I remember the first time I saw a horse, it was at a fair at the local
race track many years ago, and I was amazed, I won't lie to you. It is
a child-like wonder to be amazed and be at awe at a magnificent
creature, such speed it gallops by! Such strength it displays!
Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" reminded me of that day, and more. It is a fictional tale set during WWI, and it is meant for kids and their families to watch and be at awe at this magnificent animal. "War Horse" was written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis based on Michael Morpurgo's children novel - so any expectations of it being as grisly as Spielberg's own "Saving Private Ryan" should be removed. Historical fact is dismissed in favor of interesting characters and pure first-rate storytelling.
There are many joys to behold in this film. It is first of all a true epic film with a production value of the highest caliber. There are exquisitely detailed sets and production designed locations, with the dirt and grit from the battlefields and the homely, pleasant countryside backdrop and farmhouses. Costumes are designed meticulously and then worn my hundreds of real non-CGI extras for use in said sets. Epic battle sequences with thundering sound effects. Sweeping, lush and simply beautiful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski which captures those memorable emotional moments. Yet another beautiful and excellent music score by the legendary John Williams that stirs the emotions.
Yes, there are all trademark Spielberg fare. Yet despite his large reputation, Spielberg is often criticized for manipulating emotions using the very techniques mentioned above. At times it will get distracting but "War Horse" makes them work. In fact Spielberg deliberately made this film to be as accessible to children and their families as possible. This is the kind of movie that parents and/or grandparents will take their children/grandchildren to see for a wonderful family outing at the movies, back in the past, of course. "Lassie" and "Old Yeller" come to mind. I'd say "War Horse" is the perfect modern-day companion for those two.
Spielberg has assembled a fine and powerful British cast - Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and David Thewlis... but the heart of the movie belongs to one: Jeremy Irvine, being the young and innocent farm boy who loves his beloved companion. Irvine is perfectly cast in the role and we feel for him as he gets upset over the selling of his friend.
Hall and Curtis wisely decided to treat the horse as a character by itself and developed it not just by its own actions but by also its supporting characters. As we are introduced to new characters as the horse ventures from one place to another, the people that encounter him both change him and are changed by him. You will rarely see this type of character development in a mainstream film these days. An exceptional scene is where the horse is stuck in between no man's land on the battlefield, and both a British and a German soldier work together to free the horse, while at the same time breaking the ice between each other. I am instantly reminded of the classic war films of the past where such a moment develops characters on both sides, making them more sympathetic, so it is sad that they have to end it soon and return to their sides to fight against another.
There are many references to Spielberg's idols as well. Some of the epic sequences are structured similarly to Akira Kurosawa's epics. The very final scene of the movie, which contains mesmerizing cinematography, echoes that of John Ford. It is nice to see a master paying homage to his own masters.
Like many war films of the past, this one contains a common flaw - that is, foreign characters speaking English. Not just the Germans, but a French girl and her grandfather also. I agree that it is distracting and they should speak their native language, but then I remembered that this was meant to be for families and that some children will be hard pressed into reading subtitles for two and a half hours. So I'll let Spielberg off. Besides, I didn't complain about "Schindler's List" being in English throughout, but it's just my opinion.
And the PG-13 rating? Justified. I am quite surprised to see that there the epic battle sequences contain a startlingly intense and realistic atmosphere throughout, with the exception of gore and blood all over the place. Apart from that and the fact that there are dead bodies seen everywhere in the aftermath (both horses and humans) - everything else stays well within the PG-13 limit.
Steven Spielberg has entertained us with his many classics, with "E.T." being a quintessential family film. Now he has made another, "War Horse", which can be enjoyed by kids with their parents or grandparents along for the ride. This is the kind of vintage Spielberg movie magic that we go to the movies for, to be enthralled and to be entertained. Spielberg has done it again. Great stuff. You are a good parent if you take your kids to see this instead of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" or other mindless candy like that.
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