Steven Spielberg and I are of the same generation, and when we were still wearing shorts and packing cap pistols there were all sorts of horse movies and TV shows to inspire our play.
Girls had “Black Beauty” and “National Velvet” (though we’d sneak a peek at Liz Taylor in the latter), and boys had “My Friend Flicka” and “Fury,” two TV series set on ranches that detailed the exploits of boys and their horses—the equine equivalent of “Lassie” or “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” But the one film that left a lasting impression on me—and I’m guessing Mr. Spielberg as well—was “Tonka,” a Disney live-action feature that played in theaters in 1958 and was redistributed as “A Horse Named Comanche.”
Like “Black Beauty,” it was a film that followed the horse’s perspective as he went through different owners. “Tonka” starred Sal Mineo as White Bull, a young Sioux just entering manhood who developed a special bond with a horse he called Tonka. Unfortunately, the young man and his horse became separated. Renamed “Commanche,” he found himself one of the mounts in the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. His rider, Captain Keogh (Philip Carey), was as warmly depicted as White Bull, and that was something you didn’t see very often in films of the day—a dual, sympathetic point of view. Westerns tended to be either pro-Indian or pro-Cavalry. What also elevated “Tonka” was that it used history as a backbone. The commander of the 7th Cavalry was none other than General George Armstrong Custer, and in the sequence depicting the Battle of Little Big Horn—a.k.a. Custer’s Last Stand—there was a lot more violence than we typically saw in a Disney movie. But when the smoke cleared? There stood Tonka, a horse that captured the imagination of everyone watching, because he was a survivor.
Change the setting from the American West to Devon, England and switch the conflict from the Westward Expansion clashes to the battlefields of World War I, then throw in a few more “owners” in the manner of “Black Beauty,” and you’ve got Spielberg’s version of “Tonka,” a film that played in theaters when the director was 12.
“War Horse” is an old-school movie that’s meant to be rousing. It’s the most family-friendly war movie that Spielberg has made since his PG-rated “Empire of the Sun” (1987). Still, it isn’t a family film per se, because animals get shot, people get shot, bodies fly in the air when shells explode in the trenches, and main characters are killed off. It’s war, after all. But the focus on the animals in this PG-13 rated film somehow blunts the force of the trauma. Then too, by portraying good people on both sides of the war—horse lovers, all—Spielberg hints at the same sort of no-villains filmmaking we saw in “Tonka.” Well, except for Gen. Custer, who’s always drawn as an unfeeling, pompous, and reckless man. There are a few Gen. Custers in “War Horse” as well, but the focus is on sympathetic characters and on Joey, the horse that goes to war.
“War Horse,” which is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and a theatrical adaptation by Nick Stafford, opens in a manner that reminds you of another Disney movie—“Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” The pastoral setting, the evocative cinematography and an idyllic life are juxtaposed against an old man (Peter Mullan) who drinks too much and whose lifestyle is jeopardized because of it. Sent by his wife (Emily Watson) to buy a plowhorse at auction so they can replace one that died, the old man instead winds up in a bidding war to keep their landlord (David Thewlis) from acquiring a spirited colt. It turns out that this is an animal that his young son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), has admired since the day he watched him being born, and the lad teaches the riding horse how to plow.
“War Horse” takes a pretty direct route, without much in the way of side plots or serious character development to complicate matters. In no time at all the horse named Joey is sold to a British cavalry officer, and through various circumstances also passes into the hands of a German horse wrangler and his brother, a French girl and her grandfather, and back again to the Germans—who, apart from the brothers, probably come across the least favorably.
“The war is taking everything from everyone,” a German officer says, and that serves as the film’s oft-repeated theme. Though another theme is “pluck” vs. luck, there’s no glorification of war here. Some scenes will remind viewers of “The Red Badge of Courage,” while others will echo “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Small details like rats in the trenches and a soldier left behind to shoot any who leave the charge and try to return add realistic power to a film that’s already heavy with emotional content.
Irvine could probably have been a little more charismatic, but, let’s face it, in a horse movie the actors shouldn’t upstage the animal. That’s according to plan. And as you watch “War Horse,” my guess is that you’ll recognize other tropes that reflect a simpler moviemaking era in Hollywood. “War Horse” isn’t just set in the past. In tone and in the way that the narrative unfolds, it’s a throwback to a more romantic era of filmmaking—when making feel-good movies wasn’t anything to apologize for. It’s the kind of film that maybe families CAN watch together and use as a means to talk about the cost of war that seems too great . . . no mater what side you’re on.
“War Horse” has an interesting look, with the Janusz Kaminski cinematography changing to match the setting and mood. Early shots look as if they could have come out of a travel documentary, while British cavalry and infantry scenes tend toward the brown and khaki, and the German scenes tend to match their uniforms in a faux monochromatic way. Amazingly, it works. Black levels are strong throughout, and there’s a terrific level of detail. Most memorable is a shot at the end where (blank)—you’ll get no spoilers from me—is silhouetted against a deep orange sky, the way that John Ford used to end his films. In that shot you can really appreciate the sharpness of detail, the brilliance of color, and the overall quality of the picture. “War Horse” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio and transferred to a 50GB disc via the AVC/MPEG-4 codec.
The sound is even more perfect than the video. The featured English DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio delivers a powerful, room-shaking sound, especially during battle scenes. If there’s a more realistic evocation of shells exploding or machine guns blasting away, I haven’t heard it. It’s a completely immersive and dynamic soundtrack that also fares well with six-speaker systems. Sometimes the dialogue gets lost, but for the most part it’s an effective soundtrack. Additional audio options are French DTS-HD HR 7.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This is the four-disc combo pack, and I consider the DVD and Digital Copy to be bonus features. In addition to that, there are more than 85 minutes of extras. In a better-than-average making-of feature, Spielberg and company contemplate “War Horse: The Journey Home,” which is to be found on the Blu-ray disc containing the feature. Also on that disc is a fun and unique featurette, “An Extra’s Point of View,” which is a step up from the typical fly-on-the-wall observational narrative. It features Martin Dew talking about what it was like to play both a German and British soldier.
Disc 2 features HD content you’ll only get on this four-disc combo pack. In “A Filmmaking Journey,” Spielberg offers his exclusive journal-like take on making the film, and the hour-long extra is a must for Spielberg fans. Spielberg is also heavily involved in an “Editing and Scoring” feature that explores these aspects of post-production with editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams. The men also talk about their longstanding work relationship with each other. In another feature, Gary Rydstrom discusses the sound design and the many layers of audio that go into each scene. Finally, in “Through the Producer’s Lens,” Kathleen Kennedy talks about the film using behind-the-scenes photos she took, and recounts how she discovered the source material for the film and Spielberg’s reaction.
Finally—and here’s something you don’t see all that often—on the DVD there’s a bonus feature that doesn’t appear on the Blu-rays. “War Horse: The Look” features the full creative team talking about the art direction and visual style of the film.
All of the bonus features are above average, which should offer some compensation to those who wished for a commentary track that doesn’t appear.
I can see why “War Horse” received a Best Picture Oscar nomination, in addition to nods for cinematography, score, art direction, sound editing, and sound mixing. It’s well directed and beautifully filmed. Plus, in Hollywood, anti-war movies never go out of style—even when they come packaged in an old-time story like this one that goes straight for the heart. On the other hand, I can see why it didn’t win. We have seen this sort of story before, and if you stop to think about it, we don’t learn much more about the characters than we do about the horses. “War Horse” really does trust that the audience will be able to connect with the movie emotionally. And for this film, like the relationship between horse and rider, that’s the bond that matters most.