Saturday, November 26, 2011

War Horse - Movie Review and Director Q&A

This review contains some of Steven Spielberg's thoughts and ideas regarding the making of War Horse as expressed by the director himself during a Q&A session that took place after an advanced screening of the film. I was able to jot down a few key points while sitting in the theater and incorporated them in to my review. A video clip that I filmed at the conclusion of the Q&A is also included.

Using a cast full of relative unknowns along with some very talented horses to create a truly epic story, Steven Spielberg has created an emotionally powerful film that rivals many of his previous achievements. This tale is about a horse that is able to change and inspire the lives of those around him while surviving impossible odds during the first World War.

The movie begins with a prized thoroughbred horse that is separated from his mother and sold at auction to Englishman Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), a farmer who intends to use him for plowing fields despite his lack of the necessary size and strength. Literally betting his family's home and farm on this animal, Narracott becomes a source of ridicule by his landlord and neighbors until his son, Albert steps up and takes the responsibility of training the horse.

Albert names the horse Joey and, after properly taming him, attempts to teach the horse to plow a rock-filled field that no one thought he would ever be able to get through. Even though the field is successfully planted with a crop that will give the family the resources needed to save their home, a disastrous turn in the weather literally washes away those hopes and the distant call of war is also about to reach their small village making matters even more desperate.

As the army enlists every able man to join the cause, Ted takes Joey in to town and sells him to Captain Nichols of the Royal Army for enough money to once again save their home. Nichols promises a heartbroken Albert that he will care for the horse and return him home safely when the war is over and considers the transaction a lease and not a sale.

With that, Joey is off to fight in a war against the Germans and thus begins a series of events that leads him through several battles, an unlikely friendship with a fellow horse, and eventually finds himself on both sides of the war and just about everywhere in between. The epic scale of this adventure portrays the realities of World War I in a blunt manner while managing to stay away from the graphic intensity of films like Saving Private Ryan.

Inspired by the films of John Ford, Spielberg utilizes a more classic or old fashioned approach to the visual style of this picture using wide camera lenses and offering a grand scale not normally seen in today's films. Spielberg explained that this style is ideal when viewed on a big theater screen and allows the audience to choose what part of each scene they want their eyes to focus on.

When asked what he found to be the most unexpected aspect of making this movie, Spielberg responded by  pointing out how the horse that was used as Joey for all the primary 'acting' shots (named Finder) was able to bring much more to his performance than what was written in to the script. This made for more naturally played scenes which allows the audience to fully invest in the story.

He also felt that he would have been unable to appropriately make this film if it weren't for the fact that he actually owns a stable of horses. This gave him an understanding of the animals that lead to a more credible depiction of all the horses in the film. Spielberg joked that without this knowledge, you might have seen a version of Joey as a more whimsical character that would both literally and figuratively give a wink and a nod during the movie and would have given the picture as a whole an entirely different mood.

"This is a story about connections" is a quote from Mr. Spielberg that really defines the movie's underlying themes and is a statement not only meant for how Joey affects people's lives but how all of those people connect with each other. This theme plays out repeatedly during the movie in many ways as we see families changed and soldiers united.

War Horse is an inspiring and emotionally uplifting tale that will have you cheering, laughing, and maybe even shedding a tear or two. With a film making style reminiscent of an era long past, you will not soon forget the story of a horse that was destined to change the world.

Thank you Mr. Spielberg for connecting with the audience as only you can.

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