Based upon the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is a sprawling film in the style of classical Hollywood cinema, unusually and perhaps jarringly closer to the epics of the 1940s in comparison to the grit of the historical film work from which we are accustomed from director Steven Spielberg.
Representing a microcosm of the First World War, it follows the journey of a gelding named Joey throughout the conflict, and his impact on the humans that he encounters. The title of the film is double edged as a result - not simply literal but analytical, allowing every aspect of the home front and warzone to be touched upon. The narrative, cast and chronology go hand in hand, leading us through the Great War on a romanticised, moving path to an emotive, against the odds ending. Spielberg deftly navigates us through a choppy sea of saccharine, carefully building us to the emotional moments while never overstating them.
Indeed the entire film is more like the pre-Schindler’s List Steven Spielberg of old, utilizing a talented British, French and German ensemble cast instead of a tent pole name, as well as giving us indelible moments of the kind only he can produce – be it the darkness of an execution, obscured by the sails of a windmill; to the startled, astonishing reaction of a group of horses when one of their number is shot due to exhaustion. Spielberg is often noted as a director beyond compare when dealing with child actors, and now he can surely lay claim to breaking the other half of the great rule of direction by extracting similar work from animals – not least wringing able supporting work from a comedic Goose. Early in the film, sterling work by Peter Mullen allows Spielberg his other indulgence, and the true sign the film slots into his canon – that of the broken and reluctant father figure, eventually inspired by his son, played with earnestness and unflinching bravery by newcomer Jeremy Irvine.
When the War begins, the film shifts from the safe rustic poverty of home as Joey is sold into the service of the British Cavalry. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston present the long past heroism of this generation of British Army officer well – their courage and naivety in battle representative of the early stages of the conflict. In the case of Cumberbatch, returning to the kind of small, supporting acting he often appeared in before his role in Sherlock, his blind arrogance coupled with the nobility of the realisation of his defeat makes his brief screen time extremely impactful. The scenes in which he appears are among the most striking in the film, the terrifying sight of a cavalry charge emerging from a field of grain into thunderous attack before charging headlong into a hidden line of machine guns is primal in its intensity.
From here, the film slows and shifts perspective to the opposing side, presenting a pair of conscripted German brothers who desert their posts in a sympathetic light, before moving Joey to the care of a French grandfather, played by veteran Niels Arestrup, and his grandaughter. The film perhaps risks losing our attention at this point in its desire to ensure we see Joey touch so many lives, but the small French family serves to counter the earlier safety of Dartmoor – here there is veiled oppression, and the sound of constant bombardment. The War is never far away. When Joey is returned to military service, it is in stark contrast to the heroic nature of the British Cavalry, the horse having given way to the mechanization of heavy weaponry, with resulting equine deaths in the millions. Spielberg allows Joey a telling moment here – when faced with the lumbering, armoured horror of a tank, he is able to overcome it through his mobility, even though his war time usefulness has effectively come to an end.
The trenches, visceral yet sanitised, form a major part of the closing stages of the film. From personal experience of walking a section of preserved trench line in Belgium in years past, their visual presentation here is evocative and accurate. The scenes here show the squalor, horror and waste of the shattered landscape on an unseen scale, with the sudden deployment of mustard gas an ever constant and sudden threat. Later, the emotive sight of a British and German soldier, emerged from their opposing sides to rescue the trapped Joey, is a fitting statement on the futility of the entire conflict, with a deft lightness of touch and some genuine humour.
Technically, the film is a triumph. Retaining Spielberg’s usual collaborators, the film is gorgeous to look at thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, classically edited by Michael Kahn, and after what feels like far too long away – despite his work on The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in 2011 – John Williams delivers his best score since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban .
All told, War Horse is made with consummate, deliberate skill by all involved, intentionally creating something that may initially skew young, but pulls itself into a barnstorming second half that brings the First World War to life on a scale that is perhaps unmatched. Accusations of sentimentality may be true, but they may also miss the point – by involving an animal, a true innocent, and crafting a fictional path for him through this most devastating of conflicts, we can understand how it affected the lives of so many and thus critique its ultimate futility. The emotive link between a horse and his boy is telling now that all those who fought in the Great War have passed – like Albert and his unswerving love for Joey, we should never forget.
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