00 / 10

Film Credits:
Directed By Steven Spielberg
Screenplay By Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
Novel By Michael Morpurgo

5 better thoughts:

Andrew Robinson said...

You're right about the imagery in place of graphic... it's great. Even though I guess I was on board more with the limited character arcs for a lot of the people because I knew it was the story of the horse and how that horse can affect people, just like how an image can affect us (take a look at a lot of great photography and you'll know).

Ryan McNeil said...

(Hi by the way - I've been abysmal at commenting lately)

Funny thing about the violence you mention - I was listening to a recent podcast where the guests were complaining that by keeping the violence bloodless, you water it down. How the heck have we come to that?

The wide image after the Hiddleston/Cumberbatch-led charge where we see bodies of men and horses strewn across the battlefield weren't enough? One needs to see a hores get riddled with bullets to "truly feel the violence of war"? Nuts I tell you.

Glad to read that you liked this, and that it landed the prestigious LIE 8/8 score (zing!)...I was beginning to think I was all alone in enjoing this yarn.

Sebastian Gutierrez said...

Did you see the stage play? You should see the stage play!

I liked this movie, but I didn't love it. I will not dispute you your comments about the imagery and the violence. Though there was no blood, this was still one of the most harrowing and intense depictions of war I've ever seen.

I just thought that Spielberg was trying to hard to tug at our heart strings, and this is entirely due to the fact that I responded so well to the play. My mouth was agape at the stage version well before Act 1 finished, and I was in tears for most of Act 2. It really is an emotional powerhouse, and one that hits you like a freight train. I really only felt that in the movie during the final sequences, starting with (SPOILERS) Topthorn's death, and concluding with Joey and Albert's reunion.

What really proved to me that Spielberg was trying to hard was the reappearance of the grandfather in the end. That was completely unnecessary.

I liked the movie. I liked it a lot. I especially loved how Spielberg built and framed the relationship between Joey and Topthorn. That was beautiful.

Seriously though, you should see the play. It's sooooooo much better!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My wife insisted on seeing yet another 'stupid horse movie' and I actually enjoyed it. It was confusing following all of the characters sometimes, but visually it was stunning. Never thought about the lack of bloody scenes, but it was so intense, it didn't need them.

Norma Desmond said...

I really liked this movie, though it seems like that's kind of the "uncool" position to take. There's no doubt that Spielberg is actively trying to pull your heartstrings, but he does it rather gracefully and the battle scenes are fantastic. Great review

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