Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE Film Review – Above the Bit

“This is what quiet confidence looks like.”
– Captain Nicholls, War Horse

To say that Steven Spielberg’s film, War Horse, is a modern-day cinematic masterpiece would be an understatement and finding the right words to fully describe its brilliance is quite a daunting task. The above quote seems to work best to sum up the collective whole of the film and the genius behind its creation; a triumph of superb storytelling and the magic of cinema at the employ of a capable and confident director. War Horse is a gallant film, realistic and resolute, creative and heartfelt and elegantly flawless in its execution. This is Steven Spielberg at his best and reminds us of why he is one of our most celebrated directors and why we go to the movies to be entertained in the first place.

The film opens in the English countryside in 1914 as a farming family impulsively purchases a tenacious young colt at auction. Short on funds, Ted and Rosie Narracott (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) try to stave off eviction from their mean-spirited landlord, Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis), and realize that the horse, named Joey, is not suited to work the farm. Their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine),sees the valiant spirit within Joey and patiently trains him, bringing out the best in the horse. Thus begins a friendship between man and beast that is put to the test as they are separated by the outbreak of World War I. A promise by Albert that they will one day be reunited begins a cinematic thread taking Joey through devastating hardships intermingled with joys, heroics and life-affirming moments with those who befriend him along the way.

Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, far left) and Sergeant Perkins (Geoff Bell) prepare to take Joey away with them. Albert (Jeremy Irvine, center) holds on to Joey defiantly while his father (Peter Mullan, right) looks on.

The theme of war is an undeniable aspect of War Horse and the title of the film is apt to the subject matter.  World War I (Spielberg’s first foray into the era) is seen through Joey’s eyes with an unflinching portrayal of its devastation and apparent waste of lives. Similarities may be drawn to Saving Private Ryan (especially the battle scenes), but where War Horse diverges from Ryan is in its depiction of violence. The film is decidedly family-friendly, sanitized and free of excessive blood, gore and gut-turning brutality. It goes beyond an ideological argument about war and rather uses it as a backdrop serving a much more personal story. War Horse is a moving portrait about the unbreakable and sacrificial bond of friendship and commitment; the courage to persevere for those you love and the hope and resilience of the human (and animal) spirit despite adversity.

Emilie (Celine Buckens) atop Joey, gives her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) a significant pennant found attached to the horse’s bridle.

It is no wonder that Steven Spielberg was drawn to make the film adaptation of War Horse, inspired by the book and play of the same name. With this film, his years of storytelling experience and, more precisely, innate talent in the visual medium are brought together in perfect harmony. The magic of War Horse lies not only with the touching story, but in the small moments where humor and heart show up in the most unlikely places to break the tension (often backed by John Williams’ beautiful and moving score).  A scene of peace between two opposing soldiers set in No Man’s Land among the trenches of the Somme stands out as one of Spielberg’s most simple, yet powerful moments in the film.

Details that a sharp eye will observe throughout are also apparent whether it be the stunning vistas painted by cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, evoking the memory of great John Ford westerns or the almost unnoticeable inclusion of rats scurrying about the feet of the soldiers in the trenches; War Horse is a detailed and visual delight … all the more stunning knowing that only three scenes in the entire film were completed with CGI effects. What could have been a brutal moment depicting the execution of two soldiers instead becomes a beautiful, almost poetic scene, carefully framed (and timed) within the passing blades of a solitary windmill. Steven Spielberg’s mastery of direction is apparent in every shot.

Director Steven Spielberg (far right) observes Jeremy Irvine (left) rehearse a scene with Joey on the set.

In a recent interview, Spielberg stated that he still faces anxiety every time he begins work on a new film. “I think it’s my fuel, basically—my nervous stomach. That’s what keeps me honest, right? And a little bit humble, in the sense that when I make a movie, I never think I have all the answers.” ¹ It’s a trait that has plagued him since his first professional directing job and something he has stated repeatedly in interviews throughout the years. There’s no reason to doubt he’s telling the truth, but the overwhelming achievement of War Horse shows that Spielberg is very confident in his vision and knows exactly what he’s doing behind the camera. He is still at the top of his game and excels at bringing forth the best collaborative effort from his creative production team.

Spielberg sets up a shot on the battlefield set on location in England.

Some might say that War Horse borders on being too sentimental  or “schmaltzy” as Spielberg has been known for on occasion. For those who would make such a judgment, it’s best that they check their cynicism at the door and embrace not only the touching story of the film, but also the masterful artistry of Spielberg and his talented crew. The film is an achievement and deserves every award and honor it most assuredly will receive.

If you’re looking for the best film of 2011, you can bet War Horse is your winning ticket.

War Horse rides into theatres on Christmas Day, December 25th. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. Highly recommended for families with children aged 13 and older.


¹ Breznican, Anthony (2011). The Secrets of Steven SpielbergEntertainment Weekly, #1184, 35-44.

Kevin Stern can be reached at:
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