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USA 2011
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
146 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

War Horse

Synopsis: Just before World War One, struggling English farmer, Ted Narracott  (Peter Mullan) impulsively buys a thoroughbred, hoping to use it as a plough horse. Son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the animal, which he trains and names Joey. When war breaks out his father sells the horse to the cavalry, breaking Albert’s heart. So begin Joey’s amazing adventures in many spheres of battle, on the side of both the English and Germans. 

War Horse is based upon a novel by Michael Morpurgo which has been made into a Tony-winning play, using, surprisingly, horse puppets. No puppets for Steven Spielberg  however, Here we have real horses, big, beautiful, steamy, sweating beasts who are as much the stars of the show as the human actors. We see and understand the importance of these noble beasts to World War One (one little known fact is that of the one million horses which went to battle in WW1 only 62,000 returned).

The love of horse stories runs deep for many people, myself included, who remember from their childhood such stable staples as Black Beauty and National Velvet. Now Spielberg brings that sensibility back to the screen. It’s old-fashioned but in the best possible way. His rich vision has turned the story into a sweeping epic – a saga of love, loyalty, friendship, and all those wonderful yesteryear values that bring a sizeable lump to one’s throat. He also brings to the story a powerful additional dimension – one that we have seen him so persuasively recreate in Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List - the milieu and atmosphere of war.

The film looks glorious thanks to a long-time colleague of Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The opening scenes put the bucolic, romantic Devonshire countryside to fine use, with heart-warming scenes of a mare foaling and quaintly rustic folks at horse sales, along with a cruel landlord (played to perfection by David Thewlis). The hardships of being a struggling tenant farmer are well portrayed. In stark contrast are the awesome scenes of cavalry charges, and the mud, blood and mustard gas of the trenches. The battle scenes are among the best I’ve seen, and I can only marvel at the horse wrangling and special effects required to avoid injury. One extraordinary culminating scene set in the no-man’s land between the opposing forces (what happens there I’m not revealing) enhances the powerful anti-war message of the film.

A fine cast of screen stalwarts and newbies includes Emily Watson, suitably earthy as Albert’s mother, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan and Neils Arestrup in memorable roles. It is however the 14 horses playing the role of Joey who give us a character to remember.

War Horse is a marvellous blend of genres, with many diverse threads stunningly interwoven into a strong narrative line that follows Joey’s journey. Throw into the mix composer John Williams' stirring (and at times typically overbearing) score, and you have the makings of a real blockbuster. Best of all it’s a true “movie magic” experience, which if coming dangerously close to schmaltz also comes in huge on heart.




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