Sunday, January 8, 2012

War Horse

My weekend debauch was a plate of goat meat at a Mexican restaurant and a matinee showing of the new Spielberg picture, the beautiful War Horse.

I like to drop names of cast members, but the average Yank isn't likely to recognize a lot of the faces in this movie. This is chiefly because most of them are British faces. Harry Potter fans might recognize David Thewlis (lately "Prof. Remus Lupin") as the sharp-tongued landlord and Peter Mullan (lately pony-tailed Death-Eater "Yaxley") as the hero boy's broken-down father. Emily Watson, late of Breaking the Waves and more recently The Water Horse, plays the boy's mother. Eddie Marsan (lately "Inspector Lestrade" in the Sherlock Holmes movies) plays a sergeant in the trenches of World War I.

The boy himself, who is most likely on his way to becoming a big star, has a face that you'll feel you've seen before, but in fact this is his first movie. The actor, whose screen name is Jeremy Irvine, is already featured in three upcoming films, including the role of Pip in Great Expectations. Maybe that gives you an idea of his type & the direction his career is going. Topping the bill of an epic, tear-jerking, Spielberg-directed war movie must be a great way to start a career in the movies. Being a really good actor with male-model looks and the ability to shed tears on cue make him a threat to a whole generation of up-and-coming leading men.

The movie is a love story between a young man and a horse, a handsome thoroughbred stallion he raised and trained, in defiance of what everyone in his Devon village considered possible, to be a serviceable plowhorse. Albie (the boy) and Joey (the horse) are meant to be inseparable, but thanks to a crop-destroying rainstorm and the outbreak of World War I, they are indeed separated. Sold to a young cavalry captain, Joey sets out on a series of heartbreaking adventures, passes from owner to ill-fated owner, and finally—in a scene that made me cringe and groan, "Oh no"—gets tangled in barbed wire in the no-man's-land between the British and German trenches at the Somme.

Albie, meanwhile, undergoes his own hardships among the machine-guns, the mustard gas, and the insanely high cost in human life of a few yards of muddy wasteland. Even when boy and horse are miraculously reunited, the chance remains that regulations and rival claims will separate them again. The movie ends with a scene shot in amazing light, with a silhouette-like composition and hardly any dialogue, proving that the filmmaker can be a more powerful storyteller than even the writers and the actors. It is but one of many Spielbergian stylistic touches, another notable example being the use of a moving windmill blade to render a firing-squad execution both less gruesome and more dreadful.

To be sure, however, credit for the emotional power of this movie must also be given to composer John Williams (whose score is steeped in British folk melody), cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who won Oscars for two previous Spielberg movies, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List), and of course, all those magnificent horses. Assuming that some of them were actual, live animals and not just CGI effects, a lot of effort must have gone into training them to act, and remain calm, among crowds of extras, battalions of war-machines, and heaps of oozing mud. I can't believe that they would subject a live animal to some of the strains depicted in the film; there must be laws against that sort of cruelty. So the effectiveness of these gut-tearing images must be due, at least in part, to special effects.

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