For over 50 years, Steve Crum has written reviews and features for newspapers, magazines and websites, and appeared on radio and TV shows regarding entertainment media. In addition to his years of service on the Governing Board of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, his Crum on Film weekly column was awarded 1st Place in Kansas and Missouri newspapers via Kansas City Press Club/Heart of America journalism awards. Nearly 2,000 of his film reviews have been posted on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the exhilarating drama War Horse, director Steven Spielberg neither aims for the sci-fi/fantasy heights of E.T. nor the starkness of man’s inhumanity (Schindler’s List). Thematically, War Horse straddles both genres, clocking in as a mixed breed of the reality of war’s brutality and animal lover fantasy. I say fantasy because the exploits of the title horse stretch beyond credibility. Hybrid or not, the movie is a thoroughbred winner.
Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ screenplay could be described as thoroughbred as well since it is drawn from Michael Morpurgo’s best selling children’s book and the Tony Award winning play--both sharing the film’s title.
The story is reminiscent of Courage of Lassie (1946) since it involves a beloved pet, of sorts, that is thrust into a world war, and whose survival, let alone return to its home base, is fraught with impossibility upon impossibility. Of course, in War Horse, the “pet” is an English farm family’s horse named Joey. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys the hunter colt at auction despite the fact he cannot afford it. To make matters worse, he has to face his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) who obviously realizes more than her husband just how tight their meager budget is. Ted has gone to town to purchase a much needed plow horse, but returns with a steed clearly bred for the race track. Their teenaged son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is pleased nonetheless, and vows to train the horse to pull a plow if only they will not resell it.
There is a marvelous sequence involving Albert’s desperate attempt to lead the painfully struggling Joey into plowing a field of rock-hard earth (amidst a number of actual rocks) as virtually the entire town observes. Included amongst is the landlord of the Narracotts’ farm, who plans to close on their property if Joey fails.
At the outbreak of WWI, Joey is sold to the military who, like the enemy Germans, used horses to carry supplies and pull wagons and artillery. It is hard to believe such animal mistreatment under modern standards, but it was very true then. The sale occurs despite Albert’s desperation. Here the story unfolds into realistically staged battle sequences in France, including horrific fighting in and out of the infamous trenches of “the war to end wars.” Through the confusion of battle, Joey journeys from British lines to German, pulling ambulances and becoming a loyal servant to both sides. For a time he is separated from battle altogether, and befriends a civilian French girl and her grandfather.
The film’s most memorable set piece is its most grueling, and involves the horse literally caught on its own during battle in No Man’s Land between the English and German trenches. I had to turn my head away due to the intensity. Spielberg does use an animatronic horse for parts of it, which will not lessen the extremely sympathetic impact. It is the stuff that bad dreams are made of.
Joey’s long journey does not end in the previously described scene, but does involve humans he has befriended along the way. That is enough said without destroying the film’s wonderment. It all makes for a tissue-to-eye finale. Incidentally, there were 14 Joeys used throughout the filming. Considering what this horse endures, it should be no surprise.
John Williams’ score is sweeping and, at times, heart wrenching. Janusz Kaminski’s photography, particularly in capturing the English countryside and French fields, has fine, oil painted color and texture. Accolades are deserved all around, marking another Spielberg triumph and, undoubtedly, Oscar contender.