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World War II has been put to film a number of times in many different countries, but there are not nearly enough World War I films. Steven Spielberg set out to redress the balance giving us War Horse, an adaptation of a children's book and the play of the same name.
Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is a young man living in Dartmoor in 1914. His father (Peter Mullan) buys a thoroughbred horse when he should have plough because of his rift with his landlord (David Thewlis). Albert is able to break in the horse who he names Joey and he shows to be a very special horse, strong, determined, loyal and intelligence. But when World War I breaks out, Joey is sold to a British office, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and during the course of the conflict the horse see all aspects, from a Calvary horse, in rural civilian life for a French girl suffering Hollywood's disease (i.e. they say she is dying but seems perfectly healthy), as a German work horse and in no man's land.
Spielberg has a good track record making historical films with Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Empire of the Sun. War Horse is a solid film rather then being a great film. It is a film that is rich in period detail, showing the brutal nature of World War I, from the effects of chemical warfare and you feel the muddy, dirty environment as horses pull a giant artillery battery up a hill and Spielberg knows how to make a mundane scene of a horse ploughing a field exciting and emotional (it must be the most boring village in the world for watching a horse ploughing to be considered entertainment). But at the same time there are also some problems, particularly Spielberg's reliance on cutesy humour, from a goose who chases people to a scene in the trenches. I would not be surprise if Richard Curtis was partially responsible. The film is too long and many scenes could have been shorten or cut, particularly in the beginning. I think the relationship and love between Albert and Joey could have easily have been done in half the time.
It was a great idea of using a horse to show the horrors of war and the different perspectives of war. It is a great opportunity to show that they are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the war. There is some success in that in the German army privates are show to be decent caring people to the horse, but the officer core and sergeants were very harsh and cruel. Compare it to the British officers who are noble, if a little arrogant or cocky, but there are hints in one of the officers that behind his eagerness that in reality he was scared of the prospect of going to war for the first time. I would have wanted to see more of a mixed picture within all sides of the war and try to give more depth to the characters.
There is a great cast in War Horse, we have emerging talent like Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch who in their small roles show they are going to be big actors (well more so), new talent like Irvine who was excellent, playing his character like Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings and Celine Buckens where the humour works best. Emily Watson was also brilliant as Albert's mother and it great to see in a big film. And of course Joey the horse shows a lot of promise as an animal performer.
John Williams also supplies Mr. Spielberg with another great score, fitting for the film and Janusz Kaminski continues with great camera work, from the bright work of Devon in the summer to more grey and dull view of the front line of the war.
War Horse is a solid piece of filmmaking. It is typical Oscar bait but it still works as a film and Spielberg is able to make us care for Joey.
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