Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Steven Spielberg certainly has a track record when it comes to staging impressive battle sequences. A scene in War Horse (2011) 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. (1982), yet kicks you in the gut like Saving Private Ryan (1998). 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.
War Horse is a curious film. It represents a sumptuous visual and technical accomplishment, rendered all the more refined by the artisan touch of director Steven Spielberg. Whilst it offers nothing ground-breaking or especially original within its photography, every frame is meticulously assembled, with an effortless control and unrivalled eye for compositional perfection. In short, Spielberg makes the art of filmmaking seem almost too easy. His technical methodology is completely sound, and though this doesn’t always promote adventure, it’s not hard to understand why Stanley Kubrick - the king of kings - personally chose to collaborate with Spielberg on the original concept of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), which would eventually be realised after Kubrick’s untimely demise.
The story of War Horse is a paean to the timeless relationship between man and beast, and there’s no doubt this particular tale, centring on a horse named Joey, possesses a primal quality. The heartstrings are tugged and plucked within thirty seconds of the film commencing, and this rather sets the tone for the entirety. We are immediately told: ‘It’s a horse, not a dog’. This is supposed to mark the ensuing events as truly remarkable - and they surely are - but only because the narrative eschews logic and is, objectively speaking, absurd. It is important to remember that War Horse was originally a story for children, and in this regard a fair amount of latitude can be granted. However, original author Michael Morpurgo apparently believes his story to be something akin to a treatise on the futility of war, and I can imagine that as a novel for children, his broad strokes approach is likely effective. However, we are discussing a film that is designed to appeal to a wide-ranging and discerning audience, and this creates problems.
The idea of a near-omniscient horse traversing the First World War, shining a light on the folly and beauty of humanity in wartime, is fantastical in the extreme. Ridiculous, actually. Sweet and perhaps even moving, but still ridiculous. I suppose I’m being rather cold and unforgiving to such a warm and accessible story but as presented here, in the filmic context, I’m electing to maintain a higher standard. The film wishes to ruminate on the triumphs and failings of two opposing forces during war. Then, at its leisure, regress to pronounced sentimentality and ludicrous clichés on all sides, and when it’s all said and done, have us cry over a bumpkin and his horse. It is overdone to the point of melodrama. As I’ve already mentioned, the story works beautifully as a segue for younger, curious minds. As a film aimed at the fullness of an adult intellect, the shifts in tone are simply too jarring. War Horse should have been either The Notebook (2004) with a horse, or Saving Private Ryan and a horse. In trying to be both simultaneously, the film version of War Horse does itself (and its audience) a disservice.
War Horse was adapted for the stage before the screen (with the use of elaborate animatronics) and in many respects the success of this version is unsurprising. At its best the story is a profoundly emotional experience, something well suited to the intimacy of the stage. There is an almost parabolic quality to the early parts of the narrative. This translates very well to the stage, which is always more performance-driven, relying less on the overall story. The strengths of the film adaptation lay not in moments of story or performance (despite the film having a stellar cast) but in the power of the set piece. The film’s British cavalry charge might be a rather clunky ode to Tennyson, but from an aesthetic standpoint, it is almost faultless. The No Man’s Land sequence is even better. From the anticipatory horror of the trench ladders to the violent explosions, fallen soldiers and finally, Mustard Gas, the scene conveys the full-throated horrors of a war perched uncomfortably between classic warfare, and nascent instruments of mechanical death.
I’ve said almost nothing about the overall acting performances. Well, the clue is in the title. Jeremy Irvine is earnest and worthy as Albert Narracott, our primary protagonist, but at the same time his performance does nothing to warrant excitement. This applies double to the various other humans in the film, who are defined either by vice, accent or uniform, and are barely required to break a sweat. The story is constructed and delivered in primary colours, hence the brutal shooting of young deserters and the ruining of a sickly child’s birthday by apathetic soldiers. It’s all designed to illicit a potent, obvious and entirely unsophisticated emotional reaction. Once more, this is perfectly acceptable in a story for children, but not if the aim is for something more ambitious; especially if said entity has designs on social commentary. In this context, the film’s willingness to plumb the most predictable emotional depths in pursuit of a reaction is both trite and irritating, and represents sentimentality writ obscenely large.
In the end, the argument will always be that concerning a lovely story like this, the heart should govern the head, and this might very well be true. Alas, I’m reviewing the film before me, and my heart of stone is sadly unswayed. This was a very pretty, but also rather long and mawkish, two and a half hours.