War Horse is an elegant, epic look at the horrors of World War I.
The opening chapter of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse feels awkward. It’s looking for a tone, a pace, a direction. It plays like a 1950s Disney live-action family drama. It’s not that it’s bad, but it raises the question as to what Spielberg saw in the story, what the appeal was for him. After all, the source material is a 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo; it’s a children’s book about World War I written from the point of view of the horse. Then again, this movie was preceded by a 2007 London stage play which took the book as its basis. That highly successful, Tony Award-winning stage play is currently at Lincoln Center in New York City.
In those first scenes, a colt is born and a farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, Tyrannosaur) arrives at a horse auction and outbids his landlord, upping his bid from one guinea to 30 for that colt. It’s not the work horse his wife, Rose, desperately wanted him to acquire, but Ted’s ego got in the way – and his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine in his feature film debut) is immediately enchanted by the new arrival.
Unfortunately, they needed a plow horse and now they’re in danger of losing their farm. Their current work horse is getting too old to handle the load.
Amid the family farm drama, in which they make an agreement to extend their time to make payments, a nasty storm wipes them clean and forces them to start over. Rose (Emily Watson, Angela’s Ashes) takes her son aside to explain to him why his father drinks; she also clues him into his father’s heroic activities during the Boer War, actions for which he was bestowed a number of honors. While Ted’s a man of considerable pride when it comes to his farm, his deadly duty during the war brings him a sense of shame.
Maybe a better analogy for those opening scenes is that the movie’s like a bucking Bronco waiting to break out of its pen. It takes a while for War Horse to find its way, but once the story moves away from that farm drama preamble, things begin to soar. Not only does the story become much more engaging, but the entire presentation takes on a far greater sense of ambition and purpose.
Visually, there are some spectacular scenes framed with an immaculate sense of composition. Thematically, the story examines the crudeness of World War I.
Those elements come to the fore when the imperial valor of British soldiers, gallantly wielding sabers while charging ahead on horseback, are confronted by the enemy line – armed with industrial age weaponry. The honorable Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, Midnight in Paris), a British officer who bought Joey from farmer Ted, dies in the battle and Joey’s ownership changes hands once again.
Therein lies the movie’s magic. Considerably beefed up in its portrayal of the horrors of war, and with key characters fleshed out to a more impactful degree, War Horse the movie – by way of the stage – turns into a sweeping, engrossing epic.
Much as the search for one family’s son became the vehicle for experiencing a series of World War II vignettes in Saving Private Ryan, Joey’s travels and changes of ownership become the vehicle for exploring the agony, brutality, and tensions of World War I.
When Spielberg made Schindler’s List, he commented on the opportunity to capture all of those wonderful European faces on film. Watching War Horse, there’s that same sense. While, much like Schindler’s List, the cast is peppered with familiar faces, David Thewlis and Emily Watson among them, many of the key roles are fresh – or at the very least, less familiar – faces.
One of the most engaging of those faces belongs to newcomer Celine Buckens, who plays a precocious farm girl enamored with Joey when he comes into her life. Spielberg knows how to get exceptional performances from child actors and this is one of the best of the best. Her story, along with that of her grandfather (Niels Arestrup, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), so cut and dry in the original book, takes on a much-needed ambiguity, one that brings the awful contagion of World War I from the highest levels of the front lines to the equally disturbing aspects of property confiscation and personal invasion.
Emilie’s story is preceded by that of Gunther, a German horsekeeper who rescues his brother from the front lines. Weaving and intertwining the war efforts of Ted together with the current war’s events, Gunther uses Ted’s Boer War pennant, which Albert transferred to Joey when Capt. Nicholls took the reins, as a visual cue to identify his brother’s backpack in the line of marching soldiers. He put it there to give his brother good luck. And the plan worked well.
Trouble is, the brothers at that point became deserters. And they were found.
The rotating sail of a windmill moves into view and blocks the sight of the two young deserters being executed out in the open field. It’s elegant filmmaking, the kind of quiet, artful flourish Spielberg bestowed upon grim, grisly scenes in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
More stories are told as Joey moves from owner to owner, a mere puppet of war.
There’s a great, theatrical interchange between a British soldier and a German soldier as they work together to rescue Joey from an entanglement of barbed wire in No Man’s Land. They reveal their individual prejudices in a fairly lighthearted banter, then part ways with a handshake. They know full well they’re really not that different from each other, but the hell of war will continue.
In War Horse, Spielberg has found a terrific canvas to once again visit the horrors and heroics of war.
The ending carries shades of Empire of the Sun, showing Albert himself transformed by his own hellish experiences in the trenches and the loss of friends on the front line.
When Ted and Albert reunite, there’s a new understanding of pride and bravery that’s shared between them. And, as called for by Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, it’s a moment earned.
The following refers to the four-disc Blu-ray/DVD set. Also available are a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo package and a single-disc DVD edition. All told, this set is excellent with almost two hours of terrific supplemental content.
The first disc holds the Blu-ray presentation of the feature film plus a couple supplemental items.
But first, it’s worth pointing out a very odd kick-off to the the Blu-ray. A title card promises the typical collection of movie previews and cross-promotions. Instead, the one and only item is a public service announcement about the dangers of tobacco, featuring a cowboy busker singing with the assistance of an artificial larynx. It’s a truncated version of a PSA that’s at least a year old. While the message is appreciated, as presented here it’s simply creepy, unexpected, and misplaced.
Now for the supplements.
War Horse: The Journey Home (20 minutes) is a roundtable discussion with Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and select cast members. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Spielberg talk about filmmaking and this is no exception. He makes a humorous comment about being able to completely control the CGI Snowy in Tintin and the mechanical E.T.; horses in the Indy Jones movies were secondary to the guy riding the horses. But working with real horses as leading cast members, in War Horse, was a different proposition altogether.
By having a roundtable discussion, the segment provides a nice spin on the usual cast interviews. Furthermore, the participants shift midway through to make way for key crew members, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, screenwriter Richard Curtis, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and editor Michael Kahn. Noteworthy comments include Spielberg’s confidence to improvise on set and work from intuition more than pure intellect. “We all have a lot of horse sense,” Spielberg jokes.
An Extra’s Point of View (3 minutes) focuses on Martin Dew and the 250 or so “background artists” who worked as the British and German soldiers.
As is typical of Spielberg’s home video releases, the lack of a running commentary track is disappointing. Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott arguably hold more film knowledge and mojo than all the other directors out there combined. And yet only Coppola and Scott fulfill their fiduciary duty to film history by regularly providing film school calibre commentary tracks. Then again, it’s perhaps even better to watch Spielberg at work on set and behind the scenes than to simply hear him talk. In that regard, this set excels.
A Filmmaker’s Journey (64 minutes) is a very thorough documentary about the making of the movie. It all started when producer Kathleen Kennedy saw the stage show in London’s West End and then presented the idea of a movie version to Spielberg, who went to see the show himself and the rest is cinematic history. Michael Morpurgo, the author, provides some insight (and he gets a cameo in the movie). There’s also some really beautiful production art presented. It’s interesting so see the use of pre-visualization as a key tool in ensuring sequences involving horses would be safe enough to stage and film. And watching the creation of the grand charge scene is great to see; it’s an incredible assembly of real-life moving parts, so much better than any CGI could provide. In short, this documentary provides a great sense of how Spielberg works with both technical talent and actors.
Given most deluxe Blu-ray releases are for summer blockbusters and holiday effects extravaganzas loaded with featurettes about all the computer work required to achieve the effects, perhaps the most exciting takeaway from A Filmmaker’s Journey is the ability to see all sorts of behind-the-scenes filming on location – and how awesome even that behind-the-scenes footage looks because it’s “real” as opposed to an assortment of digital soldiers and landscapes sitting in a computer somewhere.
Editing & Scoring (9 minutes) is a look at two of Spielberg’s long-time collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams. Gotta love Kahn’s “Long Live Film” baseball cap. With Apple and Google virtually leading the charge to bring an end to all things tactile, it’s an important, significant sentiment.
The Sounds of War Horse (7 minutes) is a surprisingly informative look at the reality and sourcing of the sound effects, including a story about an old-school plow doing its thing at Skywalker Ranch.
Through the Producer’s Lens (4 minutes) offers a look at Kathleen Kennedy’s excellent production and behind-the-scenes photos. Kennedy talks about the production and offers some nice historical perspective on World War I and the story of War Horse.
The DVD includes the feature film and one featurette. At first it seems odd and unfortunate that a featurette entitled The Look (6 minutes) would be relegated to the DVD and not included on the Blu-ray for superior image quality. Alas, the featurette is essentially a 6-minute edit of content from material found on the Blu-ray.
The fourth disc holds the digital copy for use on iDevices or Windows devices.
Picture and Sound
The Blu-ray’s English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is superb. The battle scenes offer showcase surround sound design.
Alternate feature film audio options are English Audio Descriptive 2.0 Dolby Digital, French 7.1 DTS-HD HR, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Feature subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
Equally impressive is the immaculate visual presentation, framed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Janusz Kaminski’s incredible cinematography shines and the terrific on-location filming calls to mind the glory days of pre-CGI filmmaking and the epic works of David Lean.
How to Use This Disc
Experience Spielberg’s latest masterpiece. A Filmmaker’s Journey is also highly recommended to see how this movie came to be.