Steven Spielberg's warmly received War Horse is adapted from the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, itself turned into a smash hit stage play in 2007. Set against the sweeping backdrops of Devon and France, and taking the viewer on a journey from rural tranquillity to the horrors of World War I, it's as sentimental and old fashioned as one would expect, Spielberg paying homage to his heroes, David Lean and John Ford. In the film, Jeremy Irvine stars as Albert Narracott, a Dartmoor farm boy who trains a horse his father (Peter Mullan) drunkenly purchases at a market auction. Albert forms a close bond with the animal, who he names Joey, using him to plough a field for rent money. However, when Joey is sold to the War effort, he experiences first-hand the carnage and chaos of conflict, as he's passed between the opposing forces of English, French and German. Albert meanwhile enlists and fights in the trenches, never giving up hope that he and Joey will eventually be re-united.
As usual, Spielberg enlisted his familiar technical crew for the project, among them cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn. The film also marks the 25th collaboration between Spielberg and the legendary John Williams. It's perhaps the most famous director-composer partnership in modern cinema, one that's resulted in innumerable classic themes (Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park et al). Spielberg obviously gives the composer room to breathe and the two men clearly enjoy a creative synergy – why else would their collaboration have lasted this long? However, it's undeniably true that Williams' style, even for Spielberg's films, has matured and developed over the years. Nowadays, he appears less reliant on standalone concert pieces of the glorious themes that made him famous, instead favouring a plethora of ideas for the film in question, and creating a complex tapestry of emotions within each track. The themes are still there but they're often woven around everything else. This is exactly what Williams did in his score for Tintin (leading to a lukewarm reception in some quarters) and he does it again in War Horse.
There are several thematic ideas competing for attention in War Horse, and it's hard to identify which is dominant. It's an about-face from the approach Williams took in, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a score in which the Raiders March was the main anchor around which everything else circulated. However, so resonant are these ideas that one is tempted to forgive the lack of concert arrangements and simply bask in the glory of the music. The depth of emotion earmarks Williams as a composer at the top of his game – even if his style of composing has changed, there's no denying his remarkable ability to create emotionally fulfilling music.
The score opens with a moment of enormous bucolic charm in "Dartmoor, 1912", Louise Di Tullio's enchanting flute solo ushering in some lovely string work that is pure Williams. In combination with the superb opening shots of the moors, it works wonders, and it works just as well on album. Following the Dartmoor theme, the track proceeds in the manner of a suite, beginning with a jaunty theme representing Joey himself. A charming jig consisting of skipping strings and flighty winds, it paints a vivid picture of the horse gambolling around the picturesque countryside and calls to mind Ennio Morricone's work on Days of Heaven: pastoral but with an awareness of physical movement. Eventually it develops into what might be described as the main theme: a noble, stirring piece for horns and strings that effortlessly captures the burgeoning friendship between boy and horse.
Many of the tracks are structured in likewise fashion, with several ideas circulating around each other at any one time. It's this sense of structure that might have some listeners clamouring for the Willams of old, a time when one particular theme would have an arrangement all to itself. "The Auction" rather pensively re-introduces the opening jig theme as Albert's father Ted bids for Joey at the auction, before the foolishness of his actions is reinforced with the outwardly comical, "drunken" strings in "Bringing Joey Home and Bonding". The latter half of the track again brings in the main theme on winds as Albert makes his first connection with Joey.
"Learning the Call" re-introduces the jig, adding to the whimsical nature of Joey and Albert's friendship. This idea is cleverly manipulated at certain stages to represent the drudgery and monotony of working in the countryside, notably at the start of "Plowing". "Seeding and Horse Vs Car" introduces some charming oboe writing that is wonderfully intimate before the score makes its most rambunctious statement yet in the second half, erupting in a moment of charging brass and surging strings, calling to mind the classic Willams scores of old.
"Plowing" builds gradually from the aforementioned moody tones into the first truly heroic statement of the main theme, a magnificent depiction of the human spirit which was famously heard in the film's trailer. However, it's all change in "Ruined Crop and Going to War", Williams' music reminding the listener that the characters' lives are about to take radically different paths. From here, the score is tainted with a sense of melancholy as Joey is shipped off to the front to serve with the Army, the main theme now carrying a heart-rending, as opposed to heroic, edge, a lonely trumpet solo signifying the encroaching conflict in the manner of Born on the Fourth of July.
"The Charge and Capture" again opens with the trumpet before leading into a powerful and dark piece for insistent snare drums and sonorous brass calls. The trumpet re-emerges in the tragedy laden second half, another indicator that few people can score the horrors of war in such an elegiac fashion as Williams. The main theme is desolate at this point, drained of its vitality in the face of carnage. There's no let-up on the sense of tragedy in the "The Desertion"; it's only when we reach "Joey's New Friends" that a tentative note of woodwind-based whimsy again becomes apparent.
Needless to say, the mood doesn't last, with "Pulling the Cannon" and "The Death of Topthorn" again plumbing the agonising depths of despair. The relentless, mechanical nature of the former is especially brilliant, Williams demonstrating how he is a master at contorting the orchestra to suit the emotional nuances of each individual scene. The latter meanwhile is as heartbreakingly sad as one would expect. As Joey makes his bid for freedom seen in the film's trailer, "No Man's Land" erupts in some of the most dynamic action writing Williams has composed in a long time; mixed in there somewhere is the central theme, once again reflecting Joey's incorrigible spirit amidst the chaos of war.
"The Reunion", begins in moving, understated fashion on low strings and horns, a breath of fresh air that restores a note of compassion to both to the score and the film itself. The brass work in this track is particularly exquisite, reminding listeners of Saving Private Ryan's more lyrical moments. However, the score refrains from making a bold statement just yet, as both the film's characters and the music itself are emerging from the horrors of war.
That all changes in the climactic piece, "Remembering Emilie and Finale", one of the most lyrical and stirring endings to a Williams score in a very long time. The composer preps us by building the main theme slowly, again on woodwinds and strings before a stunning piano solo by Gloria Cheng leads into the magnificent finale, where Williams goes all-out to tug on the heartstrings and the tear ducts. The combination of auburn-streaked visuals and Williams' terrific score in the film's closing stages stands as one of the finest marriages of image and music in Spielberg's career, a defiantly sentimental statement and a brilliant throwback to the epic films of the past. The grandiose trumpet then leads into the rousing end credits suite, "The Homecoming", which ties together all of the score's major ideas and brings us full circle back to Di Tullio's flute solo.
Such is the complexity of Williams' achievement with War Horse that it's impossible to review the score on anything other than a track-by-track basis. Every new piece has multiple themes and motifs occurring within it, a move which may frustrate the composer's long-term listeners, but which also proves one thing absolute: he's still the finest composer of large-scale, orchestral music in the business.
It's the orchestral nuances; it's the memorability of the themes themselves (regardless of whether they get stand-alone arrangements); it's the complex tapestry of emotions that take the listener on an emotional journey. Even in his advancing years, Williams refuses to rest on his laurels, always pushing himself to come up with stunning music that matches Spielberg's vision.
Spielberg himself is quoted as saying: 'one might think the earth was speaking through [Williams], much as the heavens have done for nearly five decades'. He's entirely correct. The composer channels the likes of Vaughn Williams and past hits such as Far and Away to depict an enduring friendship amid a pastoral landscape, which is then challenged by war. The music is intricately tied to both the Devon location and its people, so it's not hard to imagine the Earth speaking through the composer. Nevertheless, many critics have taken it upon themselves to dismiss the music as heavy-handed and schmaltzy. It is undoubtedly both of those things – but then an introspective score would have failed miserably in the context of the film. Can one imagine Lawrence of Arabia, one of Spielberg's greatest influences, being re-scored with an ambient soundtrack in place of Maurice Jarre's epic sweep? Of course not – so it seems daft to criticise Williams for daring to evoke an emotional response in the style of past scores.
That brings us to what is perhaps Williams' greatest achievement: he understands completely what his director wants and he gives it; his own compositional skill is the mere icing on the cake. It's something to consider when pondering how one collaboration could have lasted so long. This essential soundtrack is available at these links from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com