Monday, 26 March 2012

War Horse (2011)

War Horse is a 2011 epic war film adaptation of War Horse, a 1982 children's novel set before and during World War I, by British author Michael Morpurgo, and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same name. It was directed by Steven Spielberg.

The cast includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell, David Kross and Peter Mullan. The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and executive produced by Frank Marshall and Revel Guest. Long-term Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, and John Williams all worked on the film.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was also nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and five BAFTAs.

The Plot

In Devon, England, a boy called Albert Narracott watches the birth of a thoroughbred foal and watches with admiration the growth of the young horse, galloping through the fields at his mother's side. Much to the dismay of his mother, Rose, his father, Ted, buys the colt at auction, despite a friend pointing out a more suitable plough horse for his farm. The desire to spite his landlord, Lyons, and retain his pride, are the apparent motivations for Ted to make higher and higher bids for the colt. The high cost of the horse means he is unable to pay rent to Lyons, who threatens to take possession of the farm if the money is not paid by the autumn. Ted promises to meet the deadline, suggesting he could plough and plant a lower, rock-filled field with turnips. Albert names the horse Joey and devotes much time to training him. Albert's best friend, Andrew Easton, watches as Albert teaches his colt many things, such as to come when he imitates the call of an owl by blowing through his cupped hands.

Ted, who has a bad leg from a war injury, is frequently shown drinking alcohol from a flask he carries. Rose shows Albert his father's medals from the Second Boer War in South Africa, where Ted served as a sergeant with the Imperial Yeomanry. Ted was severely wounded in action, and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery under fire. She gives Albert his father's regimental pennant, telling Albert that his father is not proud of what he did during the war, and that he had thrown the flag and medals away, though Rose saved and kept them hidden.

Albert trains Joey for the plough and, to his neighbours' astonishment, prepares a stony hillside field to plant with turnips. However a rainstorm destroys the turnip field, so to pay the overdue rent (and without telling Albert), Ted sells Joey to Captain Nicholls, a young cavalry officer, as World War I breaks out. When Albert finds out, he confronts the officer and begs for him not to take the horse. Nicholls promises he will take care of Joey as his own horse and hopefully will return him after the war. Albert tries to enlist in the army, but is too young. Before the captain leaves with Joey, Albert ties his father's pennant to Joey's bridle.

Joey is trained for military operations and deployed to France with a flying column under the command of Captain Nicholls. Cavalry charges, once a major form of warfare, are now hopelessly obsolete when faced with machine guns, as Captain Nicholls and his fellow cavalrymen discover after they charge through a German encampment. Nicholls is killed along with most of his fellow cavalrymen, and the Germans capture the horses.

Joey becomes attached to Topthorn, a black horse with whom he trained for his military role. The two horses are used to pull an ambulance wagon driven by two German soldiers, Gunther, and his 14-year-old brother, Michael. Gunther gives the pennant to Michael as a good-luck "charm" when he is assigned to the German front, despite being too young to fight. Gunther ignores an order to remain behind and await call to a later position. Unable to persuade his brother to remain behind, Gunther rides Joey and brings Topthorn along on his escape so he and his brother can ride them to Italy, at this time still neutral. One night, German soldiers discover the absent without leave brothers hiding in a windmill and execute them by firing squad for desertion.

After the two young Germans are shot, Emilie, a young French girl who lives at the farm with her grandfather, finds the two horses inside the windmill. Emilie suffers from Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), and is not allowed to ride the horses for fear of falling. Later, German soldiers arrive and confiscate all food and supplies from the property; Emilie hides the horses in her bedroom to avoid them being taken by the Germans to fight. Emilie's grandfather allows her to ride Joey on her birthday, and she gallops the horse up a hill, adjacent to the farm. When Emilie does not come back immediately, the Grandfather worriedly runs up the hill. On the other side of the hill, the Grandfather discovers that Emilie has run into the grasp of the German soldiers who were at the farm earlier. The German soldiers take the horses, but the grandfather keeps the pennant.

Joey and Topthorn are put to the task of pulling German heavy artillery, an exhausting task which kills horses quickly. The two horses are, however, put in the care of the German Private Friedrich who loves horses and who tries to help them survive.

The story moves forward to 1918, where Albert has enlisted and is fighting alongside Andrew in the Second Battle of the Somme, under the command of Lyons's son, David. After a British charge into no-man's land, Albert, Andrew, and other British soldiers miraculously make it across into a deserted German trench, where a gas bomb explodes, filling the trench with the white chemical fumes of mustard gas.

Meanwhile, Joey and Topthorn have survived years of hard service in the German army – much longer than most horses last – but Topthorn finally succumbs and dies from exhaustion, while Joey and Private Friedrich comfort him, pleading with him to not lie down where he will be seen and subsequently shot, until Friedrich is ultimately dragged away from Joey by other German soldiers. Cornered by an advancing tank, Joey escapes and runs into no-man's land where he gallops through the devastating destruction of the Somme and gets entangled in barbed wire. From their respective trenches both British and German soldiers spot Joey in the mist, although disbelieving at first that a horse could have survived the battle. Colin, a British soldier from South Shields, waving a white flag, crosses No Man's Land at Joey's side to try and coax him to the British side. Peter, a German soldier from Düsseldorf, comes over with wire cutters, and together they free Joey from the barbed wire. They flip a coin to decide who should take possession of the horse; Colin wins, guiding Joey back to the British trench, having formed a strange friendship with the soldier from Düsseldorf, on the enemy side he has been instructed to kill.

The film shifts back to Albert's perspective, where Andrew has succumbed to the gas attack, but Albert has survived, temporarily blinded with bandages covering his eyes. He is recuperating at a British medical camp when Colin brings Joey in looking for a veterinary surgeon to heal the wounds from the barbed wire. Albert is told about the miracle horse rescued from no-man's land. The army doctor instructs Sgt. Fry to put Joey down due to his injuries, but when Fry is about to shoot, the owl call he learned from Albert as a colt catches Joey's attention. Albert is led through the troops to Joey, again sounding his call, and Joey hurries to meet his long-lost friend. Albert explains he raised Joey, and his bandages still covering his eyes, gives an exact description of his horse's markings, confirming his claim. Joey is covered in mud, so the veterinary surgeon refuses to accept Albert's statement, but is quickly corrected when soldiers wash away the grime, revealing the four white socks and diamond blaze on Joey's forehead.

Armistice brings the end of the war and Albert's eyesight is restored. He learns only officers' horses will be shipped home, while Joey and the others are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The soldiers gather funds to help Albert buy Joey, but during a bidding war with a French butcher reaching 30 pounds, a bid of 100 pounds is entered without revealing who placed the bid. Approaching the auction ring is an older gentleman, Emilie's grandfather. No other bid is placed and he is shown taking ownership of Joey. The grandfather implies that Emilie has died, and after hearing about the miracle horse, her grandfather walked three days to get Joey back for the sake of Emilie's memory.

Albert pleads with Emilie's grandfather for the horse, but the old man remains stoic in his auction win. As the grandfather walks away, Joey breaks free and goes to Albert. As he watches the horse and the young English soldier, the grandfather pulls the military pennant from his pocket and asks Albert if it means anything to him. When Albert tells the old man that it belongs to his father, the grandfather has a change of heart. First he gives Albert the campaign pennant, then moments later, gives him Joey, saying it is what Emilie would have wanted. In the end Albert rides Joey back to his family's farm, hugs his parents, and returns the pennant to his father.


The film has received generally positive reviews from critics. Based on 196 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 77% approval rating from critics with an average score of 7/10. The site's critical consensus is "Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg's customary flair."

The first unofficial reviews by bloggers started appearing online the day of the first preview screening, 1 November 2011, with a review appearing on Ain't It Cool News on 3 November. Although there was an embargo on official reviews of the film being published before 21 December 2011, reviews started appearing in mainstream press such as The Daily Telegraph, which gave it 4.5 out of 5, from 26 November onwards. A review in the Daily Mail called the film "Spielberg's finest hour", while The Guardian saw the film as a misfire, in which "Spielberg tries to infuse his film with a fairytale quality but merely provides it with a directorial straitjacket". Richard Corliss of Time named it one of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2011, saying "Boldly emotional, nakedly heartfelt, War Horse will leave only the stoniest hearts untouched". Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, saying the film contained "surely some of the best footage Spielberg has ever directed".

In The Guardian, Simon Winder lamented that the film, "despite twisting and turning to be even-handed, simply could not help itself and, like some faux-reformed alcoholic, gorged itself on an entire miniature liqueur selection of Anglo-German clichés".

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino expressed admiration for the film, and listed it as one of the runners-up for his Top 11 favourite films of 2011. David Chen of the Slashfilmcast selected War Horse as the best film of 2011.

In 2012 the soundtrack recording by John Williams received a Sammy Award for Best New Film Score CD.

The Cast

Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott
 Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott
 Emily Watson as Rose Narracott
 Niels Arestrup as Grandfather
 David Thewlis as Lyons
 Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls
 Benedict Cumberbatch as Maj. Jamie Stewart
 Celine Buckens as Emilie
 Toby Kebbell as Geordie Soldier
 Patrick Kennedy as Lt. Charlier Waverly
 Leonard Carow as Michael
 David Kross as Gunther
 Matt Milne as Andrew Easton
 Robert Emms as David Lyons
 Eddie Marsan as Sgt. Fry
 Nicolas Bro as Friedrich
 Rainer Bock as Brandt

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