When people saw the first trailer of Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his 3D performance capture adventure Tintin, many claimed that War Horse was going to be a vomit-inducing sentimental tale of a boy and his horse. However, for those who are familiar with Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name (like myself) or Nick Stafford’s 2007 stage adaptation, it is exactly about a boy and his horse, in the same way that Lassie is about a boy and his dog.
In Devon, England, Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan) buys a colt horse at an auction of which he hopes will be a promising plough horse. Having financial troubles with the nasty landlord (David Thewlis), all hope lies on Ted’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) who trains the horse who is given the name Joey and develops a strong bond. As the First World War approaches, Joey is sold to the cavalry, which forces young Albert to enlist in the British Army and go on a perilous journey across Europe as the war rages on.
On the basis of the book, the story is told through Joey’s perspective as he even narrates his journey starting with his bond with Albert and then across Europe where he encounters a variety of colourful characters. However, as the film is also taking its cue from the award-winning play, screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall allow the story to be told through different characters from sides of the British, Germans and French who have their moments with Joey. As the protagonist goes from one bunch of people to another, the narrative does become episodic, although there are individual sequences within the various plot strands that are very touching.
Although Spielberg is often often accused of sentimentality, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as in the case of E.T., your eyes will go Niagara Falls. As you are watching War Horse, you ought to know the mechanics of where the story is going, but once it gets to its expected emotional moment, you can’t resist the temptation of tearful eyes.
Influenced by the great epic filmmakers such as David Lean and John Ford, the director presents a lot of sweeping shots of Dartmoor, which presents itself as a sort of fable, thanks to his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Since this is a family film that takes place in WWI, there isn’t violence similar to the harsh reality depicted in Saving Private Ryan, but there is certainly a level of intensity to the battle sequences as you are emotionally involved with the soldiers facing sudden death, as well as Joey and the other horses.
Featuring a fine British ensemble including Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and the always terrific Benedict ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Cumberbatch, it is newcomer Jeremy Irvine who provides the emotional voice of the film as he plays a young man who will do anything to be reunited with his faithful horse. Following the theatre performance of a wooden puppet in the role of Joey, it is an actual horse that has to be the star of the film, as he definitely succeeds at capturing our hearts wherever he goes in his journey, certainly if he participates in a life or death situation.
Whilst you will know where the story is going and may get the sense that Mr Spielberg is over-egging the pudding, the director presents a stunning and unashamedly sentimental adventure about a boy and his horse, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
DIRECTOR: STEVEN SPIELBERG
SCREENWRITERS: RICHARD CURTIS, LEE HALL
STARRING: JEREMY IRVINE, EMILY WATSON, PETER MULLAN, TOM HIDDLESTON, DAVID THEWLIS, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, TOBY KEBBELL, EDDIE MARSAN
COUNTRY: UNITED STATES
RUNTIME: 146 MINS