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War Horse
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Sony Classical / 2011 / 65:31

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse adapts Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel about the story of a horse’s experience during the Great War.  The film follows the horse from his birth in Devon to his work on both sides of the conflict.  The film has genuinely mixed reviews – most films labelled as having mixed reviews actually have a whole bunch which think it’s average, but this one seems to either be loved or hated.  There’s clearly an inherent problem of a film whose central character is a horse – and whose director wants to build a genuine emotional connection between said horse and the audience – but for large numbers of cinemagoers this was a problem avoided and almost every review is agreed that on a technical level, the film is beyond reproach.

One of the technicians is of course the great John Williams, scoring the second Spielberg film of his eightieth year, and his 25th movie with the director overall.  It is clearly one of the most important director/composer relationships that there’s ever been; perhaps its sheer longevity puts it beyond the other great ones (Hitchcock/Herrmann, Leone/Morricone, Truffaut/Delerue, Fellini/Rota etc).  The significance of Williams’s contribution to Spielberg’s success can’t really be overstated – trying to imagine all those great films on which he built his name without the wonderful music written by Williams for them is very difficult.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

Undoubtedly, War Horse is another wonderfully impressive effort from the veteran composer.  The early scenes of the film – starting with “Dartmoor 1912” – give him an opportunity to explore English music, with hints in particular of Vaughan Williams.  The theme introduced by the composer has hints of Far and Away, the orchestral setting brings memories of his great 1970 Jane Eyre music.  It’s a wonderful start to the score, and when Spielberg talks in his liner notes of the “earth speaking through” Williams, one suspects it is this sequence which prompted it.  This kind of pastoral music – the lovely use of winds in particular – is something the composer does so well, but hasn’t had all that many opportunities to do so (at least in his film music – it’s the sort of thing he has done more frequently in his concert works).

The theme developed through that opening track goes on to appear frequently through the score, most notably perhaps in “Plowing”, where it sits in a slightly triumphant-feeling arrangement.  The 25 minutes or so of music which run from the start of the album to that moment are mostly somewhat light in nature, beautiful and generally warm; things take a turn in “Ruined Crop and Going to War”, which has a desperately sad air to it, a sense of resignation.  Then, “The Charge and Capture” sees the tone become even darker, with Williams ushering in a powerful statement of horror through low brass and percussion; the prevailing mood is one of desperation, the effect fairly chilling.

Williams cranks the pressure up further in “The Desertion”, with the bass-heavy action music which opens the cue following the template of much of his action music of the last decade or so – it’s very dark material.  Fortunately, Williams allows the listener a breather in “Joey’s New Friends”, with the score’s most playful passage offering a brief return to the lighter style of the score’s first section.  The darker style soon returns, culminating in the tragic “The Death of Topthorn”, a powerhouse of a cue.  “No Man’s Land” – after some atmospheric meandering – sees more action material, the familiar brass and percussion pounding away for all their worth.

The score’s third section – the final three cues, about 17 minutes – sees Williams tying up the various emotional strands he has been weaving through his music.  It also offers an opportunity to hear the most fully-developed thematic statements of the score.  “The Reunion” is very sentimental, but despite accusations to the contrary in some of the press, not schmaltzy.  The slightly restrained version of the score’s main theme towards the end of the cue is simply gorgeous, vintage Williams.  The composer wrings even more emotion from the theme in “Remembering Emilie and Finale”, in particular from the devastatingly direct nature of the solo piano variant in the middle of the cue.

I don’t suppose we’re likely to hear any more film music from John Williams apart from new Steven Spielberg films, so let’s hope the director keeps on cranking them out.  The obvious problem with War Horse the film I mentioned above – that of establishing an emotional connection between the audience and an equine central character – is the challenge that Williams had to solve more than almost everyone else who worked on the film, and solve it he did, with music of great emotional depth.  That the score on the album plays out along a very well-developed dramatic path – listening to the album really is like hearing a story told through music – is testament to his great gifts.  The grand old man of Hollywood film music can still show the rest of the pack how it’s done.  **** 1/2

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  1. Luc Van der Eeken (Reply) on Monday 23 January, 2012 at 16:20

    Yet to see the film but the score is fantastic. Williams still is the greatest storyteller in the world.

  2. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Wednesday 25 January, 2012 at 15:52

    Any opinion on the very negative reception this score seemed to have among movie reviewers? It was blasted for being too “manipulative,” “sentimental,” and “over the top.”

  3. Josep (Reply) on Thursday 26 January, 2012 at 17:10

    To me the bad reviews are deserved. While we criticize other composes for self-plagiarism or lack of new material in their new compositions, it seems to be a trend that anything that John Williams writes is magic.

    To me War Horse is nothing but a very low level replica of some of early John William’s great composiitons, specially of the fantastic Far and Away. I don’t see any new material in War Horse, and most important I don’t see any good melodic theme that lingers in your mind. To me, John Williams has chosen the easy way to build a score that fits the film, and like some say, tells a story … but a poor one in my opinion.

    If this one is close to 5 stars then how should we rate scores like The Great Miracle? is there only half a star difference? … oh, I forgot, Mckenzie is not Williams :).

  4. Erik Woods (Reply) on Thursday 26 January, 2012 at 21:24

    Josep – Could you point out to us where Williams directly references Far and Away? And no melodic theme that lingers? Good lord… there are two of them in the opening track alone.

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 26 January, 2012 at 23:13

    I have to agree with Erik, really. There is an obvious Far and Away similarity in the first and last track, but it’s far from identical. (I prefer War Horse to Far and Away as an album.)

    And I gave Great Miracle 5 stars… and you can’t get more stars than that!

  6. Josep (Reply) on Friday 27 January, 2012 at 07:25

    Hi Erik/James,
    I am not saying it is identical. I want to point out that there are obvious references all along the score to Far and Away specially and other like The Patriot or Born in the 4th of July. As James points out the first and last theme are more obvious, but along the score John Williams limits himself to reuse old techniques and motifs that were good before and are still good now, but not new nor inspiring. I also think that any of the previous mentioned scores had a much stronger main theme than War Horse.

    James, yes I know you gave 5 stars to The Great Miracle – well deserved. I meant that I think War Horse isn’t in the neighborhood of Mckenzie’s masterpiece.

    Anyway, I love this site and read all the reviews … sometimes I agree other I dont 🙂

    Cheers !!

  7. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Wednesday 12 June, 2013 at 08:14

    “There’s clearly an inherent problem of a film whose central character is a horse.”

    what was your final opinion of the film though, james?

    for me, this was the best, most sincere, and moving picture I’ve seen in years. not perfect, but what is. the score album isn’t my favorite, but JEBUS, williams’ absolutely NAILED it in the film. truly a master, like senior spielbergo.

  8. James Southall (Reply) on Thursday 13 June, 2013 at 20:44

    I thought it was handsomely-made, but not really for me to be honest. The score worked beautifully, of course.

  9. Howard Hand (Reply) on Monday 1 September, 2014 at 09:23

    “War Horse isn’t in the neighborhood of Mckenzie’s masterpiece.”
    War Horse is a much better score than The Greatest Miracle in my opinion. They both have the issue of not having a well defined theme but War Horse makes up for it in variety. The Greatest Miracle is too much of a one-note score for me.

  10. Nathan Fleischman (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 05:43

    For those of you who did not notice this, the film score for War Horse contains elements of British folk music. Ralph Vaughan Williams (no relation to John Williams), the British composer, was a major influence on the film score. Vaughan Williams incorporated Anglo-Celtic influences in his music.

  11. Tarek (Reply) on Saturday 13 May, 2017 at 01:07

    The score didn’t impress me. It was like poetry written by a computer. It looks and sounds good, but lacks any heart and soul.