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.

012613_1248_WarHorse2013.jpg

Deathwatch (2002): Evil in the Mud

Written and Directed by Michael J. Bassett  Deathwatch was Bassett’s first time at bat as a director. All in all not a bad start as either a writer or director. The film looks good, it sounds good and Bassett benefited from having a very talented cast to work with.

Set in 1917 during World War I, Deathwatch follows a small bunch of survivors from Company Y. The majority of the company have been wiped out by a machine gun nest. Sgt Tate (Hugo Speer) gets caught in German barbed wire and the youngest member of the company, Pvt Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) is too terrified to help him get free. Morning comes and the men attempt to move forward. They suddenly  find themselves in a fog or mist. Thinking that this is a gas attack the men don their gas-masks and attempt to carry on.

After the fog clears the men find they are right on top of a German Trench. There seem to be very few German soldiers so the men decide to capture the trench and hold it for British forces. They shoot a few soldiers, who appear to be shooting at something further down the trench. They kill one, lose another and capture  the remaining soldier for interrogation.  As they spread out in the trenches they find a large amount of dead German soldiers. A lot of them seem to be caught up in their own barb wire.

Things are decidedly weird in this trench. As they go about destroying portions of the trench in order to make it easier to defend, they start hearing noises. They also start acting strangely and are apparently hallucinating. They decide finally to question the captured soldier.  Using French, Shakespeare translates what the German soldier is saying, the trench is evil and they must all leave it or die. Pvt Quinn (Andy Serkis) knocks the German out and wants to kill him. He is denied this and generally wigs out, although Quinn doesn’t seem too tightly wound to begin with.

And just when you thought things could not possibly get worse, they can and do go down hill rapidly.

Bassett choosing  World War I as a backdrop was a stroke of genius. The First World War centred on trench warfare. Thousands of lives from both sides were lost as they attempted to storm the enemies trenches. Usually fortified with heavy machine guns and cannon, they were practically impregnable. As most of the action took place on the ground, (air attacks were limited to the use of steel darts dropped on the trenches, dropping crude bombs and dropping mustard gas)  casualties on both sides was high. The British in particular suffered huge losses due to the lack of experience of their class driven commanding officers and because the people who were making the decisions were miles from the action.

The general mood of the film is dark. It seems to be constantly raining in the film with the end result of everything happening in mud. The Company survivors have no contact with their command except on a captured radio that ceases to work after they receive  only one transmission from command stating that no support is coming for them.Bassett manages to mix the atmosphere of the war with  supernatural evil. The evil oozes slowly in the trenches at first but the longer the soldiers stay there, it’s presence and influence begins to pick up speed,

The film was not received very well when it was released in 2002, but that seems to be mainly because a lot of the props and images used did not fit the time period. Apart from the obvious mistakes, it is still an impressive film and I would recommend it to anyone.