War Horse (2011): Sobbingly Sentimental Spielberg

I am not a huge fan of films that are just made to make the audience tear up and blubber at the screen. The Champ for instance; both the original and the remake put me right off. I don’t want to see a film that makes me cry. If I wanted that, I’d just look at the injustices of the everyday world. But sometimes; just sometimes, I do like sentimental films and War Horse is just such a film.

Directed by Stephen Spielberg and released in 2011 under the auspices of Disney, War Horse does not feature a cast of “stars” because he wanted the emphasis to be on the horse and not the actors presumably. That is not to say that the actors in the film were not of stellar quality. The cast features a lot of England’s finest screen Thespians extant. I saw a lot of familiar faces from actors whom I know to be considered top-notch in their profession and not without good reason.

I was particularly pleased to see one of my favourite “new” actors Toby Kebbell who I’d first seen in Shane Meadows‘ film Dead Man’s Shoes. This young man is a brilliant actor and should be seen more often. I am hoping that his appearance in a triple A feature by the undisputed master of sentimental saga’s (Spielberg) will bring him to the notice of the “big boys” in Hollywood land.

But enough about the actors;  I now want to talk about the film for a little bit.

War Horse is a giant leap into the past of films and film making. It is almost an equestrian version of Lassie. The story is certainly familiar enough; Boy and horse unite, get separated, horse passes through many hands influencing all who meet him, and despite astronomical odds survives a war (the only difference from Lassie really) to become re-united with the boy at the film’s end. How’s that for a brief summary of the film?

The film opens with the birth of the horse and its eventual sale to a local farmer who, a bit worse for the drink, outbids the leaseholder on his Devon farm for the animal. Much to the landlord’s derision of course, for the man needs a plough-horse not a thoroughbred. The farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) takes the horse home to more derision by his wife Rose (Emily Watson) and to the delight of his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine).

Albert names the horse Joey and trains him not only to follow commands but to shoulder the harness for the plough. The landlord Squire Lyon’s (played with suitable nastiness by David Thewlis says the horse will never break to the plough and that he will repossess the farm if Ted comes up short on the rent he owes.

Of course Albert or Albie as everyone calls him does get Joey to plough the field; much to the delight of the villagers who’ve come by to watch. Meanwhile, the German’s are busily starting WWI and when war breaks out Ted, whose crop of turnips is partially ruined by bad weather, takes Joey and sells him to an officer in the army.

The officer seeing Albie’s distress at the sale of Joey promises to get Joey back to him at the end of the war, if he is able. With this somewhat ominous promise Joey joins the war effort on the English side. Unfortunately we all know how the first war to end all wars was waged. A lot of men died under machine gun fire and in the trenches. And on Joey’s first charge his rider is dispatched in due course and he becomes the property of the German army.

Joey in the trenches.

The film follows Joey’s journey through the battle fields and the backdrop of the European countryside where it was fought. It is pretty wrenching stuff to watch. I sat through most of the film with a knot in my throat that would have choked an elephant. At least three times towards the end of the film I actually had tears in my eyes. And when actual sobs broke unwillingly from me, I cursed Spielberg for this horribly wonderful film.

Spielberg specialises in bringing the child out of us. He has the ability to make me cry more than any other director. E.T., Hook, and now War Horse have all made me blubber like a baby. Thankfully I did not see this film in the cinema or I’d have been mortified at crying in public.

The cinematography is on par with all of Spielberg’s best films and the war scenes are touching, sad, and criminal. Criminal because the First World War cost so much in lives of young men who romantically joined the army to fight the “Hun” and return home heroes; unfortunately, a lot of them came home in a box or not at all.

So despite that fact that I felt that Mr Spielberg had gone straight for the sentimental jugular, so to speak, I loved the film; every sad and teary-eyed bit of it. If you have got a box of tissues handy (or two) and don’t mind crying your eyes out; watch this film.

Oh and if you can wipe your eyes clear enough, watch out for Toby Kebbell’s turn as Geordie in the last part of the film. It’s a great scene that has been done in war films before (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) but that doesn’t take away from the effectiveness or the humour of it.

War Horse is a definite 5 star film that received critical raves and was a box office smash; it received a plethora of award nominations and goes down in celluloid history as the first film that Spielberg edited digitally.

Watch it.

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Long Weekend: Horror in the Outback

Directed by  Colin Eggleston (b:1941 – d:2002) Long Weekend is a piece of low budget genius.  This was only the second feature film helmed by Eggleston and despite the fact that the film bombed in Australia, it went on to win five awards. Part of the reason the film did so badly was probably down to the public placing it in the category of “Ozploitation.”

 John Hargreaves and Briony Behets play Peter and Marcia a young urban couple who are going on holiday. We notice very quickly that Peter and Marcia are a “chalk and cheese” couple. Peter has decided that they are going to ‘rough it’ on a beach in the outback. Marcia has her heart set on staying in a nice hotel somewhere. Somewhat begrudgingly Marcia agrees to try the camping trip idea, but with the proviso that if she really doesn’t like it they can spend the rest of the holiday in a hotel.

From the minute they get into their Jeep and start driving, we the audience can feel the tension between the couple. This tension fluctuates through most of the film and even before Peter runs over a ‘Joey’ leaving it to die in the road, we get a sense of foreboding. A feeling that this trip is not really a good idea.

Long Weekend is mostly a “fish-out-of-water” film. Peter and Marcia do not belong in the countryside.  City dwellers first and foremost they really have no idea what they should be doing once they reach their ‘supposed’ destination.  On their way to the beach they get lost, mainly because the locals at the petrol station do not go out of their way to give them directions, but also because they are careless.

Both Peter and Marcia have a complete disregard about the wildlife they encounter and it’s  natural habitat. John Hargreaves as Peter shows us a man who is basically selfish and immature. He thinks nothing of killing the local flora and fauna or leaving his litter scattered about the previously pristine area.

Brioney Behets (who was married to the director at the time) gives Marcia an edge, a feeling of loss and the willingness to bridge the distance between her and Peter. Initially we sympathize Marcia but unfortunately she suffers from the same problems as Peter, selfishness and immaturity. She also has little respect or knowledge of how the countryside works. They are both completely out of their comfort zone and it shows. But only Marcia is smart enough to vocalise her fear and distaste of the great outdoors.

The only time in the film the two characters unite is in their mutual fear of a huge black shape in the water. Marcia hears a downright scary cry or call from an unknown animal. She goes down to the beach to tell Peter and she sees the black shape moving towards him. Marcia begins screaming hysterically for Peter to get out of the water. Peter, in true urban fashion, shoots the black shape repeatedly.

I can honestly say that when I first watched this film, it made me so uneasy that even I did not want to venture into the great outdoors and I grew up there. The sense of foreboding that we feel at the beginning of the film hits fever pitch after the couple arrive at their destination.  When nature begins to exact a toll from the couple for their criminal behaviour, fever pitch rises to a frenzy.

Long Weekend was remade in 2008 and it is almost a complete frame for frame re-imaging, of the original, but the remake, believe it or not, cranks up the action considerably. It is one of the few remakes that I enjoyed as much as the original.

But I leave you with one request, if at all possible, watch the original first.