It's been a very long time since I can remember leaving the theatre emotionally satisfied: longer still, that I can recall an audience bursting into near unanimous applause at the end of a picture. But both events occurred immediately after my screening of Steven Spielberg's War Horse (2011); and now, re-experiencing the movie for a second time on Blu-ray, I think I understand the real reason why. It goes beyond saying that War Horse is a fine film or, as too many critics have so often professed of lesser films as well as this one - 'an instant classic'; though, arguably War Horse was, is, and will remain a classic for some years to follow. But Spielberg - God bless him - is the last of his breed - a filmmaker who still understands how to take fine source material and memorably translate it to the big screen. And War Horse is, among its many other attributes, a big picture indeed; full of meaningfully articulated visual sequences that sometime rely on nothing more than what Hitchcock coined 'pure cinema' - scenes without dialogue - to convey some of the deepest and most heartfelt moments ever put on film.
A lesser director might have sunk to mere melodrama to convey as much - though not as well. But Spielberg's movie does not rely on pure sentiment for sentiment's sake to make us dream the dream in his own creative mindset. Nor does he indulge our fond collective memories of either British author Michael Morpurgo's magnificent children's novel, nor its mesmerizing 2007 Broadway incarnation, to thoroughly satisfy us. Unlike lesser artists of either his own generation, or those who have tried to follow in his footsteps, Spielberg recognizes that any film of merit has to stand on its own two feet as a wholly unique artistic endeavor. It has to connect with an audience on a purely cinematic level. It must endure and live on in the hearts and minds of those who have never read Morpurgo's book or sat through the story as told on the Great White Way. And War Horse, the movie, does just that. For 146 minutes we are treated to an immersive tale told by a master craftsman of his medium who is most definitely in his element and at the very top of his game. All the pistons are firing in Spielberg's creative arsenal and this laser focused attention to every last detail makes War Horse a far more memorable movie going experience.
More to the point, we are allowed the luxury of wallowing in the sheer beauty of the widescreen image with steady long takes that hark back to a time when movies did not so closely resemble video games or excruciatingly prolonged music videos with their chop shop style of editing. No, Spielberg, and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski set aside the popularized prejudice that today's audiences simply will not sit still for a 'slow moving' image and instead go for the sort of 'old fashion' approach to making movies that will never entirely go out of style. The screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall is a masterful telescoping of Morpurgo's epic novel, consolidating the highlights of that narrative into a finely wrought piece of movie writing that moves like gang busters, yet somehow manages to take its time to provide the audience with great character development (something else too many contemporary films eschew in favor of creating sound bytes from two dimensional stick figures with no backbone or soul).
Our story begins in Devon England as young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses the birth of a thoroughbred foal. As the horse rises from his mother's womb and learns, almost immediately to walk on its own, Albert is mesmerized by the animal's intuitive development. He follows the mare and her baby everywhere. The horse is eventually taken to county auction where Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullen) outbids his pompous landlord Lyons (David Thewlis), paying an unheard of 30 gunieas to use the foal as an unlikely plough horse. But Rose Narracott (Emily Watson) is wholly unimpressed with her husband's decision.
Nevertheless, Albert takes to the thoroughbred, who he names Joey and ever so gently guides into becoming a model beast of burden. Even Albert's best friend, Andrew Easton (Matt Milne) is thoroughly amazed when he manages to teach Joey to come to him by cupping his hands over his mouth to imitate an Indian call. But life on the farm is hardly idyllic. Albert is disappointed by his father's lack of vision, his chronic drunkenness that ever threatens foreclosure on their land, and by his inability to stand up for himself against Lyons' obvious goading and condescension. Then, one day Rose shares with Albert her husband's medals for valor during the Second Boer War. She tells Albert that heroism comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes the most heroic men are incapable of expressing bravery in a grand and obvious manner. And although Albert and Joey have proven that they can work as a team to plow the farm - much to Lyons chagrin, Albert is heartbroken when Ted sneaks off to town to sell Joey into the war effort to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) in order to pay off his debt to Lyons.
Albert begs Nicholls to reconsider the sale, but it is of no use. The deal is done. Still, Nicholls can see how much the horse means to Albert. He vows to look after Joey as his own and also - if he can - to reunite Joey with Albert at war's end. As Albert and Joey are parted, Albert affixes his father's regimental medal to Joey's mane so that he will know him when he returns. Under orders from Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) Capt. Nicholls and Joey charge the unprepared German forces in a surprise ambush that ends tragically when Nicholls is killed. Joey is captured by the Germans, reuniting with Major Stewart's horse, Topthorn, after Stewart is taken prisoner alive. Topthorn and Joey are employed to tow the wounded to army hospital by two German brothers, Gunther Schroder (David Cross) and his 14 year old brother, Michael (Leonard Carow). The boys are ordered to separate by their commanding officer. But, owing to a promise he made to their mother, Gunther will not allow his underage sibling to go on without him. Instead he steals Joey and Topthorn, using them to help Michael and himself escape. The plan is to ride to Italy - still neutral territory. Regrettably, a patrolling German regiment find the brothers hold up in a windmill and execute them for desertion. But Joey and Topthorn are left unharmed to be discovered by Emilie (Celine Buckens), a very inquisitive French peasant living obscurely with her tender and loving grandfather,(Niels Arestrup).
Emilie and Joey bond and she successfully hides both Joey and Topthorn when the Germans invade their farm to steal virtually every last morsel of food they have to keep body and soul together. Even though Emilie suffers from a brittle bone disease, her grandfather decides to let her ride Joey. But the commanding German officer (Rainer Bock) has not been so easily fooled. The next day he sends his troops back to the farm and they seize Joey and Topthorn to ruthlessly serve as towing horses for their mighty canons. Yet, even in this darkest hour these horses find a compassionate caregiver in Private Friedrich (Nicholas Bro) who does his utmost to see that they survive, particularly Topthorn, whom Friedrich has nicknamed 'Beauty'. We move to a nasty trench in the conflict circa 1918, where Albert and Andrew are perilously fighting the German war machine on the front lines. Unbeknownst to Albert he is only a few hundred yards from Joey and Topthorn, the latter finally succumbing to exhaustion and dying beneath a bridge with Joey at his side.
Distraught and cornered by an approaching tank, Joey charges and escapes into no man's land, becoming badly ensnared in the barbed wire. Both sides are astounded by the horse's bravery. Drawing a white flag to come to Joey's rescue, British soldier Colin (Toby Kebbell) and German soldier Peter (Hinnerk Schonnemann) strike a truce. Peter gets his men to toss them some wire cutters to free Joey, but afterward suggests to Colin that because he provided the means of Joey's freedom he ought to be allowed to keep the horse. Colin disagrees. Finally, the men decide to flip a coin for Joey. Peter loses the toss and Colin brings Joey back to the British front.
A poisonous gas attack kills Andrew and narrowly missing maiming Albert for life. Lying in hospital with his eyes bandaged, Albert is told of a miraculous horse that survived no man's land and Albert, believing that such an animal can only be Joey, calls to him by cupping his hands over his mouth to produce the same Indian call from their youth spent together. Joey responds. After Albert describes Joey in great detail to surgeon Sgt. Fry (Eddie Marsan), the latter agrees to patch up Joey's wounds and restore him to his rightful owner.
With the armistice Albert regains his sight but bitterly learns that only officer's horses will be allowed to come home. Joey is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in France. Seeing the great injustice in this, the soldiers in Albert's company collect 30 pounds for him to partake in the auction; more than enough to buy back Joey. Regrettably, Emilie's grandfather is also at auction and bids 100 pounds. He tells the soldiers that if it takes a thousand pounds to own Joey he will sell his farm to pay it and Albert reluctantly concedes he has lost Joey for good. But Emilie's grandfather is moved when Joey staunchly refuses to go with him. He tells Albert that Emilie has died, but that she would have wanted Joey to belong to whomever he rightfully should and recollects that Albert is Joey's rightful owner.
In the final moments of the film, Albert returns to his parents' farm astride Joey. He gives back his father's war medal that has traveled with Joey all through the great battles, the two men reaching a silent understanding and mutual respect for each other within the family unit. Each has endured and come through the other side of their own private war. War Horse is a handsomely mounted super production that wears its heart on its sleeve; a generational tale of the many unbreakable bonds that make up a single human life and those that intermingle with other lives - human and animal - through the deluges of time. Every actor has given poignancy and emotional merit to his/her role. Truly, there is not a false note among them.
The most brilliantly conceived and beautifully understated of the lot come from Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Celine Buckens and Niels Arestrup; each memorable in their own right and frankly, beyond mere words - or at least any I am able to effectively sum up in this limited review. John Williams score is, as most John Williams' scores are, a credit to the production, elevating and expanding the scope of the film by taking us to an emotional plain that only carefully crafted underscoring can. In the final analysis, War Horse is a perfectly realized production from beginning to end, and a must see film experience - a movie that made me remember why it is I fell in love with movies in the first place.
Touchstone Home Video's 4 disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack delivers the goods in a jam packed Blu-ray presentation that will surely not disappoint. For starters, the 1080p image is startlingly beautiful. War Horse is a movie made for hi-definition and this transfer marvels with lush colors, solid contrast levels, good grain representation and some truly miraculous fine detail scattered throughout. The Tru-HD audio really gives a kick to all your speakers with SFX and Williams underscoring emerging the real winners. Like the film, this presentation really gives us the 'wow' factor in spades.
Extras are plentiful. On disc one we get 'The Journey Home' that charts the evolution of the project from book to live theatre to film, and also 'An Extra's Point of View' that provides us with a background artist's reflections. On disc two (also Blu-ray) we get the comprehensive documentary, 'A Filmmaker's Journey' hosted by Spielberg, and extensive featurettes on editing, scoring and shooting the film, plus a look at the film through producer Kathleen Kennedy's eyes. Disc three is just a copy of the film on DVD and disc 4 is a digital copy of the film.
I would just like to go on record for a moment about the whole concept of 'digital copies' in general. They're a dumb idea, a waste of disc space and simply a way to bump up the price of a new release. First of all, digital copies are time sensitive. Second, they incorporate a lower bit rate, but even so, take some time to download to one's computer. Finally, as most computers already come with Blu-ray/DVD drives, I really don't see the point to downloading a digital copy on my PC or MAC, even if I was going to export it to an I-pad or cell phone. Why would anyone want to watch a widescreen movie on such a miniscule screen?!? Well, frankly, it's beyond me. But I digress. At any rate, War Horse comes very highly recommended. This is a movie with guts, heart and a miraculously exercised sense of good storytelling. Bravo!
FILM REVIEW (out of 5 - 5 being the best)