The 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.

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In Memorium

(NOTE: If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, this post does include spoilers. However, a good way to spend Memorial Day is to watch it, since it brings home the sacrifices of soldiers.)

The movies always presented a pristine version of war. Decades ago director Sam Fuller, who’d been at Omaha Beach on D-Day, was asked why he didn’t make a movie about the invasion. He responded that no one wanted to see a beach covered in blood and guts. Late in his career Fuller did make a movie that touched on D-Day, The Big Red One, but it followed the form of the movies before it – all the main characters survive. All that changed in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. For once, the gut-wrenching terror, capriciousness, and brutality of war were showing on the screen.

 

The Writing

Saving Private Ryan was written because a father took his newborn baby for a walk. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was living in his home state of New Hampshire on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1994. His first child had recently arrived, and the proud papa pushed the baby’s stroller around town. When he stopped at the town’s war monument, he looked at the names of the residents who’d died in battle since the Revolutionary War and was struck by how many surnames were repeated. Looking at his child, he imagined what it would feel like to lose his child in a war. The seed for Saving Private Ryan was planted.

Families have suffered multiple casualties in war on the same day. There’s a mention in the film of the five Sullivan brothers who served on the light cruiser USS Juneau and were all killed in action when it was sunk. An integral piece of the movie is Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, consoling her on the loss of five children in the Civil War, an actual document. (It’s said that truth is the first casualty in war; in fact, three of the Bixby children survived.) The loose basis for Ryan was the experience of Frederick “Fritz” Niland, a German-American from upstate New York. He and his three brothers enlisted and were placed in different regiments, one going to the Pacific while Fritz and the other two went to Europe. Those two brothers were killed when they and Fritz participated in D-Day. At the same time the brother in the Pacific was reported missing and presumed dead. Fritz was pulled out of combat and returned to the States where he served out the war as an MP. Happily, the MIA brother had in fact been captured and survived the war.

Rodat approached producer Mark Gordon (Speed, The Day After Tomorrow) about the project. Gordon liked it, though he had Rodat do eleven rewrites before he accepted the script. Gordon brought the project to Spielberg, who’d been looking to do a war picture. When he was a kid making films with his father’s Super 8 camera, he’d done a short war story called “Flight to Nowhere.” He’d circled the war with Schindler’s List and the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies (we’ll forget about the comedy 1941, which is best), but he’d never dealt with actual battle sequences. Rodat was on the set throughout the filming as there were constant revisions to be made. Scott Frank (Out Of Sight, Get Shorty) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) also did uncredited work on the script.

Casting

Gordon got Tom Hanks interested in playing Capt. Miller, though not without effort. He’d been friends with Spielberg ever since The Money Pit, which Spielberg produced, but both men were concerned that working together would ruin that friendship. However, the project appealed to them, and they discovered they worked well together. Spielberg later directed Hanks in both Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, and they collaborated to produce Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two miniseries that built on what Ryan started.

The casting of Miller’s unit was integral for the success of the movie. Spielberg and casting director Denise Chamian filled the roles will people from the world of independent film. Ed Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), and Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo) all wrote, directed and acted in their own movies. Giovani Ribisi (T-4 Medic Wade) had acted in Goldberg’s film, as well as in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Jeremy Davis (Cpl. Upham) had starred in Spanking The Monkey, the first feature by David O. Russell (American Hustle, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), while Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson) had worked mostly as a supporting actor on television. For Sgt. Horvath, Michael Madsen was first considered, but he passed on the project and instead suggested his friend Tom Sizemore (Heat, Natural Born Killers).

Spielberg had Technical Adviser Capt. Dale Dye take the primary cast for a week of military training. Dye was a twenty-year Marine veteran who’d come up through the ranks and served in Vietnam and Beirut before coming to Hollywood, Most of the actors thought it would be like camping, except for Hanks who’d worked with Dye on the Vietnam scenes for Forest Gump. Dye put them through an abbreviated boot camp that was so intense midway through most of the actors were ready to walk away. Hanks took the lead like a real Captain Miller and got them to stay.

One actor purposefully spared this week was Matt Damon. Spielberg wanted the other actors to resent him, just as their characters resented Ryan. Spielberg wanted an unknown actor in the role, and chose Damon after Robin Williams introduced the two during the filming of Good Will Hunting. However, between the casting and the release of the film, Good Will Hunting and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker were released, and Damon became one of the hottest actors in Hollywood.

The Opening

The sun-faded American flag that both opens and closes the film is a brilliant metaphor for the fading memory of D-Day. Harrison Young, who plays the older Ryan, hadn’t had a credited roll in films until he was 61 years old in 1991, but before his death in 2005 he garnered 74 credits as a supporting actor. Kathleen Byron, who plays his wife, was a veteran of the British cinema and had appeared in Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus in 1947; Ryan was the last movie she would do. They did not film the scene at the actual military graveyard in Normandy, as that would desecrate the land. Instead the set crew created the “graveyard” in a field in England. These scenes are the only ones in the film with normal color. For 1944, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski washed out 60% of the color to create sharper images.

D-Day

At first, Spielberg thought the movie would be a boy’s adventure story, but interviews he did with veterans about their experiences changed his view. Author Stephen Ambrose (“Undaunted Courage,” “Citizen Soldiers”) also provided background for the movie. The pivotal attack on Omaha Beach was scheduled to be filmed at the end of the shoot, but instead Spielberg moved it to the beginning. He didn’t story-boarding the scenes, as he always did in his movies, choosing instead shoot like a newsreel taking in the action as it happens. It took 4 weeks and $11 million to shoot the sequence chronologically.

Originally Spielberg planned to shoot in England, but a request for Army personnel as extras was refused. Instead he moved the Omaha Beach sequence to Ireland, where the Irish Army provided 2500 men. They’d similarly cooperated with Mel Gibson when he filmed Braveheart. The location manager found a section of coastline that was a perfect match for Omaha Beach, and even the weather cooperated with heavy seas and damp cold days, just like the actual invasion. When you see actors throwing up while approaching the beach in the Higgins landing craft, that’s not acting; they were really seasick. Ten of the landing craft used in the film had been operational in WWII.

The metal and wooden barricades on the beach were there because the Germans expected the invasion to happen at high tide. They wanted the Higgins boats to get hung up on the barricades, and many had mines attached to their tops to blow up the craft. Instead the invasion happened at low tide and the barricades provided some cover for the soldiers.

Industrial Light and Magic later digitally added the bullets flying throughout the scene. About twenty amputees were hired to portray the soldiers who lose their limps. The sequence captured the reality of the invasion, and several veterans complimented Spielberg on its realism. One of them was James Doohan – “Scotty” on Star Trek – who as a young man came ashore on D-Day at Juno Beach with the Canadian Army. On the other hand, British actor Richard Todd, who was also at D-Day and later starred in The Longest Day, thought the movie was rubbish. Saving Private Ryan used 40 barrels of fake blood in the course of filming of D-Day.

Near its end, after the Americans break through the German defenses, two soldiers try to surrender to two Americans, and are instead shot dead. The surrendering soldiers actually speak Czech and say that they were forced into the German Army by the Nazis but they hadn’t taken part in the battle. The German Army had what they called Ost (East) Brigades, which were made up of captured Poles and Czechs.

The filming of Omaha Beach changed the movie. It was as if the voices of those who died called out and demanded that their story be told honestly.

Letters

Several actors who have since become stars were featured in small roles in Ryan. In the sequence following the invasion where secretaries are writing to inform families of the loss of their loved ones, the deaths of the three Ryan brothers is discovered. It’s brought up the chain of command to a Colonel who’s lost an arm. That role is played by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). Dale Dye, the technical advisor, also appears as the white-haired Colonel when the situation is explained to General of the Army George Marshall (played by Harve Presnell). One of the voices reading the casualty letters is John de Lancie, who played Q on “Star Trek – The Next Generation.”

In the window of the Ryan home in Iowa is a white banner with a red border and four blue stars. WWII families hung those banners in the window to show how many in the family were fighting the war. For those who died, their stars were changed to gold.

To Neuville-au-Plain

Originally the soldiers began the trip to the village of Neuville by jeep, but the sequence when they lose the jeep (and most of their ammunition) was cut. Captain Miller later mentions the loss of the ammo. The half-destroyed village was constructed in England where the filming continued after Ireland.

After Caparzo is shot by a sniper, Jackson takes out the German with a shot through the man’s telescopic sight. This is based on an actual occurrence, though it took place during the Vietnam War. The Marine sniper who made that shot was Pvt. Carlos Hathcock.

Two other actors who’ve since become stars appear during the Neuville scenes. The sergeant who guides Miller and his soldiers across the divided town is played by Paul Giamati, 5 years before his breakthrough roles in American Splendor and Sideways, and the wrong Ryan is played by a very young Nathan Fillion (“Castle”).

FUBAR

The rally point details how the Airborne invasion went wrong, with misdrops all over Normandy. FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all recognition) was a term used by WWII soldiers, as well as FUBB (f**ked up beyond belief), though the most common was SNAFU (Situation normal – all f**ked up). When Ed Burns reads the names on the dog tags during this scene, all the names are of friends of his.

After the attack on the radar site and Wade’s death, the soldiers debate whether to kill Steamboat Willie (Joerg Stadler). Willie is saved when Captain Miller finally tells the others what he did before the war. Rodat had originally written a much longer speech, but Hanks asked Spielberg if he could edit it, since he felt his character wouldn’t talk so much about himself. The shorter speech is what’s in the film.

The Battle of Ramelle

After Miller and his men find Ryan among the paratroopers holding the bridge in Ramelle, and Ryan refuses to leave until reinforcements arrive, there’s a sequence where they’re preparing for the German counterattack. One thing they make are “sticky bombs” to disable the tanks. While this is a fiction, it’s based on the British S.T. Grenade, which was designed to stick to tanks and then blow up. Unfortunately, the grenades had a habit of sticking to the person throwing them, with tragic results.

Once the preparations are completed, the soldiers are stuck waiting for the attack. Ryan tells Miller a long story about his brothers from the last night they were all together. That story was improvised by Damon, and it sounded so guileless that it was effective.

There was no battle of Ramelle, the climax of the film. (The sequence lasts almost exactly as long as the D-Day invasion, forming bookends for the film.) The Germans did counterattack at Normandy, but the fight took place on causeways, not in a town. The production used the same set that they used for Neuvelle, just shot from different angles, and the bridge spanned a three-foot deep canal that was dug for the film.

The small motorcycle with tank treads, called a Rabbit in the film, was an actual German vehicle used to tow artillery. It was built by a one of the companies that, after the war, merged to form Audi. The German tanks in the film were dressed-up Russian T-34s. While they look similar, the treads are quite different.

When Mellish is killed in the knife fight with a German, he can’t understand what the soldier is saying to him. The German is actually telling him to give up, that they can end it here and that it will be quick. When Upham captures soldiers at the end, including Steamboat Willie (who has shot Miller), Upham tells them to put their hands up and drop their weapons. Willie says he knows this soldier, and Upham tells him to “hold his snout.” Willie says “Upham,” as if they were still friendly, and Upham shoots him, then tells the other soldiers to get lost.

Miller’s final words (“James, earn this. Earn this.”) are simple and devastating, not just for the older Ryan when we return to the graveyard, but for the audience as well. How can anyone earn the sacrifice of another person’s life? As it says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

Score

As with almost all of Spielberg’s work, the score for Saving Private Ryan was written by John Williams. It beautifully blends a martial feel with a requiem. The final music over the credits gives it the richness of a full symphony orchestra along with a chorus, provides a final resolution for the film. It’s not so much triumphant as an acknowledgement of sacrifice that honors those who were lost in the war.

Reaction

Saving Private Ryan was a risky movie. The level of violence was unlike anything put on film before. Spielberg said at the time that he was making a movie that John Wayne wouldn’t like. It was in many ways the antithesis of all the war films made before it. The only flag waving in it is the faded old Glory at the opening and the closing. The budget was kept small to minimize the risk for investors. Armageddon, which was released the same summer, cost twice as much to make, as did the 1998 version of Godzilla. In the end, though, Ryan beat them both to become the highest grossing film of the year.

When the finished movie was screened for Stephen Ambrose, he was overcome with emotion midway through the D-Day sequence and they had to stop the film. After a while he returned and complete watching the film. Other veterans found the scenes disturbing enough that the VA set up an 800 number for them to call for help with their reactions. However, the film also became a way for vets of WWII to finally talk about their experiences during the war with their families. For the first time fathers were able to open up to their children and tell what had happened to them.

The movie was banned in Malaysia because Spielberg wouldn’t cut the violent scenes. He was afraid the MPAA would give the film an NC-17 rating because of it, but he was determined to not make any changes. The film was almost banned in India, but the Culture Minister personally screened the film and, seeing its merit, approved it to be shown.

Ryan’s summer release may have hamstrung it at the Oscars. While it did win Spielberg another Best Director Oscar, along with statues for Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects, it lost out on Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. Tom Hanks lost Best Actor to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, and John Williams’ score lost to that film as well. Ryan was the last film edited in the old way on film to win the Best Editing Oscar; from then on the winners have all been edited digitally. It was also the last film released in the old Laserdisc format for home video.

While Life Is Beautiful is pretty much forgotten now, and Shakespeare in Love is rated as one of the most embarrassing Best Picture wins, the power of Saving Private Ryan remains, and the film is just a stunning today as it was sixteen years ago. It blew away the myth of a good war. As Miller says in the film, “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me…I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” That is something every soldier faces, and some never do make it home.

 

Through Different Eyes

War Horse began its life as a 1982 children’s book in which Joey, the titular horse, narrated his own story.  Then a couple of years ago it was adapted for the stage and became an award-winning success in both London and New York.  In the play version, the horses are life-sized puppets that make the audience suspend their disbelief and relate to them as real horses.  Neither of those styles would work for the movie version.  It would have been a daunting task for any director to film – unless they have the last name of Spielberg.

Thankfully it is Steven Spielberg who has brought War Horse to the screen as part of a one-two holiday punch with the motion-capture version of The Adventures of Tintin.  With Spielberg’s mastery of visual storytelling, he can come close to the original book – you see the story through Joey’s eyes.

Joey is born on the moors of Devon, a beautiful chestnut thoroughbred with four white socks and a white diamond on his forehead.  Watching his birth is Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), a boy who lives on a neighboring farm with his parents Ted and Rose (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson).  When Joey is put up for auction, Ted becomes fascinated with the horse.  Rather than getting the Shire horse he needs to plow his fields, Ted enters a bidding war for Joey with his landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis).  Albert is delighted when Ted brings Joey home, though the practical Rose worries that they’ll lose everything.

It is a real fear.  Lyons comes calling, wondering how Ted can pay the rent after putting all his money into buying Joey.  Ted literally bets the farm that Joey will plow a rock-strewn fallow field to increase the harvest.  Ted is a bitter, hard man with a lame leg that Albert has a hard time understanding, until Rose reveals he’d served in the Boer War where he won medals that he can’t bear to look at.

It falls to Albert to teach Joey to accept a plow collar.  In one of the most thrilling scenes of physical labor ever filmed, on par with the stump scene in Shane, Albert and Joey accomplish the task.  But fate has a cruel twist in store for Ted when the crop he’s counted on is ruined.  The First World War has just started, and to save the farm Ted sells Joey to Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston).  Albert is devastated.  When Nichols sees the boy’s distress, he says that rather than buying Joey, he’s just renting him for the duration of the war, but if at all possible he will bring Joey back to Albert when it’s over.  But the rule of war has always been that plans only last until you first engage the enemy.

Joey is the major actor in the story.  You are with him as he at first competes and then befriends the commander of the cavalry’s black horse, to the point of saving the black when they’re both captured.  The scene of drawing an artillery piece up a muddy hill shows the anthropomorphizing power of Spielberg’s camerawork.  We meet other characters through Joey: the German soldier Gunther (David Kross) who’s trying to save his 15-year-old brother from combat, the French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) raising his granddaughter Emilie (newcomer Celine Buckens) on a farm behind the German lines, and the horse wrangler Brandt (Ranier Bock) who tries to save Joey and the black.

This is a panoramic story in which short roles are crucial, and the movie is well served by all the actors.  While it’s often lost amidst the storytelling, camerawork, and musical score that are highlights of any Spielberg production, the casting of his films is always perfect.  This time it was done by Jina Jay, who did 8 movies this year, including Tintin and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Jeremy Irvine had done one television series before being cast as Albert.  His role anchors the movie, with the early scenes and when he enlists in the Army to try to find Joey near the end of the war.  He makes the bond between Albert and Joey totally believable and heartbreaking.

Spielberg as always is assisted by his longtime collaborators John Williams and Janusz Kaminski.  Kaminski beautifully captures the English countryside, the mud-filled horror of No Man’s Land, and references Gone With The Wind with lighting the final scene.  Williams’ score is more subtle than the rousing Star Wars theme or the requiem of Saving Private Ryan, but it still tugs at your emotions.

This is not a movie glorifying war.  Spielberg had already deconstructed the myth of war movies with the realism of Ryan.  Here he pulls back on the violence, letting the actual death and destruction happen off screen.  Yet it loses none of its impact.  Like movies such as 12 O’Clock High, Pork Chop Hill, and Platoon, War Horse deals with the cost of war on the souls of those engaged in the fight.

Bring plenty of tissues with you when you see this movie.  You’ll need them.