Home > Reviews > WAR HORSE – John Williams

WAR HORSE – John Williams

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A variation on the classic Black Beauty tale about of the life of a heroic horse, filtered through the cinematic lens of director John Ford, War Horse is director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the well-regarded novel by Michael Morpurgo about the adventures of a horse named Joey during World War I. The action moves from rural Devon, where young Joey is raised as a plow horse by Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) to work on his father’s farm, to the battlefields of central Europe after he is sold to the British Army upon the outbreak of war and is adopted by a kindly cavalry officer as his personal mount. Moving from adventure to adventure, Joey makes his way through the mire of The Great War, serving on both sides of the conflict – and all the while young Albert, now himself serving in the trenches, never gives up hope of being reunited with his equine friend. The film co-stars Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, and of course has a score by the venerable John Williams, his second score of 2011 after several years away from the podium.

In his liner notes for the album, Steven Spielberg talks about the beauty of the score, and about the “earth speaking through” Williams, emerging as music, and this really is the case. There is a real sense of a connection with nature in Williams’ score, in much the same way as there is in the classical work of Ralph Vauhgn-Williams, a solidness and a trustworthiness, allowing Williams to give the horse, his friendship with Albert, and the overarching spectre of war a profound and potent musical voice. There are hints of his score for Jane Eyre from 1970 in some of the orchestrations, which clearly allude to Williams’s musical depiction of the English countryside, as well as nods and winks to pieces as varied as Far and Away and Born on the Fourth of July.

Much like The Adventures of Tintin earlier in the year, there is no single strong thematic identity in War Horse, which instead chooses to develop three or four primary motifs as the score progresses, often playing against each other in counterpoint in the same cue, before receiving larger-scale statements later. Beginning with a pastoral, inviting theme for the lush Devon setting in the opening cue, “Dartmoor 1912”, the music gradually emerges from a delicate, flighty flute solo into a warm and enveloping string refrain of the first theme, which seems to represent the tranquil location of the film’s opening reel. The theme is classic Williams, with all the positive connotations that implies, and grounds the score in a sound which is period-appropriate and emotionally powerful.

Eventually, this theme gives way to the score’s “proper” main theme, which represents the enduring relationship between Albert and Joey, and the bond they share. With its vaguely Irish-sounding melody, prominent horn countermelody, and a grand sweep, the score’s most emotionally poignant moments tend to feature this theme prominently; it appears on hesitant flutes in “Bringing Joey Home and Bonding”, with a more forceful string presence in “Learning the Call”, with a sense of freedom and whimsy in “Horse vs. Car”, and with a sense of relief and accomplishment in the superbly cathartic and emotionally fulfilling “Plowing”. There’s also a jig-like dance motif which seems to represent Joey’s cleverness and mischievousness, which builds around a call-and-response structure between violins and cellos, and features prominently in parts of “The Auction”, at the beginning of “Bringing Joey Home and Bonding”, and in “Learning the Call”. In fact, much of the score’s first third is built around these three themes – the Dartmoor theme, the Friendship theme, and Joey’s mischievous motif – representing the two driving forces in the lives of both man and horse: their relationships with each other, and their mutual relationship to the land.

Things change with the onset of war, however, and the music changes too, with “Ruined Crop and Going to War” taking the music in a much more serious direction. Lonely brass layers and militaristic snare drum writing, which will remind some listeners of the similar-sounding parts of Born on the Fourth of July, reflect the solemnity and tragedy of war, and the hardships suffered by every one, on both sides of the conflict, both human and animal. The action music in cues such as “The Charge and Capture”, and later in the superb “The Desertion” and the relentless “No Man’s Land”, is rhythmic and propulsive, mimicking a horse’s galloping stride in the percussion section, but adding in multiple layers of orchestral dissonances, cavalry-charge horn calls and flutter-tongued trumpet lines to excellent effect. Cleverly, “No Man’s Land” also manages to include a re-orchestrated, almost unrecognizable variation of the Dartmoor motif for heroic horns – Joey’s final, desperate push for home. The four note ‘misery of war’ motif reoccurs frequently in subsequent cues, notably the harsh and anguished “Pulling the Cannon” (parts of which recall the darker moments of Revenge of the Sith, especially in the phrasings in the trumpets), as well as the devastatingly tragedy-laden “The Death of Topthorn”.

However, as in all good stories, redemption comes in the finale, and the last three cues on the album – “The Reunion”, “Remembering Emilie and Finale” and “The Homecoming” – see Williams return to the poignant thematic writing of the score’s first third, with the emotional content turned up to the max. Stirring and powerful statements of both the Dartmoor theme and the Friendship theme give War Horse a majestic musical conclusion, and stand as some of the most beautiful pieces of heartwarming sentiment Williams has written for many years. Gloria Cheng’s piano performance in “Remembering Emilie” is simply sublime, and worthy of special praise.

Hearing scores like War Horse, and The Adventures of Tintin earlier in the year, gives the film music world a reminder of why John Williams is held in such high esteem. Contrary to accusations in the mainstream press of his music being passé, pushy and over-wrought, I personally find Williams’ work here to be amongst the best of the year. He provides Joey – who is, obviously, incapable of conveying human emotion – with a voice and a heart, and allows the film to tell the story of his life with scope, grandeur and an epic sweep, but which is also not afraid to convey a sense of intimacy when required. It also shows Williams to be a master dramatist, expertly pushing the audience’s buttons in all the right places with a score that is beautiful to the ear, intellectually stimulating to the brain through its thematic complexity and narrative flow, and stirring to the soul.

Rating: ****½

Buy the War Horse soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dartmoor, 1912 (3:35)
  • The Auction (3:43)
  • Bringing Joey Home and Bonding (4:48)
  • Learning the Call (3:42)
  • Seeding and Horse Vs. Car (3:32)
  • Plowing (5:57)
  • Ruined Crop and Going To War (3:33)
  • The Charge and Capture (3:21)
  • The Desertion (2:34)
  • Joey’s New Friends (3:28)
  • Pulling the Cannon (4:58)
  • The Death of Topthorn (2:47)
  • No Man’s Land (4:32)
  • The Reunion (3:52)
  • Remembering Emilie and Finale (5:05)
  • The Homecoming (8:03)

Running Time: 65 minutes 31 seconds

Sony Classical 8869775282 (2011)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Eddie Karam. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.

  1. January 11, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Great review Jon! Brought up some interesting points with some of the action music that I didn’t notice before (the Dartmoor theme variation in No Man’s Land was something that I’d missed). And like you said, I didn’t find the score pushy at all. I can see why some might complain at the opening scene (though I’d disagree), but other than that, the score was a perfect fit for the film.

    My own review of War Horse (although not nearly as good as the one displayed here):
    http://musicmusekk.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/war-horse-john-williams/

    – KK

  2. February 6, 2012 at 5:43 am

    amazing site, best regards from renault fans club

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.