Friday, January 13, 2012

War Horse (2011)

There once was a day in film when epics reigned supreme. Movies would typically last an excess of two hours, bordering on three, or more. But now, in an age where people seemingly wish to be entertained in the minimal amount of time as possible, epics have become prehistoric. And that is why Steven Spielberg's epic World War I drama War Horse has not been getting the proper buzz and acclaim that it should be. What a shame.

Steven Spielberg has already mastered World War II in film, with his 1998 masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. This time, Spielberg goes back two decades and takes on World War I. Like Ryan, Spielberg does not focus on the war as a whole, but picks a story within the war as his focal point, with the purpose of entertaining, horrifying, and to tug at your heartstrings.

Having now shot two war films, one may be inclined to think that Spielberg's own personal depiction of war should play a part in both works; but it doesn't. He doesn't judge, or criticize, he merely gives us a realistic presentation of what war is: a brutal and irrational, yet effective, means of getting things done.

War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo's 1982 book, and a 2007 stage adaptation, gives us the ultimate tale of devotion. The story centers around a struggling English family, the Narracotts, headed by Rose (Emily Watson), Ted (Peter Mullan) and their teenage son, Albert (played by Jeremy Irvine in what was essentially his major motion picture debut.) As one may perceive from the trailer, the family purchases a horse, named Joey, of which Albert forms the deepest of affinities with.

Joey not only bonds with Albert, but saves the family from poverty and foreclosure as Albert goes against the odds and teaches the thoroughbred how to properly plow a field.

But then the first half of the title comes into play. The arrival of World War I coincides with the Narracott's crops being destroyed by heavy rains. Desperate, and left with no choice, Ted sells the horse to an English captain (Tom Hiddleston) for the war. Albert is distraught, but by the time he finds out what is happening, it is too late; Joey has been sold. But not before Albert  -- too young to volunteer at the time -- makes one more final pledge to Joey that, when all is said and done, the two will reunite.

 "This isn't the end. This isn't the end, my brother. I, Albert Narracott, solemnly swear we will be together again. Wherever you are, I will find you. I will bring you home." 

It's impossible isn't it? Locating a single horse among hundreds of thousands, deployed somewhere across Europe. And yet, with the deep conviction in Albert's voice, we can't help but to believe him.

A fantastic score by the one and only John Williams enhances the emotions throughout the film, but it is not necessary. The acting, across the board -- amplified by Spielberg's visuals -- is top notch, and need no aid as far as providing emotion.

And with that, we follow Joey. Changing hands constantly throughout the war, and to both sides of the fight, among them being Hiddleston, two German teenagers (David Kross and Leonhard Carow), and a French girl and her grandfather (excellently portrayed by young Celine Buckens and Nierls Arestrup). And with each new possessor, we learn their story, and how the deadly war has affected their lives. With each character's tale, we wonder more and more why this great war is happening if it hurts everyone who touches it.

Celine Buckens in War Horse.
Again, Spielberg is not being critical. There is one terrific scene, where an English and a German soldier cross into no man's land to work together. Away from the bullets and the trenches, they are just two young men, joking around, and getting along despite the fact that they are supposed to be enemies. Not one scene conveys the irrationality of war better than that one.

With magnificent cinematography, Spielberg gives us the horror of war, putting us right in the heart of the battle. It's not quite as graphic as Saving Private Ryan, and I think I'm correct in thinking that was his intention. Whereas Ryan would be better off not being viewed by a young audience, War Horse is a great introduction to war for young teens. Because amidst the storyline of a young man and his love for his horse, which a younger audience can relate to, there is a war going on.

All the while, Albert, who eventually becomes old enough to volunteer, is still on a quest for his horse. Whether he will find him remains anyone's guess up to the film's end, as most people know that Spielberg has never been one to submit to fairy tales.

In the two hour and twenty minute saga that Spielberg gives us, your emotions will be taken for a ride. Aside from your attachment towards the love between Albert and Joey, you will feel for every character that sets foot on the screen. And in a war movie, you know where that leads.

It all stands to reason why Spielberg enjoys picking subplots within wars to tell his story. It mostly involves young men who get mixed up in something in which they have no idea why they are involved with in the first place. Yet, it takes everything from them and gives them nothing in return. And that is the unforgiving nature of war. We don't sympathize for the political leaders who set the war in motion, but for the young soldier, who just wants to live, go home, and find his beloved horse.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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