Sunday, 15 January 2012

Film Review: "War Horse" (2011)

The film’s tagline, "Separated by war. Tested by battle. Bound by friendship" is at the heart of War Horse. This war drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel and play of the same name by British author Michael Morpurgo. Set in the outbreak of World War I, Joey, young Albert's beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. He's soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary journey, serving both the British and the Germans before finding himself alone in no man's land. Meanwhile, Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

The genesis of Morpurgo's novel began when after he met a World War I veteran, named who drank in his local pub at Iddesleigh and who had been in the Devon Yeomanry working with horses, Morpurgo began to think of telling the story of the universal suffering of the Great War through a horse's viewpoint, but was unsure that he could do it. He also met another villager, Captain Budgett, who had been in the Cavalry in the Great War, and a third villager who remembered the army coming to the village to buy horses. Morpurgo thanks the three men in the dedication of the book, naming them as Albert Weeks, Wilfred Ellis and Captain Budgett. The third inspiration for the book, after meeting the veterans and seeing Billy with Hebe the horse, was an old oil painting that Morpurgo's wife Clare had been left: "It was a very frightening and alarming painting, not the sort you'd want to hang on a wall. It showed horses during the First World War charging into barbed wire fences. It haunted me." The painting was by F. W. Reed and was dated 1917, and showed a British cavalry charge on German lines, with horses entangled in barbed wire. The novel was an immediate success and was then adapted as a stage play in 2007 by Nick Stafford. Originally Morpurgo thought "they must be mad" to try to make a play from his best-selling 1982 novel. He was proved wrong by the play's instant success. The play's West End and Broadway productions are directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, with "horse choreography" by Toby Sedgwick. The horses were not real live horses, instead they used animatronic puppets for the animals. The animatronics were so successful that the Sunday Express said "The horses... are truly magnificent creations... Astonishingly lifelike."

Morpurgo, Lee Hall and Revel Guest tried to adapt the book into a film, working for over five years with Simon Channing-Williams, but in the end they had to admit defeat by lack of financing. To work dramatically, the story could not be told solely through the viewpoint of the horse (as it was in the book), and so the film version with a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall is based on the narrative approach of the stage play more than that of the book. Unlike the play, which used puppet horses, the film uses real horses. In 2009, film producer Kathleen Kennedy saw the critically acclaimed production of War Horse in London's West End with her husband, fellow producer Frank Marshall and their two daughters. They were very impressed by the story and Marshall has recalled how he was amazed that no-one had already bought the film rights to the book. Steven Spielberg was told about War Horse by several people, including Kennedy. After discussions with Revel Guest, it was announced on 16 December 2009 that DreamWorks had acquired the film rights for the book, with Spielberg stating: "From the moment I read Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse, I knew this was a film I wanted DreamWorks to make ... Its heart and its message provide a story that can be felt in every country." Spielberg saw the London production of the play on 1 February 2010 and met some of the cast afterwards. He admitted to being moved to tears by the performance. Spielberg has directed six films set during or just before World War II (1941 (1979), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Empire of the Sun (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Schindler's List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998)), produced two, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), as well as producing two major television miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. In contrast, War Horse is Spielberg's first foray into World War I storytelling, as Spielberg admitted that prior to learning about the War Horse book and play "I had never been that interested in World War I". Kathleen Kennedy elaborated on the appeal of the story: "In cinema we've told very few stories about World War I and I think that's one of the things that attracted us to this ... It's a forgotten war in the United States, and that had a very powerful effect on Steven and I."

The cast includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell and Peter Mullan. The cast gave unforgettable performances, especially Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott. He played the young naive boy with absolute determination as the character never gave up on trying to find Joey and cross through the treacherous landscape of No Man's land. Another unforgettable performance came from the film’s animal star – Joey. It’s performance will linger on as the single greatest and most iconic animal role since Babe.

Anchored by a winning performance from an unlikely star, Spielberg's unflinchingly realistic war film, War Horse, virtually redefines the genre again. Like his previous effort, Saving Private Ryan, the film breaks new ground in content and style. It merges some of the most realistic battle footage with a touching human story. If Spielberg's emotional intelligence matched his visual genius, his harrowing, passionately felt and honorably flawed new film might qualify for one of the greatest American movies ever made about World War I. One of the best movies of 2011!

Simon says War Horse receives:

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