Of director Steven Spielberg’s many talents, perhaps the most career-defining is his ability to craft excellent films that have incredibly wide
appeal. The likes of Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T. and Jurassic Park seem to strike a chord with just about anyone with a pulse.
Try as it might, War Horse cannot reach that same level. As a result, this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel (and its recent stage
adaptation) feels like a couple different stories jockeying for the overall tone of the film.
War Horse wants to be a light, charming affair, but it also wants to be a tragic war film. The two threads usually don’t mesh particularly well.
It doesn’t help that the film is told from the horse’s point of view. Human characters come and go; some with very little development.
But despite War Horse’s unfocused narrative, Spielberg’s dramatic hammering eventually pays off.
Quite the opposite of Spielberg’s recent Tintin, which disappointed in spite of its technical prowess, War Horse succeeds despite all of its
mistakes because it is directed so earnestly and with such heart.
Opening with majestic pastoral landscapes and an overly cheesy sentimentality, it’s easy to be initially put off by War Horse. But as the film
goes on, it begins to grow on even the most skeptical of us.
The humor of a disarmingly cute sequence when a French man and his granddaughter find the horse is brilliant, as is a sequence when
both a German and English soldier emerge from their trenches to free the barb-wire entangled beast.
From this point on War Horse hits the right notes. When a character from earlier in the film takes center stage again, the movie finally
successfully melds its lighter and darker material into a very satisfying ending. Here War Horse lifts itself just high enough to earn a
Although Spielberg’s direction is very strong at times, War Horse also owes a huge part of its success to both composer John Williams and
cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Williams’ work is breathtakingly beautiful. This is an incredible and sweeping dramatic score that is as much a part of the film’s emotional
core as any other element. There is simply no production this year that owes more of its success to its music. Without this score, I don’t
think War Horse works.
Kaminski also adds to the atmosphere with his evocative and stylish photography. Whether it’s the vibrant countryside or the color-bled
battlefields of World War I, this is a beautifully shot film.
War Horse feels very much like an old-fashioned movie. It’s unashamed to show emotion and let the music swell with sentimentality. And
the visuals are a throwback to a time when the artistry and magic of cinema were allowed to trump the pure realism that is preferred by
For better or for worse, War Horse is a throwback. And although many will have trouble accepting its merits on these grounds, the film has
enough heart to win most over. All flaws aside, consider me an admirer.
* * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan,
David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston
Music by: John Williams
Cinematography by: Janusz Kaminski
Released: December 25, 2011; 146 Minutes