There’s a shot that comes early on in War Horse. If you buy into it, you buy into the whole movie. If you don’t, you join the ranks of my friends who thought Spielberg’s film either too treacly, or not treacly enough. The shot I’m talking about comes in the scene where Albert Narracott, played by Jeremy Irvine, is ploughing the nastiest, rockiest field you ever saw with his trusty horse Joey in the traces. One rock is bigger than all the others and the plough blade, instead of skidding off it or knocking it aside, slices straight through it.
It’s an almost Arthurian moment, one that defines War Horse as that most magical of things – a fable. Once you accept that fact, everything about the movie makes perfect sense. It validates both the sentimental sun-washed tone of the establishing scenes in Devon and the more formal structure that develops once the narrative carries us off to war.
Spielberg and his crew are on top form here. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is good enough to eat, and John Williams blesses us with a ravishing score. The cast is one of the best ensembles I’ve seen for a long time. Because of the film’s episodic nature, with Joey being passed in rapid succession from one owner to the next, each actor has only a few moments of screen time to establish their character. Top-drawer performances ensure we’re engaged instantly with each new turn of the plot wheel. The film lags a little in the middle – I found the scenes with the German brothers and the French peasants a little slow. The war scenes are stunning though, as heart-stopping as Saving Private Ryan but without the gore.
And, for once, I wasted scarcely a thought on the special effects.
Those of you who know me – or who read this blog regularly – will know I’m an effects geek. A friend of mine used to complain that he always knew when a matte painting appeared on screen because I would lean forward in my seat. Watching War Horse, I mostly just sat back and drank things in. All the same, I couldn’t stop myself from doing a little effects-spotting …
Since seeing the film, I’ve read this fine Fire By Design article on Framestore’s effects for the film and was pleased to see my suspicions were right – namely that most of the effects in War Horse are what they now call ‘invisible’. By that I mean things like scenery manipulation, rig removal, atmospherics and so on. I’d guessed – correctly – that the ‘jumping over the trench’ shot featured a CG horse, not because Framestore didn’t execute it flawlessly but because there’s no way they’d have let a real horse do a stunt like that. But I didn’t spot the CG horse leaping over the tank, nor was I quite sure how they’d managed to wrangle all that barbed wire.
In the end, it didn’t matter. All that mattered were the tears on my face and the agreement with my wife and daughter that it was refreshing to see a film that managed somehow to be old-fashioned and up-to-date. I realise I’m fighting the zeitgeist with this view, but the zeitgeist will just have to live with that.
Oh, and for the record, I absolutely bought into the shot with the plough and the stone.