HomeVideodrome: Spielberg's 'War Horse' Marks the Return of the Master

HomeVideodrome: Spielberg's 'War Horse' Marks the Return of the Master

There will be no HomeVideodrome podcast this week, we shall return next week.

Normally films that have the premise of a bond between a person and an animal make me wretch.  I loved Disney’s “Old Yeller” as a kid, and cried every time the boy had to put his poor rabies-stricken canine pal down, but these days I’d rather just go through a journey with a dog myself than watch a movie that’s going try to rip my heart out and attempt to feed it to me over an animal.

When you bring horses into the mix (I distinctly remember “National Velvet” being the favorite of young girls growing up), I break into a sprint in the opposite direction. Unless, of course, the name Steven Spielberg is involved–then I kinda have to check it out. And this time, I’m glad I did.

The film I was most reminded of while watching Spielberg’s “War Horse” was Zoltan Korda’s masterful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s “The Four Feathers.” Both are tales of driven courage, flying blind across a war-torn landscape, that are as emotionally compelling as they are entertaining.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name (which was in turn based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo), “War Horse” finds a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) in Devon, England, whose father drunkenly purchases a young thoroughbred horse named Joey. The horse can serve no purpose to the family farm, which they are in danger of losing, but Albert quickly develops a bond with Joey, and soon trains him to help set the property back on track.

Once the fires of World War I break out, a series of circumstances causes Albert to relinquish ownership of Joey to a kind British officer (Tom Hiddleston), leading the horse to the very heart of No Man’s Land. Yet Albert refuses to say goodbye for good, and both the horse and his boy set out on parallel adventures that make for an epic journey on film.

Even when his famous brand of schmaltz misfires, Spielberg’s films have an emotional earnestness that never feels cynical. “War Horse” takes you on a journey that runs the gamut of human emotion via a non-human companion, but every one of those emotions is earned. When he’s firing on all cylinders as he is here, Spielberg is the master of bringing the audience in to a point where he can ask almost anything of us, and we’ll go with it, because he’s earned a little leeway. Think of the finale of “Jaws,” in which Brody defeats the shark by shooting a compressed air tank lodged in the shark’s mouth. In reality, shooting the compressed air tank would do nothing except irritate the shark, but in the film, the air tank explodes, and the shark is blown to smithereens. Spielberg was perfectly aware of this, but noted that if he’s done his job as a director, then the audience will be so invested in what’s going that they will have to believe what they have seen, and he was absolutely right.

“War Horse” has a few highly implausible occurrences which take place during the film’s final act, yet they fit the emotional arc of the story Spielberg has masterfully built, earning our involvement in the end. It’s a stark contrast to, say, “War of the Worlds”, another Spielberg movie which tries for a contrived event at the film’s conclusion, but did nothing to earn it emotionally.  

“War Horse” is up there with Spielberg’s finest work. His other 2011 film, “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” was a lively experiment, but this was his great accomplishment last year. Even though Spielberg produced half the movies that came out last summer (all of them ranging from middling to awful), this film and “Tin Tin” show why he remains one of the most successful men in Hollywood, as his talent continues to eclipse even the directors he’s supposedly influenced (J.J. Abrams is no Steven Spielberg).

“War Horse” is the man’s best work since “A.I.”, and it reminds me as to why I loved his films to begin with.

The film looks stunning on Blu-ray, as Janusz Kamiński’s lush cinematography is brilliantly served by the format. The sound mix is incredibly well done, as the dialogue comes through as clearly as the sounds of battle, along with the obligatory John Williams score. It’s actually one of the best sound mixes I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing on my sound system at home, and is certainly the technical highlight of this release.

You won’t find anything in the way of commentaries, as Spielberg has always refrained from doing them; however he does so because all the information and insight he could impart is made available on the documentaries and featurettes, of which there are 107 minutes-worth included on the four-disc Blu-ray set.

This release provides a great deal for anyone who enjoyed the film, and the technical specs are truly impressive–well worth adding to the collection of any Spielberg fan.

Available in a Special Edition Blu-ray setBlu-ray/DVD ComboDVD, and Amazon Instant

Other Noteworthy Releases

We Bought a Zoo: Apart from “Almost Famous” and maybe “Say Anything,” I’m not a fan of director Cameron Crowe. His brand of sentimentality used to plug in to the cultural zeitgeist quite well: the image of John Cusack blaring “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel outside of Ione Skye’s window in “Say Anything” is as iconic as images from ’80s cinema get. 

We Bought a Zoo

Now, he seems to stuff his material with copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup. I couldn’t get through the first act of “Elizabethtown,” which was produced during that dark period in Hollywood history when Orlando Bloom was mistaken for a proper leading man. The diabetes-inducing premise of this film, coupled with the presence of two leads I dislike (Matt Damon and Scarlett Johanssen), ensure that I will use that time to do something more meaningful instead, like drink beer and watch “Almost Famous” again.

Available on Blu-rayDVD, and Amazon Instant

Chinatown: This Blu-ray is a must-own for any fan of Roman Polanski’s exploration into the nature of evil men, a subject that Polanski is certainly close to. The supplements on this disc sport a bounty of extras, including a commentary with screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher, as well as documentaries that feature the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Roger Deakins, along with the talent behind the film such as Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson. John Nolte wrote an excellent review of this release, and I can’t wait to pick it up for myself.

Available on Blu-ray

Being Elmo – A Puppeteer’s Journey: A good film to include on a double-bill with “The Muppets,” this documentary that follows Kevin Clash, a man from Baltimore who dreamed of joining Jim Henson’s team, and went on to fulfill that dream, creating the most beloved character on “Sesame Street,” Elmo.

Available on DVD and Amazon Instant

The Prince & The Showgirl: No doubt getting a deliberate re-release in the wake of the dramatization of the events behind the scenes of this Laurence Olivier film in “My Week With Marilyn,”  I suppose watching both together would be a nice evening of movie-watching, even if one lacks the real Marilyn.

Available on DVD and Amazon Instant

Tyrannosaur: I missed this Paddy Considine-directed film, which I’ve only heard good things about.  Starring Peter Mullan and Olivia Coleman.

Available on DVD

This post originally appeared over at Parcbench