Film Review: War Horse

Impeccably crafted, epic tale of a boy and his horse, and the terrible war that separates them. Animal lovers and younger viewers should be entranced.

Steven Spielberg has two big-budget films debuting within four days of each other this holiday season: the breathless 3D motion-capture-animated lark The Adventures of Tintin, and the decidedly more somber War Horse. While the first film showcases state-of-the art 2011 visual technology, the latter is an old-fashioned epic that harks back to the days when most directors completed more than one movie a year.

With its tale of a boy’s love for his horse morphing into a harrowing portrait of World War I carnage, War Horse also evokes two Spielberg classics from opposite ends of his palette: E.T. and Saving Private Ryan. War Horse may not attain the overwhelming popular and critical success of those films, but it’s another lovingly crafted, impressive achievement from a movie master.

Devotees of live theatre will already be familiar with War Horse from its Olivier and Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, in which actors manipulating stylized, full-scale puppets create the illusion of live horses interacting with the characters onstage. The film version doesn’t have that kind of theatrical magic to fall back upon, but Spielberg and expert horse master Bobby Lovgren succeed in connecting the audience with the fate of the story’s main equine protagonist Joey, played by 14 different horses.

The screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) begins at a leisurely pace, as alcoholic Devon farmer Ted Narracott impulsively spends his family’s savings to buy a headstrong colt at auction. The horse seems to be useless for plowing, but Ted’s son Albert develops a bond with the creature and, with much patient effort, tames and trains the animal he names Joey.

The pastoral mood changes in an instant with the outbreak of World War I. Albert is heartbroken when Joey is sold to the British army for use in the European conflict. After the compassionate British cavalry officer who has taken possession of the horse is killed in battle, Joey embarks on an unwitting, picaresque odyssey through this terrible “war to end all wars,” crossing paths with a pair of young German deserters and a French teenage girl, and then doing hard time hauling cannons and supplies for the Germans. Meanwhile, Albert himself has enlisted, with a quixotic hope of somehow finding his beloved horse.
This earnest material will be best enjoyed by animal lovers and the under-16 crowd, with a word of caution that the trench-warfare scenes (reminiscent of those in Stanley Kubrick’s WWI classic Paths of Glory) may be too intense for the very young. Animal lovers should also know in advance that the horrifying sequence in which Joey gets caught and twisted in barbed wire in the “No Man’s Land” between enemy troops used a highly convincing animatronic horse.

War Horse is straightforward storytelling whose only “edge” comes from the fact that World War I was sheer hell and that at least four million horses perished in that ugly conflict. That said, the film is beautifully directed by Spielberg with a widescreen grandeur that recalls masters like David Lean. The first major action sequence, an early-morning cavalry charge by the British upon a German encampment, is as thrillingly choreographed and edited as anything in Lawrence of Arabia, and Spielberg brings the same gritty immediacy to the trench battles that he did to the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan. An execution near a windmill is staged with discreet visual elegance, and a cut from a woman’s weaving to a field being plowed has the same cleverness as the startling transitions Spielberg shows off in Tintin.

Standouts in the large cast include slow-burning Scottish actor-director Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott and Emily Watson as his formidable wife Rosie, Tom Hiddleston as the gallant cavalry officer, pert newcomer Celine Buckens as the French girl, and veteran Niels Arestrup as her doting grandfather. As Albert, newcomer Jeremy Irvine isn’t required to do much more than show devotion to Joey, but he’s completely persuasive. War Horse is Joey’s show, and hats off to the 14 horses (and their trainers) who make him come alive as a compelling movie hero.