Sumptuous and schmaltzy, Steven Spielberg’s First World War drama, War Horse, is a strange beast of a film. It's at once an old-fashioned tale of the love between a boy and his horse, and a sweeping survey of the battlefields of Europe. Here and there are spectacular action scenes, but overall it unfolds at a leisurely pace over its 146-minute running time.
Unlike his Second World War film, Saving Private Ryan, in which Spielberg used modern handheld cameras to recreate the immersive shock of the Normandy landing, War Horse utilizes old-fashioned filmmaking, using artificial light but largely eschewing digital effects, to create a broad-canvas drama. Filled with overhead landscape shots, and Technicolor-looking skies, Spielberg’s approach spells grandeur in giant skywriting, all set to a John Williams score that squeezes every drop out of any emotionally available moment.
The source material is Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel – told, like Black Beauty, from the point of view of the horse – which has also been adapted into a much-awarded play, using horse puppets with actors inside, emphasizing the bond between human and animal sufferers. The film version, written by Lee Hall ( Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis ( Four Weddings and a Funeral), is never less than emotionally obvious.
In the film’s pastoral first half hour, shot in the glowingly picturesque Devon countryside by Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminiski, a beautiful half-thoroughbred foal is born. When the horse grows up, a hard-drinking war hero, Ted (Peter Mullan) foolishly acquires it, to the despair of his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson), who knows they need a plow animal, not this sleek beauty.
Their teenaged son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who dubs the horse Joey, promises to train the animal. Just as the family’s land is about to be lost to the sneering local landlord (David Thewlis), Joey exhibits super-equine strength and love for Albert, and hauls a plow over the stony ground while the villagers watch in awe.
When war is (at last!) declared, and Joey is sold to the army, the narrative shifts gears. The story becomes one of those episodic tales of a single thing connecting separate lives – Winchester ’73, Twenty Bucks, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, The Red Violin – or even Robert Bresson’s 1966 saintly donkey movie, Au hazard Balthazar.
First, Joey is sold to a good-natured British officer (Tom Hiddleston). While in the cavalry, Joey befriends another stallion, Topthorn, and together they participate in the first battle, which starts in a wheat field, and explodes into the thrill of thundering hoofbeats in a charge on a German encampment. After the initial brutal assault, the tide turns in the Germans’ favour. Here, Spielberg, the ace technician, shows his flair for choreographed tumult. An overhead shot of human and horse corpses littering the battlefield is as powerful as anything in the film.
By comparison, Spielberg is jarringly offhand about the dispatch of a couple of German teen soldiers (Leonhard Carow and David Kross), who take the horse into their care. Next Joey ends up with a philosophical old French jam-maker ( A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup) and his sickly granddaughter (Celine Buckens). After that brief bucolic respite, he is once again taken by the Germans, this time in the life-draining business of pulling artillery through the mud.
In this picaresque tale of misery, where the characters are nearly all archetypes of youth, wisdom, duty and so on, we eventually arrive in the hellish trenches, with rival mass armies dug into fields of mud and barbed wire, with long tracking shots and overhead views giving us the full effect. The scene concludes with a climactic episode in which the panicked Joey leaps over a looming tank and races through no man’s land, winding himself in ribbons of barbed wire that eventually drag him to a halt. Perhaps no one but Spielberg could have filmed this, and as welcome as this uncharacteristic burst of intensity feels, it also feels oddly out of place with the temperate tone of the rest of the movie.
As coincidences and miracles pile up in the film’s final third, Joey takes on the dimensions of a magical creature who even outclasses E.T. The concluding scene, in which Spielberg manages to evoke the tangerine skies of Gone with the Wind, proves particularly resistible. To expect anything other than an awesome redemptive ending from a Spielberg film, would be foolish. The trouble here is not so much that Spielberg’s film staunchly insists on finding a happy ending even in the calamity of the First World War, but that he slathers it on so thick and leaves so soft an impression.
- Directed by Steven Spielberg
- Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
- Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson
- Classification: PG
- Two and a half stars
War Horse opens on Sunday.