It’s no exaggeration to say Steven Spielberg is one of the busiest men in the entertainment industry. As of this writing, he has 21 projects listed as “in development” on IMDB, and it seems as if one in every five new shows debuting on major broadcast networks bears his name.
Case in point: this month, he has two feature films hitting theaters within days of each other. The Adventures of Tintin has been making a splash at the worldwide box office and is a spectacular adaptation of Herge’s classic comics. War Horse is another adaptation, this time of a British book (and ensuing stage play) that has taken the United Kingdom by storm over the past decade. Eschewing the action/adventure genre in favor of a more traditional drama, Spielberg tells the tale of a boy and his horse separated by the hellish landscape of World War I and fighting against all odds to be reunited.
In the small English town of Devon, an alcoholic father bids more than his family can afford for a stubborn young horse named Joey. Faced with eviction, it falls on his teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) to break in the horse and plow the family’s stony field in time to pay their due. Albert and Joey are wrenched apart when WWI hits England, and the rest of the film depicts the war through Joey’s eyes as he travels across Europe, changing owners (and sides of the battle) multiple times on his quest to reunite with Albert.
War Horse is the perfect subject matter for an homage to John Ford, and Spielberg takes full advantage of the opportunity. Sprawling countryside’s, epic vistas, and gorgeous natural locations were hallmarks of the director of The Searchers, Stagecoach, and Rio Grande, and Spielberg uses his beautiful English locations to the same effect, evoking not only Ford but also Gone With the Wind in certain shots. But Spielberg isn’t one to simply bow at the altar of a particular filmmaker without making his own mark along the way. After all, this is the man who essentially defined the visual aesthetic of World War II in modern media with the likes of Saving Private Ryan and the momentous “Band of Brothers.” Delving further back in time to The Great War (a war that is rarely explored in American film, and the first time this director has tackled it), Spielberg and his long-time director of photography Janusz Kaminski employ similar handheld techniques to make the audience feel the immediacy and insanity of battle, but this time favor off-screen deaths to keep a PG-13 rating.
Casting an unknown can be risky, but Jeremy Irvine is a good choice for the lead role. He finds an innocence in the role appropriate for the time period, an unchecked purity that makes Albert’s singular mission the most important thing in that character’s life. The story begins with twenty or so minutes of bonding time between Albert and Joey, a slow swell to a heartbreaking separation. That introductory time feels just a bit stretched out, but it’s necessary to form the strong relationship that justifies the action of the character throughout the rest of the film. Supporting cast members David Thewlis, Emily Watson, and Peter Mullan turn in solid performances, but it’s Niels Arestrup, playing a grandfather to a French girl that stumbles upon Joey halfway through the film, that brings the most emotional heft to his part.
War Horse features one “instant classic” scene fit for inclusion among Spielberg’s best. It’s a meeting of opposing forces as they unite to save Joey, after he – in the film’s second best sequence – charged across a ravaged battlefield and ensnared himself in barbed wire. There are a few other memorable moments, but nothing near as compelling as that scene.
If your family is searching for a crowd-pleasing drama this holiday season, War Horse is your best bet. This has already made many “Best Of” lists as 2011 comes to a close, but if I had to choose my favorite of the two December Spielberg releases, I’d still go with The Adventures of Tintin. They’re two totally different genres, and my personal preferences lean toward action/adventure anyway, but all this is just a warning to keep your expectations in check. If you can avoid too much hype, War Horse will gallop away with your heart. Until next time…