WARNING: Do not continue reading unless you want to be spoiled on key parts of the movie, War Horse.
Is it bad that I thought the trailer for this movie was a lot more beautiful than the actual movie itself? Perhaps, but it’s honestly how I felt. Maybe it was because I made the mistake of listening to all the hype and watched too many trailers on YouTube before seeing the movie (which is something I rarely do because I usually find it makes me disappointed like this), but this is how I felt after I watched it—I was definitely more moved by the trailer than I was by this actual film.
I had been warned by people that this was a really sappy movie and was even advised to bring a box of tissues, but I honestly didn’t feel much emotion until about towards the latter half of the film, starting right at the part where Joey (the name of the “War Horse”) was being clipped out of some barbed wire by one soldier each from the British and German sides. In fact, I feel like that’s where the film actually started for me. Everything else prior to that scene seemed incredibly rushed, and even after that scene things seemed to fly by quickly, just not nearly as fast as the beginning.
I’m all for sappy movies; in fact, given that I’m in the right mood, sometimes I’m a huge sucker for them. This movie though was sappy and corny in a way that didn’t really resonate with that side of me; movies like Real Steel and Moneyball, however, now those are the type of movies where I can shamelessly admit I enjoyed the cheesy parts.
That being said, I don’t think it was necessarily a downright awful movie—I just don’t think I can consider it necessarily movie of the year. To be honest, I’m not really sure I can say any of the movies that have come out this year really had “movie-of-the-year” potential. In my opinion, 2011 was a pretty awful year for movies in terms of quality.
But back to War Horse. I won’t exactly give you all the play-by-play, but I’ll give you enough detail so that maybe you can see what I meant about everything being so rushed.
I guess I was kind of disappointed by the lack of character development in this movie, but when I think about it, that was probably the point. The story was mostly told from Joey’s point of view, and everyone else was just a supporting character. I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen a movie where the central character was mostly the animal; even Jeremy Irvine’s character as Albert Narracott, the boy who mostly rears Joey, seems to be mostly a supporting character. I suppose the fact that I was too excited about certain actors being cast into the film (like Benedict Cumberbatch—who I think is an underrated actor and I love his interpretation of Sherlock in the BBC series and Toby Kebbell—another underrated actor in my opinion who did a wonderful job as Johnny Quid in Guy Ritchie’s 2008 RocknRolla flick) were to blame for my possibly overly high expectations for this film. Neither man really got much screen time, though Kebbell got a few more lines in than Cumberbatch did.
Anyway, the movie starts off with a nice bird’s-eye view over some beautiful landscape. I love the countryside so I really enjoy when there are scenes in a movie where I can get to see some of that. It then seems implied that Albert Narracott, Irvine’s character, falls in love at first sight with Joey after he is born. There’s some scenes of him trying to interact with Joey with little success, and then Joey and his mother are soon sent to auction. At the auction, Albert’s father wins Joey and takes him home, but he has now made enemies with his landlord and his spoiled son, who were trying to get the horse as well. I forget the amount Albert’s father pays for the horse, but basically he depletes a good chunk of their savings on Joey, putting the Narracott family very behind in rent. Albert’s mom is unsurprisingly none to pleased with this and at first tries to get her husband to take the horse back and retrieve their money. Her husband refuses and Albert steps in and insists that he will train the horse and put him to good use.
There are a few little scenes of Albert training Joey, and his best friend is there to watch (I forget the guy’s name though). We get to see how intelligent this animal is (and I think it’s implied he’s smarter compared to most other horses). During these scenes, Joey learns how to respond to a particular bird call that Albert uses to beckon his horse to him. We also learn (I can’t remember if it’s before or after the next part I’m going to mention) that Joey can’t jump. How we learn this is when Albert rides alongside his landlord’s son’s car on Joey and makes a failed attempt to jump over a stone wall with the horse in order to impress the girl that the landlord’s son is with. (At first I thought there was going to be a love triangle thrown in here too, but there really is no huge significance with the girl, which I found surprising. The only real love story that ever happened in this movie was between Albert and his horse.)
Eventually, the Narracotts face a lot of pressure from their not-so-nice landlord, and they are told they need to come up with the rent money by October or they will be evicted and Joey will be taken from them. Not too long after, Albert’s father goes through a bit of a mental breakdown and almost kills Joey, because the horse refuses to put on the harness for plowing their yard. Both Albert and his mother manage to stop him, and Albert assures his parents that he will teach Joey how to plow.
I think sometime after this is the point where his mother comes to him and shows him some of his father’s old medals and memorabilia from his time at war. He ends up holding onto a slightly discolored red and tan handkerchief/scarf-looking thing with an insignia on it. This is one of the things we see get passed along many different hands along with Joey throughout the course of the movie.
There’s an “inspirational” moment that follows where a bunch of people (landlord and his son included) that are gathered around the Narracott’s field, mocking Albert and Joey as they attempt to plow the field together. They are unsuccessful at first, but eventually with the help of some rain, they are suddenly able to fully plow the field. His father soon tends to planting some crops (that they are eventually going to sell for money) so that they can pay their rent. Unfortunately, an unexpected rainstorm occurs and destroys most of their crop.
Not too long after this disaster, it is announced that England is entering WWI. Without consulting his son, Albert’s father takes the opportunity (while his son is away) to take Joey down to town and sell Joey off to a soldier, Tom Hiddleton’s character. Too late, Albert catches up to his father and begs the soldier to return the horse to him. The soldier replies that he cannot and says that Albert can at least say his last goodbyes to the horse before he takes Joey to war. After the soldier turns his back, however, the horse handler that he’s with doesn’t allow Albert more than a blink of a second to embrace with his horse, thinking it silly to shower so much affection on something that isn’t a dog. Before the soldiers get too far off, Albert races alongside Joey and ties his father’s scarf to him and promises the horse that they will be meeting again. (During this the same horse handler is trying to shoo Albert away, but the soldier that bought Joey tells the man to leave the boy alone.)
The next part is the British camp. Joey proves to be a rather unruly horse, so the horse handler puts him in a pen next to a tall, dark, and equally temperamental horse, which belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Major Jamie Stewart. I was so happy to see Cumberbatch here, but unfortunately from the music and the tone of the scenes I already knew he wasn’t going to last more than the few minutes he did. There’s a bit of friendly banter between him and Hiddleton’s character, Captain Nicholls, about which horse is faster. There’s a drill scene where all the soldiers practice formation, and during this time Stewart and Nicholls race the two horses, with Joey winning out (not a big surprise). I couldn’t help but to shake my head at how ridiculous British soldiers used to fight; I guess they thought other people would fight wars according to rules and codes like they did, so they didn’t really come up with any fancy ways to fight—just charging straight ahead with swords and not even any real gun power.
I can’t remember which scene comes first after that, but there’s a scene where Nicholls writes a letter addressed to Albert and draws some sketches of Joey for him. (There’s another mini-scene here about a soldier’s hat, but it really isn’t all too significant to the overall story.) The other scene that blurs together with the letter-writing one is when Stewart talks to some Indian operatives who tell him they scoped out the German camp and that there is a chance that they can ambush the Germans there and at least win that territory, even though they are considerably outnumbered. He decides that ambushing is an ideal course of action, and then we see the scene most people should be familiar with if they watched the trailer, where Cumberbatch says “be brave” to his solders—though he only says that once if I recall correctly, and his speech isn’t nearly as dramatic or inspiring as the trailer leads you to believe (or at least, as it led me to believe).
The ambush scene is just a bunch of screaming and hacking from the British side at first until a good number of the Germans reach the trees where they have their guns hidden. They start firing and pretty much everyone on the British side dies (since they do not have firepower of their own) except for Cumberbatch, who is soon surrounded by Germans while on his horse and realizes that the battle is lost and he has no way of escaping. It is implied that they shoot and kill him after taking possession of his horse.
Nicholls had died much earlier and Joey had tried to escape, but he was captured by the German soldiers. The Germans take Joey and Stewart’s black horse and one of the young boy soldiers convince an official to use the horses to pull the medical carts. We see the significance of the earlier plowing scene here when the black horse refuses to put on a similar plow harness and Joey encourages the black horse to just poke its head through, which according to the boy soldier has saved the black horse from getting shot.
At the German camp, we learn that this young soldier is one of the horse handlers and has a little brother. The captain orders the older brother to stay behind at camp with the horses and orders the younger one to go into the front lines of battle. The younger brother feels honored to do this, but the older brother does not like this idea. He ties Albert’s father’s scarf onto his brother’s backpack “for luck” and later uses it to snatch his brother up while riding on Joey and leading the black steed. They eventually ride off, deserting the German military.
They come across a windmill and hide themselves and the horses in it. All seems well until the next morning they wake up to the sounds of the German army. Panicked, they climb up the stairs in the windmill but unfortunately make a racket and they are found by their captain. They are taken out of the windmill and then shot to death. For some odd reason though, and I can’t really figure out why, they don’t seem very concerned with the horses anymore at this point.
The following morning, a young girl walks into the windmill and sees the horses. Shocked at first, she leaves for a second and then opens the doors again and takes a closer look at them. She later tells her grandfather about the horses, and somewhere in there we learn that the girl is sickly. She tries to teach Joey to jump, but this never really happens.
Things get a little hazy here again for me in terms of order of scenes, but there’s a part where the German soldiers arrive (which honestly makes no sense to me because they already were there the night before at the windmill—which is a stone’s throw from their house—and killed the boys, so why are they arriving again, and how did the two of them not hear the soldiers before?), and they basically take everything the can from the old man’s home that seems useful. Before they do all that though, the girl manages to hide the horses up in her room.
Before I forget, somewhere in the middle of all these scenes there’s a part where Albert receives the letter and sketches of Joey from Captain Nicholls, and he learns from the letter that Nicholls had been killed in action. Disheartened and believing Joey might be dead, Albert storms off from the field where he had been working with his parents. It is implied that it is around this time he goes off and joins the British army, as we see him there a little later in the movie.
The soldiers eventually leave, and then there is this really odd scene where the girl throws a mini-tantrum about wanting to ride the horses and asking her grandfather if her parents died fighting against the Germans. The part that kind of threw me for a loop was the weird speech the grandfather makes, which seems to fit seamlessly into the trailer, but I felt like I had no idea why he was telling the girl the story here. He didn’t even answer her question, at least, I don’t feel like he did, and even stranger was the fact that a tear falls from her eye after her grandfather is done speaking. If anyone can explain to me what I was supposed to get out of that scene, please do let me know because I really didn’t get it.
Anyway, out of some random inspiration the next day, her grandfather decides to give his granddaughter her mother’s old riding saddle as a birthday present. She saddles up on Joey, and against her grandfather’s warning to just ride up on the hill and return, she rides up past the hill and doesn’t come back. (It kind of annoyed me how predictable that scene was.) The old man and the black horse wait a while, but then the black horse seems to lose patience and runs after Joey and the girl. When the man follows the black horse over the hill, he sees that the other side (where the windmill is) is littered with German soldiers and the girl and Joey have been caught by them. Watching that scene, I couldn’t help but wonder why on earth the grandfather didn’t scope things out before allowing his granddaughter to go out for a ride? It just didn’t seem logical.
The Germans recapture the two horses and the grandfather pulls his granddaughter away from them. The horses are given to a new handler, and eventually the black horse is about to be forced to pull some heavy German artillery when one of the other horses becomes useless and is shot to death by a captain. The black horse has a leg infection, however, and the horse handler tries to explain this to the captain and offers up Joey to do the job instead. Unfortunately, the captain is not very sympathetic and insists that the black horse needs to help pull the load or be shot. Joey, seeming to understand the conversation somehow, runs up to take the black horse’s place and succeeds in his task in helping to bring up a huge tank over a hill.
My memory gets kind of fuzzy again here, but the captain tells the horse handler to bring the two horses to the front line or something like that, and the horse handler refuses at first but the captain threatens him into it. Reluctantly, the handler starts dragging the horses in the direction they need to go when the black horse falls and eventually dies, much to the dismay of Joey and the handler. Almost minutes after the black horse has taken its dying breath, the German soldiers appear to be making a hasty retreat; I think they were being ambushed or something. Anyway, the captain tells the handler not to worry about Joey and to leave him behind, which the handler doesn’t want to do, so the captain has two other soldiers drag the handler away by force. The handler screams at Joey to run, afraid that Joey is going to get killed by whatever is coming.
Joey doesn’t move at first, still mourning over the loss of his friend, when suddenly a tank appears. I can’t tell if the tank is manned or not, but it starts plowing over in Joey’s direction. Scared, the horse starts running and is panicking because he has reached a dead end. He eventually finds the ability to jump over the tank though, and if I’m recalling correctly, this is the part of the trailer where Joey starts running like crazy through all the barbed wire and eventually gets so caught and tangled up in everything that he finally has no choice but to give up and stay in a balled mess.
Again, I can’t remember the exact placement of the following scenes, but I think it is at this point we start seeing the British side of things again. The next few scenes kind of reminded me vaguely about what I had either read or heard in some history class in middle school or something, about how battles during wars used to be somewhat staged and both sides would agree to when to start fighting and when to have a ceasefire so that they could pick up the dead and so on. Anyway, the first of these scenes, we see some soldiers collecting people’s personal belongings, letting them know that they will receive their things back should they come back alive. Albert tosses in most of his things but then sort of changes his mind and takes back the sketches of Joey that he had received from the late Nicholls earlier. This is also the part where I realized that there was really no love triangle that was going to happen between the girl the landlord’s son had been with at the beginning of the movie, the landlord’s son, and Albert, through a somewhat pointless exchange they have during this scene.
We also see that Albert’s best friend from the beginning of the movie has enlisted with Albert, and they are fighting with the same group of men. Coincidentally (or conveniently) the rich landlord’s son is also with them. The captain then orders everyone to go over the trench and conquer the next one that the German’s have built. At first there is some hesitation and Albert’s friend chickens out and doesn’t appear to have the nerve to climb over the trench. The captain then scares everyone by saying that if anyone were to retreat without orders, they should be shot even though they’re on the same side.
Pretty soon most of them fly over the trench and a lot of them are killed instantly by German fire. The landlord’s son gets wounded and he starts panicking. Albert soon makes his way over to him and gets him to safety. They seem to come to some kind of truce as Albert tells him to just wait for help to come and then he goes off to fight. Eventually his best friend finally musters the courage at the very last minute and just barely makes it to the next trench unscathed. The celebration of the young British soldiers is somewhat short-lived though. Albert’s friend starts going off one way, but Albert realizes that they should be going a different direction. He calls out to his friend to come follow, but he is too late and suddenly there is a wave of mustard gas that envelopes them both. His friend unfortunately dies, and Albert is left temporarily blinded. After the mustard gas incident, Albert and the landlord’s son are leaning against each other for support and they hobble over to the medical station; I can’t remember whether or not the landlord’s son was in crutches, but I think he was, and Albert has something wrapped over his eyes, which were the part most affected by the nerve gas.
I suppose I shouldn’t have found the next scene as funny as I did, but I couldn’t help but laugh at one part of it. Finally Toby Kebbell makes an appearance—though I admit I doubted it as him at first because he looked so different, kind of like how Johnny Depp looks to me sometimes outside of his pirate role—and he notices that there is a horse out on the battlefield that is trapped. (There’s a funny scene just before the British soldiers realize this and they wonder if the horse will come to them if they call him properly, and there’s a brief chorus of soldiers clicking their tongues or whistling before they realize he’s just way too stuck to come over to them, even if he wanted to respond to their calls.) Kebbell’s character then decides to go out and help, against the advice of his peers, and waves a white flag as he nears the horse. At first the German think that this is some kind of trick and shoot at Kebbell, but then he shouts back that he means no harm and waves the white flag again and eventually makes his way to Joey.
Unfortunately he realizes a little late that he should have brought gloves or something and nicks himself on one of the barbed wires on Joey. While he’s musing aloud how he could possible get the horse out, the voice of a German soldier catches his attention. I couldn’t help but find it kind of cute when the German soldier held out a huge pair of wire cutters and said that he thought maybe they could be of use. Watching that scene, I could almost imagine two little kids trying to work out a problem together. They seem to assess each other at first, and after it seems like neither one is going to do anything underhanded, they begin to talk to each other about what might be the best way to release Joey without causing the horse too much harm. Kebbell’s character says aloud that he wishes they had some more wire cutters. The German soldier calls out to his side for the request, and I was probably the only one in the whole theater laughing as hard as I did when wordlessly five or six wire cutters flew out and over the trench.
Eventually the two of them manage to cut Joey free, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect the two of them to start up the war again early before the brief ceasefire was supposed to end by killing each other over who was going to take the horse back to whose camp. Kebbell’s character then suggested that perhaps they should flip a coin. The German has one, and allows Kebbell to make the call. Kebbell calls heads and surprise-surprise, heads it is. The German soldier makes a funny quip about how yes, that is his Furor’s head looking up at him and how he does not look happy. They sort of wish each other well and then part ways back to their respective sides.
Kebbell brings Joey into the trench and takes him to the medical area where he asks the doctor to look at Joey’s leg, which the doctor confirms has been infected by tetanus. He refuses to treat the horse, saying that he has much important matters to tend to with his men. Kebbell insists that the horse is something special and worth helping, but the doctor continues to refuse. Meanwhile, a still-blind Albert catches wind from a nurse that an “exceptional horse” has been found.
The captain, who I think was the very first British horse handler guy from the beginning of the movie (who I also guess was promoted to his station after the death of Cumberbatch and Hiddleton’s characters), gets ready to shoot Joey. His reasoning is that there is hardly any horses left in their possession and since Joey is injured, he’s just a waste of space. Just as he’s ready to shoot the horse, we suddenly hear that familiar bird call that Albert trained Joey to respond to very early in the movie. Joey turns his head and everyone turns to see the source of the sound, but no one seems to know where it’s coming from just yet. The captain also can’t seem to pinpoint the source of the sound, and since the call doesn’t come again, he turns Joey’s head back to face him and gets ready to shoot once more. Just as he is about to shoot (the corniness of the timing almost killed me), but the bird call (conveniently) is heard again, and everyone tries to locate the sound again, and again no one can seem to find the source. The captain attempts one more time and of course the call comes again, and this time, the soldiers start to part and allow for an aisle down the middle. Down comes Albert, who still has a rag over his blinded eyes and he slowly makes his way down the path that’s been made. Everyone watches with curiosity and one of the soldiers whispers Albert encouragement to try the sound again. This time when he makes the noise, Joey rushes to him. They have a mini-endearing reunion where Albert says some caring words to his horse.
The doctor, who denied the horse treatment earlier, comes around and tells Albert that the horse needs to be downed because he isn’t well enough. Albert pleads with the doctor not to do this and says it is his horse. He then proceeds to describe Joey having white by his ankles and a white star on his forehead. Caked in mud, these features cannot be seen and the doctor thinks that Joey does not have them; he tells Albert that this is not the horse he is describing and that this horse must be killed. Kebbell’s character steps in at this point and tells the doctor to wait a minute, the horse is just covered in mud in those places that Albert is describing, and therefore is why they cannot see these features. Sure enough, as Albert and another soldier start wiping down Joey’s legs, a white coloring around each of his four ankles appears. The doctor then takes his own rag and wipes away the mud on Joey’s face, revealing the star from Albert’s description. Seemingly awed and fascinated, the doctor then finally agrees to treat the horse after the captain says they can’t kill it now since indeed this is Albert’s horse. The captain puts his gun away and everything seems hunky dory in the Albert keeping his horse department. Of course, Spielberg can’t resist one last complication.
The next scene is when the captain announces that the bells are soon going to ring, signifying the end of WWI. The bells soon ring after he’s made his announcement, and we learn that all the horses that don’t belong to officers are required to be auctioned off. Albert gets no exceptions even though Joey is his horse. How this makes any sense, I don’t know. Anyway, dismayed by the bad news, Albert leaves the captain’s quarters and is greeted by a throng of soldiers who have apparently scraped together everything they have so that Albert could have a chance at buying Joey back at auction. It is mentioned that the landlord’s son (who I guess was an officer) had tried to pass off Joey as his own horse so that Albert could take him back, but of course Spielberg wouldn’t let it all end that easily. It is also mentioned that the captain added his own money to the pot as well, and the other captain (horse handler person) also adds a little extra to the pot.
The auction doesn’t go all to well as there is a butcher who has apparently been trying to buy the best steeds all day. Just when it seems like Albert is about to win though, suddenly the grandfather of the sickly girl appears out of nowhere and jumps the price so high that no one else can match him, and he ends up winning Joey. (At first I thought the grandfather was Albert’s father—they looked so similar to me—so I didn’t really understand what the problem was, and then I got a better look at the guy’s face and was like “oh,” haha.) Albert and Kebbell try to convince the man to allow him to be able to keep Joey, but then the grandfather tells his tale of woe about how Albert doesn’t understand anything about the horse and how it belonged to his granddaughter. Albert tells him this isn’t the case, that he pretty much reared Joey himself, but the grandfather doesn’t really seem to believe him. The grandfather then gets around to explaining how he’s been searching for this horse far and wide and how he caught wind that Joey was going to be at this auction (again, I question how he got word like that so fast and made it over so quickly?), so he had to come. We learn that his granddaughter died during the war and he was wanted to buy the horse so that he could still have a piece of her. After hearing this story, Albert decides that perhaps it is better to stop pressing the issue and let the grandfather have Joey, so he turns and starts to leave with Kebbell.
The grandfather starts leading Joey away when the horse breaks out of his grasp and runs after Albert. The grandfather seems a bit confused and then seems to wonder if there was truth to Albert’s earlier statement about the horse being his, because Albert appears to be so familiar with Joey and the horse seems rather affectionate with him. The grandfather then pulls out Albert’s father’s handkerchief/scarf thing from his pocket (which his granddaughter had kept with her before Joey and the black horse had been taken at the windmill) and holds it out to Albert, asking him if he knows what it is. Immediately recognizing it, Albert explains that the scarf was his father’s. The grandfather lets him have it and Albert thanks him. I felt kind of bad for the grandfather here, but he was able to find it in his heart to hand Joey back to Albert as well, saying it’s what his granddaughter would have wanted. Albert thanks him profusely and asks the grandfather what his granddaughter’s name was. The grandfather replies, as he walks away, that her name was Emilie. At first I thought I was going to see a later scene where Albert grows up and has a kid named Emilie or something, but that never happens, so I think this was just another one of the movie’s random conversations.
The movie ends with that sunset-like red hue from the trailer as Albert rides on Joey back home. His mother is all teary-eyed when she sees that her son (and Joey) are back safe and sound and his father also seems relieved, and that’s pretty much it. We all know what comes later, WWII is just around the corner and the British wise up and stop fighting in their artisticy way because they finally come to realize the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily fight fair.
Before I go into my usual review bit though, I just want to say, as nice as some of the shots were, I was actually pretty surprised at how grainy a lot of the film was. I usually watch movies in their standard version without the whole IMAX/3D/special-effects stuff, and I’ve found usually the picture quality is pretty decent, so I thought that was rather interesting.
Other than that, I think one of the people I went to watch it with said it best. “What did you expect? This is Steven Spielberg. You know? E.T.? Phone home?” Haha, even I have to admit, the war scenes weren’t really all too graphic—but thank goodness they weren’t, or I would have had such a hard time watching the movie! I sat through the film mostly because I was hoping Cumberbatch, Hiddleton, and Kebbell would have more screen time, but even though the movie kind of let me down there, I can’t say I wasn’t grateful that the war scenes were bearable. If they weren’t, that would’ve been a double-whammy and I would have probably mentally kicked myself for deciding to watch this movie all the way home.
Anyway, onto the review bit! (I haven’t said this in a while, but for anyone wanting to know what my star and grade ratings mean, please click on the top menu my review ratings guides, and click the one for movie reviews.)
Re-watch Factor: **
FINAL VERDICT: B-
I think giving this a rating in the realm of the C’s might be a bit too much bias and harshness from my part, so to be fair I give this film a B-. I definitely think there were parts of the film that could have been expanded on and other aspects that could have been improved. I personally didn’t feel too much spark from this, but I can also see an audience out there liking this. I suppose it’s worth at least a one-time watch, if anything.
Next up, I’m going to wrap 2011 up with a top list of my favorite movies this year, so stay tuned!