Movie Review: War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011)

4 out of 5 stars

I found this film difficult to watch.   Spielberg is a master at tugging my heart to places it fears to tread.  And this horse went to places of heart-stopping beauty and through circumstances of heart-rending destruction.

Two aspects of this film, excluding the beautiful equines, that hit a home run (for me at least) were the cinematography and the music.  I expect that from the likes of John Williams for the latter.   I will pay attention to cinematographer film credits in the future to be sure I watch anything by Janusz Kamiński.  He worked previously with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.  Of course, it’s hard to go wrong with landscapes found in Dartmoor, Devon.  And a nice ‘book end’ touch to the film included almost identical scenes, one of dawn over Dartmoor (and the birth of Joey) and the other at dusk.

I knew the plight of men who went to battle during the Great War.  I am blessed to live within thirty miles of the National World War I Museum housed under the Liberty Memorial.  I highly recommend you visit the museum if you ever find yourself in Kansas City, Missouri with a day or so to spare.

I did not realize the extent of equine casualties during WWI.  According to the Wikipedia article on War Horse, the section relating to the research done by the author of the children’s novel of the same name:

Morpurgo researched the subject further and learned that a million horses died on the British side; he extrapolated an overall figure of 10 million horse deaths on all sides. Of the million horses that were sent abroad from the UK, only 62,000 returned, the rest dying in the war or slaughtered in France for meat. The Great War had a massive and indelible impact on the male population of the UK: 886,000 men died, one in eight of those who went to war, and 2% of the entire country’s population.

Background, War Horse, Wikipedia

Similar to Black Beauty in time period and focus, the true star of this film was Joey, the English thoroughbred.  “During filming, fourteen different horses were used as the main horse character Joey, eight of them portraying him as an adult animal, four as a colt and two as foals; four horses played the other main equine character, Topthorn. Up to 280 horses were used in a single scene. … Working with horses on this scale was a new experience for Spielberg, who commented: ‘The horses were an extraordinary experience for me, because several members of my family ride. I was really amazed at how expressive horses are and how much they can show what they’re feeling.'” (War Horse Wikipedia article).

And the most surprising tidbit I picked up from that article: “According to Spielberg, the only digital effects in the film are three shots lasting three seconds, which were undertaken to ensure the safety of the horse involved: ‘That’s the thing I’m most proud of. Everything you see on screen really happened.’ … Representatives of the American Humane Society were on set at all times to ensure the health and safety of all animals involved, and the Society awarded the film an ‘outstanding’ rating for the care that was taken of all the animals during the production. An animatronic horse was used for some parts of the scenes where Joey is trapped in barbed wire; the wire was rubber prop wire.”

Like Schindler’s List and The Passion of the Christ, I’m glad I watched this film, but I’m not sure I could watch any of them a second time.  No, it doesn’t rise to the human tragedy and triumph of the two I mentioned, but War Horse reverberates on a similar harmonic.