If Steven Spielberg’s Tintin was an enjoyable, if hollow, experience, then War Horse is the full thoroughbred: proudly old-fashioned, defiantly sentimental and intoxicating in its sense of scope. It also shows off the county of Devon to glorious effect, right from the opening frames when the lilting flute solo on John Williams’ soundtrack ushers in the breathtaking aerial shots of Dartmoor.
Spielberg has always demonstrated an excellent sense of location but War Horse is special. Many will write-off the film’s depiction of rural England as sanctified and sugary, but this kind of healthy sentiment prevailed in the likes of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, so why not here? Spielberg has acknowledged Ford as an influence, and, by taking us into the landscape in the manner of past masters, he creates an all-encompassing sense of drama.
For a film so intricately bound up with nature and landscape, it’s appropriate that we start off with the birth of the horse in question. When drunken farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) outbids his devious landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) for the colt, much to the dismay of his wife Rose (Emily Watson), it falls to his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) to train the animal.
The family pin their hopes on the horse, named Joey, using him to plough a patch of rocky earth for turnips in an attempt to raise money. But World War I has a way of interrupting good drama at strategic moments, and when Ted sells Joey to kindly Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), so the action relocates to France and the epic journey begins. As Joey finds himself passed between the opposing forces of English, French and German, so too does Albert enlist, never giving up hope that he will eventually be-reunited with his friend.
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed novel, the film has some big hoof-prints to fill, seeing as it comes after the stage play which famously used puppetry to acclaimed effect. Spielberg’s film has the added hurdle of not being able to tell the story through the eyes of the horse who lies at the centre of the drama; what was internal now becomes external, meaning we have to root for an animal who is both a plot device and a character. But Spielberg pulls off the balancing act remarkably well.
Not only does Spielberg effectively render Joey as a sympathetic, flesh and blood character (especially during a harrowing sequence where he is forced to haul German artillery up a slope which is then used to fire on the British ranks); he also draws attention to the equine cost of the War, something which has been casually glossed over in innumerable war movies past.
His penchant for bold yet tasteful imagery serves him well: a fleeting shot of riderless horses leaping over ranks of firing machine guns lingers in the mind. However, there are missteps in Richard Curtis and Lee Hall’s screenplay, which frequently pauses en-route to take in secondary characters who are distractions from the gripping central struggle. A crisis involving two German brothers never has time to develop into anything interesting, and a lengthy section involving a French grandfather (A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup) and his sickly granddaughter takes the focus away from Joey.
Admittedly these sections are lifted from Morpurgo’s story but, given they’re divorced from Joey’s viewpoint, they lack the personal intensity that would heighten the drama. But although the story gets lost as often as Joey himself, the film always manages to re-orchestrate itself with stunning power. The personal and the panoramic are mixed together with the deftness of a master filmmaker at the top of his game, Joey careening through the desolation of no-man’s land, only to be aided in his escape from barbed wire by both British and German officers, in a moment of terrific irony.
And although it may be something of a glib metaphor, the fact that Joey embodies the struggle felt on either sides of the trenches lends the film a degree of universal interest. Once again, Spielberg demonstrates an uncanny knack for choosing populist material that will appeal to a wide demographic. It’s a brickbat with which he’s frequently beaten but in fact, to make a film this brazenly sentimental in this day and age is a bold move in and of itself.
Quite simply, such earnest manipulation isn’t fashionable in today’s jaded climate, so Spielberg ought to be applauded for leading the charge for broad, escapist melodrama. It’s his chance to honour his cinematic heroes, and those willing to submit to it will find War Horse a gloriously old-fashioned experience.
The film’s accomplishments are many-fold (the magnificent work by the horse-wranglers for one), but even so, the extraordinary, auburn-tinged closing shots stand out as one of the high points in Spielberg’s career to date. Aided by warmly emphatic performances from Irvine, Watson, Mullan and the outstanding supporting cast (Benedict Cumberbatch included), War Horse is perfect family entertainment.