Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
Plot: Albert Narracott and his horse Joey are separated by the onset of the First World War, but he resolves to be reunited with his best friend by enlisting in the army.
How do you produce a film about a bloody war that is aimed at a family audience? The central theme of War Horse is a story of friendship between a farm hand and his horse, but it doesn’t take long for the action to be transferred to the muddy, WWI battlefields of Northern Europe. But Steven Spielberg has done just this – by bringing Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel of the same name to the big screen, he has managed to craft a harrowing plot to appeal to all ages.
In 1912, Albert Narracott (Irvine) lives in the Devon countryside with his parents Rose (Watson) and Ted (Peter Mullan), who are struggling to pay the rent on their farm. Albert witnesses the birth of a foal and marvels as it grows into a fine animal. A couple of years later, Ted buys the colt, to plough their fields, at an auction for an inflated price much to the dismay of Rose, who is concerned that the rent will not be paid in time. The Narracott’s landlord Mr. Lyons (Thewlis) turns up at the farm, demanding payment, but is promised by Ted that, having only paid part of the rent, he will get the lower field ploughed despite the fact it is very stony. Albert names the horse Joey and trains him various commands so that he is able to plough the field. After a few unsuccessful attempts, it beings to rain, softening the ground enough for the field to be ploughed, but the resultant crop is wiped out by a storm.
In August 1914, Britain declares war on Germany and the call goes out for horses to be sold to the cavalry, along with men to join the army. Ted decides to sell Joey to the military to pay the rent without telling Albert, who rushes into the local village to stop him. Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a young cavalry officer pays for Joey at a lower price than Ted needed before Albert can get there. He tries to enlist in the army, but is told by Nicholls that he is too young – instead he ties a lucky charm to Joey’s bridle and promises that they will be reunited. Nicholls and Joey are sent to France to take part in the opening skirmishes of the war. Joey becomes attached to Topthorn, a black horse who belongs to Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch), Nicholls’ superior in apparently more ways than one. When a charge against the Germans goes horribly wrong, Joey and Topthorn fall into enemy hands and go on an adventure of their own, but will Joey ever return to the rolling hills of Devon and back to his master?
In any other director’s hands apart from Steven Spielberg, War Horse could have been an overly sentimental Hollywood slush-fest, but instead it’s both a wonderful depiction of a heartwarming story but also the heartbreaking situation faced by soldiers on both sides in the trenches. Aimed primarily at teenagers, the plot has enough substance to entertain a very wide audience indeed. Spielberg’s ability to crank up the romanticism of the proceedings, whether the action is in the relative comfort of the Devon countryside or in the deadly no-man’s-land of The Somme, is second to none – this is a master at work. You could say War Horse is an amalgamation of two of his best films – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) – the relationship between a boy and a non-human combined with visceral fight scenes harks back to memories of Spielberg firing on all cylinders.
Newcomer Jeremy Irvine is perfectly cast in the central role of Albert. Although he shares the screen with an illustrious roll-call including Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Niels Arestrup, his performance sits very comfortably among his fellow co-stars – despite the fact he spends most of his scenes knee-deep in mud. In stark contrast to his poor showing in the drab affair that was The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls is a much more convincing character than Freddie Page – and he does this in a fraction of the screen time. The cinematography is simply stunning. Janusz Kamiński, who has worked on every Spielberg film since Schindler’s List photographs with his usual aplomb, especially the final scene which features a gorgeous sunset. You can easily see why Kamiński is Spielberg’s tried and trusted right-hand man with the quality on display here.
War Horse isn’t perfect – some of the crucial characters all too fleetingly appear and disappear – but this is both entertaining and an absolute joy to watch. If Spielberg makes another war film, be sure to be first in the cinema queue.