War Is Hell: Horse Edition

When Steven Spielberg puts down his producer’s cheque book and actually directs a movie, you show up. After all, it was way back in 2008 when the Nazi hating, Oscar winner last directed a feature-length picture; (though, many would like to forget that foray, as it involved digging up Harrison Ford from the ground and handing him his long-lost whip). This year, Spielberg returned with double directorial duty, getting back behind the panavision for both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. I showed up to the one with the horse.

Based on the children’s book and Tony Award-winning play of the same name, War Horse tells the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a poor, British farm boy and his undying love for Joey, a thoroughbred horse ill-purchased to plough his family’s farm. Although everyone says, in various caricature-ish British accents no less, that it is impossible for the show pony to plough such rocky terrain, Albert’s bond with the horse helps Joey to get the job done.

Soon, World War I breaks out and the financial hardships of the family farm prove overbearing. With the stupidly evil landlord  Lyons (David  Thewlis) breathing down the family’s neck, Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan) sells Joey to the regimen in order to make rent. Albert vows that no matter what, he and Joey will be reunited once more.

War Horse is a deeply sentimental film, bringing Spielberg’s token E.T. tenderness, and pairing it with his patented  Indiana Jones adrenaline rush. The result is a sweeping epic of pastoral proportions. It is a visually pleasing picture, rich in action, adventure and heart.

Still, there is something overtly-honeyed about War Horse and its pension for the storybook standby. This integrity of the film’s narrative hinges solely on the unshakeable bond between man and animal. At times, that bond is fastened with hollow clichés and little substance. There are moments when we are compelled by the overtly articulated and underly conceptualized connection between Albert and Joey, but more often than not, we are missing the pervasive, all-consuming substance that is required of a film duo to drive a story for 3 whole hours.

The true issue of the film falls with the original source material. As a fan of the play, I was confused as to why War Horse was being adapted into a film. After all, much of the original play’s marvel and charm came from the fantastic puppeteer work of the horse in question. On stage, Joey and his horse company are intricate wooden marionettes, operated from within by two actors a piece. The aesthetic result is simply stunning. Without it, I never found the story to be much of a stand-alone and in my opinion, this is why much of the film falls flat.

That being said, there is some truly compelling and deeply pleasing material at work, here. The film takes a much more exciting and unformulated shape when Albert and Joey are separated, and we may see a cruel, random, and unsentimental glimpse into how wide-spreading the horrific effects of war truly are. Each of Joey’s varying encounters feel all at once more meaningful than much of the oddly Equus relationship he shares with Joey. These scenes are the true meat of the picture.

In addition, Spielberg’s well-orchestrated battle scenes are epically choreographed and filmed, very reminiscent of his heart-wrenching work in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s true talents are displayed within the  picture’s grand and visual combat scenes. His work in War Horse is thoroughly compassionate to both sides of the battlefield. War is horrific, brutal, and cruel, and Spielberg makes the audience feel its ruthlessness so deeply. We see the blood shed and body count through man and animal’s eyes alike. This is the true triumph of the film.

As far as its Oscar future goes, the Spielberg name still carries a lot of weight with the Academy. Although War Horse is a less than original piece of cinematic work, the swagger of the creative team alone will pull in more than a few nominations. Though many of the performances were forgettable and will most likely not receive any nominations, War Horse will still garner a Best Picture nomination, along with a Best Director nomination for Stevey, himself. Also, John Williams’ breathtaking score will most definitely receive a nod and a potential win for Best Original Score. But who knows, Oscar voters are generally cray cray for the animals. War Horse could become the, dare I say it, dark horse of awards season. You see what I did there? I’m too much.

What did you think of War Horse? Were you sensing some Daniel Radcliffe-type chemistry between Albert and his horse, or is my mind in the gutter? Share it all in the comment section.

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