If War Horse has a big flaw, it’s that it’s told like a bio-pic, and so it starts with the birth of Joey. He’s purchased by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) in defiance of his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis), which disappoints his wife Rose (Emily Watson). But his son Albert (Irvine) wants to raise the horse as own, and trains him well. But as war comes Ted sells the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), where he competes with Major Jamie Stewart’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) horse Blackthorn. They enter into a raid on a German camp that sends Joey into the German’s hands. From there he meets the Germans, and a French family (headed up by Niels Arestrup), and then is put into slave labor.
Point blank, Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest working directors (and at this point one of the greats, period), and his craftsmanship with War Horse makes this something special to watch. He’s definitely thinking in terms of John Ford’s Ireland, and there’s some David Lean in there, and definitely some of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in terms of the action. But he’s such a masterful director that it’s more than just homage. Make no mistake, though, he’s doing old school war filmmaking at its finest.
The opening sequences are a little too long, there’s a sense of getting through the set-up, which has Joey doing amazing stunts, and he and Albert bonding. It takes over forty minutes for the horse to get to war, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Once the horse is in war, the movie comes to life, and the ensemble cast (which also includes Toby Kebbell and Eddie Marsan) are all great. Spielberg understands the sweeping vistas and how to stage an amazing war sequence, so even though the narrative is a little old fashioned, everything moves. Perhaps it didn’t connect because it is so much a throwback, and perhaps it doesn’t have the immediacy or brilliance of restaging that came with Saving Private Ryan. But it’s still such a strong, great work by Spielberg that it deserves to be found.
Buena Vista/Dreamworks’s release presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio. It’s an immaculate presentation, and the format does the film a great service. The Blu-ray comes in a four disc set, which offers the film on Blu-ray, a second disc with supplements, and a DVD and digital copy. On disc one there are two featurettes: “War Horse: The Journey Home” (20 min.) gathers Kebbell, Watson, Irvine, Hiddleston and Watson in one group, editor Michael Kahn, costume designer Joanna Johnston, writer Richard Curtis, production designer Rick Carter, and DP Janusz Kamisnki in the other, with Spielberg and producerKathleen Kennedy in both for a chance to talk about the making of the film, and “An Extra’s Point of View” (3 min.), which shows how one extra worked every day on the shoot.
Disc two feels anemic for a Blu-ray set. The meat is “A Filmmaking Journey” (64 min.), which covers every aspect of the making of the film, and is a solid behind the scenes look. “Editing & Scoring” (9 min.) explores Spielberg’s relationship with Kahn and composer John Williams. “The Sounds Of War Horse” (7 min.) gives Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom credit for his work, while “Through The Producer’s Lens” (4 min.) lets producer Kathleen Kennedy Shareher on set photos. The content itself is good, but I don’t know why they didn’t put all the supplements on Disc Two and max out the bit rate on the first disc. Likely it’s because there’s also a two-disc set that comes with the first disc Blu-ray and a DVD copy.