War Horse on Blu-ray
By Jim Bray
Steven Spielberg once again proves he can play his audience like a violin with War Horse, a kind of "Forrest Gump for horses" crossed with a little bit of "Ben-Hur for horses," in that the movie follows Joey the horse, and Joey goes through all kinds of adventures and trials.
It's a film with an epic look and feel, and a Blu-ray that's a fantastic example of what can be experienced in today's home theaters.
Joey wasn't always the War Horse, of course. The thoroughbred was born in England, raised by young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and eventually "leased" from him by a British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) at the beginning of World War I.
Horses are a bit of an atavism here, what with the invention of machine guns and tanks, yet the Brits chose to use them still, and they do prove quite effective at first until the modern technology and enemy tactics prove to be too much .
Our War Horse then becomes a soldier for the German army, though there's a brief respite for the brave and capable steed when he's adopted by a little girl.
Eventually, Joey finds a way to escape, and heads through the barbed wire separating the two armies in a truly heartbreaking scene that leads to a warm but a bit schmaltzy scene where both sides discover their humanity even in the midst of the war.
Eventually, of course, Joey is reunited with his human soul mate, Albert, but even here they still have to face challenges that threaten to keep them apart.
This is a really simplistic overview of the plot, mostly so we don't spoil it. Sure, it's schmaltzy, but it could have been a lot worse – and that doesn't mean it doesn't draw you in and keep you interested and involved for its two and a half hour running time.
Spielberg has crafted a big, epic film with gorgeous locations and fantastically realistic battle zones. The battle scenes are fairly intense but never graphic: in one scene, for example, a couple of people are being shot by a small firing squad but a windmill vane passes between us and the scene just as the triggers are pulled. We know exactly what happened, but we don't see any blood, jerking bodies or the like. It's actually a very nice change, and shows that a bit of creativity can get the same idea across without assaulting our sensibilities (assuming we have any!).
And Spielberg being who he is – director of such unflinching scenes as the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan – could have taken that tack and few would have called him out on it. Still, I like this way best. And it saves the production from having to buy a lot of fake blood and stuff!
The Blu-ray is astonishing in its audio and video. The 1080/24p video is superb. Colors are lovely and very rich, the black levels are superb and contrast is just right. It's a very detailed picture, easily reference quality stuff.
The sound is even better. Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, though I listened to it in 5.1, it fills the room and envelops you fantastically. Whether it's John Williams' latest wonderfully musical, sweeping score, the ordnance and equipment on the battlefield, horses charging, or just a thunderstorm, the sound track uses all channels to their best, including a delicious amount of low frequency effects. As with the video, it's rich and lush and just plain great. There's even some great ambience emanating from around you in some quieter, more peaceful scenes.
The four disc combo pack I received (which also includes DVD and digital copies) stretches the BD extras over two discs, which should tell you there's plenty of stuff here. No director's commentary is on hand, which is apparently Spielberg's preference, but there's plenty of other stuff.
On disc one you get War Horse: The Journey Home, in which Spielberg hosts roundtable discussions – with the film's cast in one and, in the other, with crew members. It looks like it's edited heavily for time (which kind of frustrated me, since it was quite interesting), but it's worthwhile nonetheless. An Extra's Point of View is a very short look at extra "Phillup Space" (to rip off Leonard Maltin), an extra who appears several times in the film.
Disc two brings A Filmmaking Journey, a longer look at the story, the development of the film, casting, locations, characters, battles, you name it. They also cover the production design, visual and practical effects and more. It's very good and well worth your time. There are also featurettes on editing/scoring, the sound design and a look through the producer's lens via Kathleen Kennedy's collection of personal photographs that were taken on location.
War Horse isn't Spielberg's best, but it's a fine film anyway, a good story filmed beautifully. And the Blu-ray offers a lot of extras, which is always nice. Even if it didn't, however, its simply outstanding audio and video (and fairly compelling story) make it a must see and hear in the home theater.
Copyright 2012 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.