as reviewed by Tom
Format Reviewed: DVD/DreamWorks (2012).
Steven Spielberg certainly has a track record when it comes to staging impressive battle sequences. A scene in War Horse follows the British Army on horseback attacking a German encampment, only to realise they may not be outnumbered, but they are certainly outgunned. Men and horses are laid waste on both sides. From the outset, the overriding theme of War Horse is that of loss. A well-meaning but flawed farmer fights to keep his land at the mercy of his landlord; a young man, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his greatest friend in the world, his horse Joey, are separated by the bleak expanse of the battlefield. The ultimate loss is of innocence itself, as Albert leaves behind his humble existence in the Devon countryside, to grow up all too quickly on the frontline.
Faithfully adapted from an acclaimed stage show which was itself adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, War Horse is, in Spielberg's hands, intense but nostalgic in the mould of traditional Hollywood. It tugs at the heartstrings like E.T., yet kicks you in the gut like Saving Private Ryan. It has a sense of scale that John Ford would be proud of, beginning with a beautiful, sweeping score by John Williams, evoking the classic Westerns of yore. Spielberg wisely wants to milk everything he can out of the Dartmoor scenery, panning across majestic landscapes, and bookending the film with stunning skylines and horizons. We know that War Horse intends to be an epic adventure, and for the most part, it succeeds admirably.
Joey's narrative starts as a young colt, purchased at a village auction by Albert's father, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), stubbornly outbidding his landlord (David Thewlis). In order to pay the rent, Joey needs to be trained to plough the field, despite not being a suitable plough horse. Ted’s son Albert takes on the challenge. Joey proves his worth, but after heavy rain destroys the crops, Ted sells him to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) for the war effort. We follow Joey through the Great War in a series of vignettes: from work horse to the eponymous war horse. Joey changes the perspectives of everyone who comes into contact with him; drawing out the humanity in battle-weary army officers or providing comfort to a young girl and her grandfather. Joey even unwittingly provides an opportunity for a brief truce between English and German soldiers as they work together to free the horse from barbed wire.
War Horse is not only about loss, but also determination in the face of insurmountable odds – from Albert doggedly teaching Joey to plough his father's field, to Joey's spectacular gallop through no-man's land. The film neatly depicts the poignant optimism that the War will not last long. When compassionate Captain Nicholls promises he will return Joey to Albert’s care once the War is over, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that this is most probably not going to be the case. Yet Albert, in his youthful naivety, is unwavering in his devotion to his best friend – they will be back together one day. The way Albert and Joey reunite may be slightly contrived in a narrative sense, but in true Spielberg style, it is acutely emotive.
On the centenary of the Great War, it feels appropriate to revisit a film that focuses so intently on the bond of friendship. The connection between Albert and Joey is so steadfast, it pulls them both resolutely through the horrors they face, with no guarantee that either will make it. It is a sobering reminder of the senseless loss of life suffered during those years – human and animal – but also of miraculous courage in the face of uncertainty. There are some stunning set pieces, and some typically skilful film-making on display. However, it does beg the question: is it a necessary adaptation, given how much it takes its lead from the award-winning stage show? The film version is wilfully cinematic and ranks among the best of Spielberg's recent work. The story is harrowing and distressing in places, but ultimately optimistic and uplifting. In other words, all characteristics of a Steven Spielberg film.